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Why we want Gronk at our backyard barbecue

Social science offers insights into the relationship between sports stars and fans.

ILLUSTRATION BY PINKY WEBER

Note to readers: Thuzio has changed its business model since the authors wrote this chapter of their book. So, as a private citizen, you can’t book time with Gronk and others through the website anymore. Thuzio is now focused on helping companies research and connect with celebrities for appearances and more.

IN 2014, ROGER CLEMENS was the featured speaker at an intimate corporate dinner in the banquet room of a Manhattan steakhouse. As the night wore on, the onetime Sox pitcher departed from script, plugged his iPhone into a karaoke machine, and joined guests in singing various country music hits. Retired slugger Jose Canseco, an art enthusiast, recently joined some folks in California for an unlikely day of painting. John Starks, the fan-favorite former Knick, dropped in on a Manhattan bachelor party and smoked cigars with the groom and his bros on a roof deck.

These appearances were all brokered by Thuzio, a business that, as its press material puts it, “connects the public with professional athletes [to] provide a wide variety of experiences” (see note to readers at top). Which is to say, it enables us commoners to spend time in the company of the contemporary lords who are professional athletes.

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 Thuzio was founded by Mark Gerson, an amiable Yale Law School grad and New York City tech entrepreneur. The inspiration: In 2003, Gerson was in the market for a 60th birthday gift for his father, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan since childhood. Through a mutual friend, Gerson arranged a dinner at a Westchester restaurant with Ralph Branca, the former Dodgers pitcher best known for being on the mound when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard Round the World — the game-winning home run that clinched the 1951 pennant for the Giants. In his 70s, Branca still had cachet, but how could it be accessed? There was no agent involved, no contract. “It wasn’t systematized,” Gerson says. “I offered him something, and he accepted.”

Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers’s new book.

Not knowing what to expect or whether the awkwardness quotient would be insurmountable, the Gersons were pleasantly surprised by what followed. More than a decade later, the younger Gerson can still recall the dinner conversation with a stunning level of precision. “Best gift I ever got [my dad],” he says. “Much better than a tie.”

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Through another mutual friend, Gerson knew Tiki Barber, a former Giants running back. Barber was renowned for his ability to run the ball — he retired as the leading rusher in Giants history — but also for his urbane ways. He was a regular on the Gotham benefit circuit and moonlighted on morning television, ending up with a correspondent’s position on the Today show. He made more than a few appearances at corporate functions, birthday parties, and, yes, bar mitzvahs. Sometimes he was paid; sometimes he was doing a favor for friends.

Over cigars, Gerson and Barber discussed the peculiar dynamic of such appearances. “[Sports] are people’s passion, right?” Barber said. “There are these intimate interactions with athletes that people have affinity for. . . . They want the aura, the stories, whatever it is. But there was no market.” To change that, the two men created Thuzio.com (playing on the word “enthusiast”) and launched it in 2012.

It’s easy to lose yourself for hours on the Thuzio website, scanning the available athletes and the accompanying price guide.

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> Lunching with Pete Rose: $8,125 (which is, curiously, $1,875 less than lunch with Rose’s Cincinnati Reds contemporary Johnny Bench)

> Playing a pickup basketball game with former NBA All-Star and gifted trash talker Gary Payton: $12,500

> Attending a gymnastics meet with Olympic hero Kerri Strug: $2,240

> Playing paintball with former Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis: $3,600

> Conscripting Ralph Sampson, the former NBA All-Star, to officiate your league’s NBA fantasy draft: $5,000

In some cases, these interactions are drenched in nostalgia. Of the 20,000 sports figures under contract to Thuzio — a number likely to have increased by the time you read this — many are retired. This is as good a place as any to note that our introduction [the authors’] to Thuzio came when Jon’s son, an irremediable Mets fan, received a video message from Mookie Wilson as a bar mitzvah gift. For this, the man who hit that famous grounder through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986 was paid $99, less Thuzio’s 20 percent commission.

A surprising number of the athletes listed, though, are active, many in the meatiest years of their careers. Jrue Holiday might be a starting guard for the New Orleans Pelicans in the middle of a four-year, $41 million contract (an annual average salary of $10,250,000, or roughly $40,000 per weekday), but he is happy to supplement his income with a $2,500 fee for joining you for lunch or dinner. And true to his, er, festive reputation, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski will show up at your backyard barbecue for $15,000.

Snicker, if you must, but there is clearly a market here. By the summer of 2014, Thuzio had raised $6 million in Series A funding. Gerson and Barber reached the following conclusion: This is the new iteration of fan-athlete connection. For decades there were autographs. Then there were selfies. In between, there were quirks. (In 2002, someone offered to pay $23,000 for bone chips from the elbow of Mariners reliever Jeff Nelson.) Now we have Thuzio-brokered interactions. As Barber told us: “We’re getting closer to those that we admire. We have services for social networking. But the experience itself — the memory, the story you can tell — that is very powerful.”

The question is, why is this so powerful?

Why would there be a market to join San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a round of golf ($4,000)? To play Ping-Pong with onetime Giants linebacker Jonathan Goff ($200)? To share steaks with Lawrence Taylor, as five recently minted MBAs did, each chipping in $2,000 of his hedge-fund signing bonus for a rollicking evening with perhaps the greatest linebacker ever? Why do we want to be in the orbit of the famous?

BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE IDENTIFIES various possible explanations for Thuzio’s allure to Joe and Jane Sports Fan. For starters, consider that for more than a century, companies have spent big money on celebrity product endorsements. Why? Because they’re betting that the positive feelings consumers have for beloved actors or athletes will transfer to their brands.

We do the same thing on a more personal level with celebrities: We tend to view ourselves in a positive light and to view success and fame in a positive light; therefore, anything that increases our proximity to famous athletes and other celebrities has the potential to rub off on us in ego-friendly ways. In the 1970s, Arizona State University psychologist Robert Cialdini gave a name to this tendency to publicly associate the self with successful others. Basking in reflected glory, Cialdini called it. Or BIRGing, for short.

In the first BIRGing studies, researchers explored the phenomenon at universities that had big-time football teams, such as LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, and USC. Their initial study was simple: It found a statistically significant tendency for students to wear more apparel emblazoned with their school’s name or logo on Mondays after the football team won compared with Mondays after a tie or loss.

Subsequent studies provided empirical evidence for yet another behavior familiar to sports fans: Students were more likely to use first-person language such as “we” in describing wins than they were when talking about losses. So it’s “We beat Wisconsin!” But it’s “They lost to Indiana.”

ILLUSTRATION BY PINKY WEBER

An interesting aspect of this tendency to BIRG: It’s exaggerated when one has been dealt a setback in another walk of life. Poor grade on an exam? Rejected job application? That’s when we become most likely to append ourselves to the success stories of tangentially related others, seeking an ego boost by association. “People appear to feel that they can share in the glory of a successful other,” Cialdini wrote. “The more intriguing form of the phenomenon occurs when the one who basks in the glory of another has done nothing to bring about the other’s success.”

So it is that your co-worker brags about his best friend’s brother’s roommate’s cup of coffee in the Major Leagues. And though this is something of a cynical take, perhaps it also explains why people shell out a few hundred dollars for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with a former pro bowler. (And would pay even more to literally rub those shoulders. Remember the bone-chip auction? Research indicates that the more physical contact someone famous has had with an object, the more people will pay for it, as if celebrity is somehow a contagious condition.)

By this line of thinking, then, who are the individuals most likely to seek out the validation provided by a Thuzio connection? Perhaps those with one foot just inside the circles of fame or athletic prowess and one foot outside: the ex – college athletes who never hit the big time, the rabid sports junkies whose knowledge of the game far outstrips their athletic skills, the business leaders who are well known in certain circles but are not celebrities on a larger stage . . . people who fancy themselves members of the club, but just barely, which motivates them to publicly assert legitimacy. Think about the old joke:

Q: How do you know if a guy went to Harvard?

A: He just told you.

Actually, research demonstrates that it’s not the Harvard grad who is most likely to go out of her way to mention her Ivy League status but rather the alum of one of the “lesser” Ivies. This was the hypothesis recently tested by Paul Rozin and his fellow researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. When they asked a national sample to free-associate to the phrase “Ivy League,” more than 40 percent of responses were “Harvard” and fewer than 2 percent were “Penn.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that when samples of Harvard and Penn undergrads were asked to write down how they describe their university to others, far more of the Penn students touted their Ivy League affiliation; the Harvard students presumably felt less need to.

Rozin and colleagues argue that it’s those individuals perceived as just barely over the membership border in a particular social category who are most likely to emphasize or exaggerate their group status. This is why small airports are more likely to use the word international to describe themselves than are major airports. It’s the Tulsa International Airport — even if its website offers no evidence of direct flights outside the United States — but it’s simply O’Hare, Logan, or Atlanta. (This is also the reason why chiropractors and osteopaths, Rozin argues, may be more likely than MDs to insist on the title “Doctor.”)

In all candor, though, we’re not totally satisfied with these explanations. Spend a few minutes on Thuzio.com if you haven’t yet: The experience doesn’t feel anything like an exercise in narcissism or self-promotion. There’s a certain wistful nostalgia born of scrolling through the site’s profiles, as in, Oh, I remember that guy! and I had his poster in my bedroom when I was 12. “Ask someone ‘Remember the time you met an athlete you admired?’ and everyone has a story,” says Gerson. “You remember everything: the context, what the athlete said. It just creates this lasting impression.”

Indeed, nostalgia provokes a powerful and rewarding response, “serving as a repository of positive affect,” according to psychologists in a recent review article on the topic. In studies in which people have been asked to conjure nostalgic events from their lives, one clear result is elation. Others include an increase in positive self-regard, making an unpredictable world seem somehow more orderly and less threatening, and a strengthening of social bonds. “Close others come to be momentarily part of one’s present . . . thus counteracting the effect of loneliness,” proposes the same paper.

Thuzio strikes a chord because it taps into a form of nostalgia specific to the sports fan. For many of us browsing the site, there’s a stark contrast between the then and now of our fan experience. Back in the day, when these athletes were in their primes, they seemed like residents of another universe, inaccessible to mere mortals like us. And, in fact, they were. Short of a chance encounter in the hotel elevator or a friend-of-a-friend who had “connections,” sharing a conversation (let alone a meal) with one of our heroes was once thought to be unattainable, a fantasy.

Cue the Internet era. And Mark Gerson and Tiki Barber’s brainchild. Suddenly what once was impossible is now just a few clicks away. That in itself is intoxicating. It’s a pleasure to browse through these athletes’ profiles as if on a platonic version of Tinder, to realize that an actual (or at least virtual) connection is there for the asking if you’re willing to spend the money.

After spending more time than we’d like to admit lost among the profiles on the site, we’ve come to believe that the Thuzio experience transcends the need for ego satisfaction or basking in reflected glory. There’s an underlying emotional draw to the website. It captures the zeitgeist of the modern digital consumer era: a nearly perfect marriage of fanaticism, nostalgia, disposable income, and the irrepressible human desire to make social connections.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE THUZIO EQUATION is no less fascinating. What motivates the athletes to take part? Sure, some of it is purely financial — especially in the case of former players and coaches whose earning potential has diminished since their heydays. Who wouldn’t want to make $20,000 (or in the case of bigger-name clients such as Mike Ditka and Bob Knight, double that) for playing a round of golf or speaking at a dinner? “You’re having fun, telling some stories, and making more money per hour than the top lawyer,” says Barber. “It’s like, ‘Why not?’ ”

But that doesn’t explain Mookie Wilson netting $80 after commission for recording a bar mitzvah message. And what about the active players? Rob Gronkowski makes roughly $500,000 per NFL game. Given the labor/leisure trade-off, it’s puzzling that he would seek an extra $15,000 to show up at a barbecue. (Of course, there’s a long history of athletes making curious economic decisions along these lines, perhaps most famously when Chicago Bulls rookie Ron Artest applied for a job at Circuit City, reportedly because he wanted to take advantage of the employee discount on a new stereo.)

Independently, Barber and Gerson claim that the active athletes have recognized that their earning potential won’t last forever, and, says Barber, “you should get it while you can.” They assert that athletes are, in effect, creating their own actuarial table. Amortized over their lifetime, that $2,500 breakfast date makes sense right now, while their earning potential is at its peak. It’s an intriguing theory, but it seems awfully charitable, especially given what we know about many athletes’ famously imprudent budgeting skills and spending habits.

An additional explanation: The athletes also like being the center of attention, whether overseeing a fantasy draft or being the main attraction at a dinner reception. While most of would admit to a fondness for attention, this, too, seems an inadequate explanation. These are, after all, professional athletes. What does holding court at a steakhouse do for you that performing in front of 80,000 fans and a national television audience does not?

Once again, we’d propose that there’s more than ego and cold calculation at work. As we found in our analysis of what draws fans to the Thuzio site, emotion and other social processes play an underrated role in the athletes’ willingness to get involved. Sure, there are financial motivations — but talk to athletes who have signed with Thuzio and a common theme emerges: These interactions are usually fun. Gronkowski is going to spend his summer weekend wearing Zubaz pants and drinking beer at a barbecue anyway, so why not earn a little cash while he’s at it?

And it’s not just any athlete who agrees to be listed on Thuzio. In many cases, it’s the gregarious type, the fan favorite, the clubhouse glue guy, the reliable “good quote” always up for talking with the media after games. Mookie? Yes. Hold your own press conference with Bill Belichick? Not so much.

There’s a similar argument to be made about the appeal of Twitter to athletes. We often talk about this in terms of athletes seeking to expand the reach of their “brands” or using social media for product endorsement. But when Marion Hambrick and colleagues at the University of Louisville conducted a content analysis of thousands of tweets from athletes across a wide range of team and individual sports, they found that only 5 percent of tweets fell into the category promotional. The most common category? Interactivity, or direct contact with fans, at 34 percent.

Thuzio offers its athletes similar prospects: direct interaction with fans, but in an attractive package in a controlled environment. Not hordes of angry opposing fans or autograph seekers interrupting dinner, but rather someone fond enough of you to pay for a limited-time engagement on prearranged terms.

So back to our earlier question: What does holding court at a steakhouse give the athlete that performing on the field in front of thousands of fans does not? Actual social connection. We humans thrive on this stuff, particularly when it makes us feel good about ourselves. We like spending time with those who like spending time with us; we’re attracted to those who find us attractive.

Now, far be it from us to claim to know what it’s like to be cheered on in a stadium by tens of thousands of adoring fans — it’s not an occupational hazard of our particular lines of work. But one of the basic precepts of social psychology is that one-on-one interaction feels very different from interacting with the nameless, faceless masses. The roar of the crowd doubtless boosts ego, as well as adrenaline. But face-to-face conversation fills other needs; the fawned-on individual feels good in a different way. Why else does the comedian look for an excuse to visit the bar after a successful set? Or the public speaker linger a bit longer than necessary at the end of the talk?

Our conclusion: Thuzio isn’t a one-sided exchange of services for money. It’s a two-sided experience. Both parties get something out of the transaction, and the fees are often the least of it.

L. Jon Wertheim is executive editor of Sports Illustrated and Sam Sommers is an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Adapted from the new book “This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon.” Copyright © 2016 by Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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