Here’s one way to spin it: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes just got a lot more relatable. Mahomes made football look easy during his first three years as a starter, becoming the youngest player to win MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors last year before making another big game this year.
Then football — and the best quarterback to ever play the game, to be specific — pushed back, as Mahomes’ Chiefs were silenced by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, 31-9.
Nobody had seen this before. Mahomes hadn’t lost by more than eight points in his NFL career. Kansas City had scored at least 10 points in every one of his starts. With 40 seconds left, CBS showed one more shot of a baffled Mahomes before a familiar sight: Brady holding court atop the championship podium, surrounded by confetti. Brady lifted a record seventh Lombardi trophy as Mahomes exited stage left. But don’t for one second think he’s gone.
Marketers will be too wise to move on in search of the next new thing. Patrick Mahomes still represents the future of the league, even if Brady notched one more win against time. Mahomes is the QB of now. And as America’s biggest sport tries to maintain that position, it knows how important he is.
Mahomes isn’t just the league’s newest superstar. He’s a new kind of superstar. Born on the cusp of Gen Z, this year he led NFL players in online engagement in addition to passing yards per game. He’s as much point guard as quarterback, a human highlight reel in addition to a gridiron hero. Even as he struggled against Tampa’s ferocious defense, his scrambles and impossible throws downfield made fans believe there was still a chance deep into the fourth quarter. His spins and heaves in this game will be just as remembered as anything Brady did. And that makes him perfect for a league increasingly embracing digital media, always hungry for viral moments, turning to influencers to help sell its own leading men to a generation of consumers who weren’t born tuning in to telecasts.
“He’s playing with flair, throwing passes that nobody else seems to make,” Mahomes’ agent Leigh Steinberg said last week, explaining his client’s appeal to the NFL’s newest fans. “And he’s being a great role model.”
Last summer, in the middle of negotiating the biggest contract in American sports history, Mahomes offered to add his voice to the collection of players demanding the NFL do more to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As one of the most important people in the NFL right now, I thought ending specifically on Pat saying, ‘Black Lives Matter’ … was easily the most compelling way to do it,” Bryndon Minter, the NFL employee behind the video, said at the time. “To have the Super Bowl MVP express himself like that … and take that chance was unbelievable.” But then again, anyone who has been tracking Mahomes’ career has come to expect the inconceivable.
As rapid as his ascent has been, it could in retrospect seem planned if not entirely scripted, as if he spent his life preparing for a moment no one could foresee.
Of course he spent his childhood in baseball clubhouses, learning how to balance humility and confidence from the likes of Derek Jeter as well as the elder Pat Mahomes, an MLB pitcher for 11 years. Thousands of routine ground balls would train his arm for when, as a junior in high school, “he wanted to try this quarterback thing,” as Papa Mahomes told USA Today.
Around that time, others started making their own plans. Current Chiefs GM Brett Veach first fell for Mahomes during the QB’s sophomore year, when the talent evaluator saw clips of him while studying an older teammate. At his annual Super Bowl party in 2017, Steinberg “coincidentally” had Mahomes and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt co-present an award. “Kansas City seemed like a marriage made in heaven,” Steinberg told The Washington Post.
A month later, KC leadership reached out to Bills GM Doug Whaley at the 2017 combine, starting a conversation that would ultimately end up with them trading for the 10th overall pick. On draft night, the Chiefs, willing to move on from Alex Smith despite the veteran’s back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances, got their man for the future.
Thus began the marketing plan set in place by Steinberg; Mahomes’ primary agent, Chris Cabott; and his advertising and marketing representative, Jacquelyn Dahl. They’d play things slow while Mahomes learned from Smith in Year One, dip their toes into the water in Year Two, and set him up (hopefully) for a second contract during Year Three.
No plan would’ve helped Sunday. Kansas City’s offensive line was too banged up. Its defense committed too many penalties. For his next act Mahomes now has a chance add a redemption story to his young epic.
One other part of Mahomes’ education? Taking notes on videos of LeBron James talking about his own brand, Mahomes explained to CNBC. Last year, the two teamed up for James’ More Than A Vote effort, and Mahomes said last week he has since turned to James for guidance. On their next call, James can teach a thing, or six, about bouncing back from a title lost.
LeBron has long been open about his goal of becoming the first billionaire active athlete. Mahomes could be second.
“He’ll be the billion-dollar athlete because of his timing,” said Tim Dillon, an agent and owner of 206 Sports Group, which worked with Russell Wilson after his Super Bowl title and now helps DK Metcalf and others with their marketing.
Mahomes has been aggressive in gathering equity in companies ranging from performance tech company Hyperice to the Kansas City Royals, using a model built by forerunners like James and Wilson. He already has millions more Instagram followers than QB peers like Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott, but he also still has room to grow before catching Brady or Odell Beckham Jr. (who has somehow been a pro nearly twice as long as Mahomes). It might just be a matter of time. “He’ll be that Kardashian in terms of Instagram followers,” Dillon said. “He’s on that path.”
A first-round pick. An anointed starter. A sensation. An MVP award. And a Super Bowl title. Mahomes executed the superstardom playbook flawlessly. With his first stumble comes a new opportunity: Rewrite it.