What Gift Bags for Rich Athletes Taught Me About Business

gift bags

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes in the secretive world of celebrity gift bags? (The glamour! The intrigue! The trinkets!) Nah, neither do we. But we’ve got a business lesson to impart from dealing with these sacks o’ freebies. Time to open your gift.


Back in the early 00’s, my marketing company got into the celebrity gift bag game as a service. It turned out to be a lot of work but was pretty lucrative for a time.

And it was fun. We acted as a go-between for major brands and uber-cool events such as the Billboard Awards, a star-studded Cirque de Soleil premiere in Las Vegas and dozens of charity events for superstar pro athletes. Hell, we even hooked up Polaroid and OutKast at the Vibe Awards (if you don’t get that reference, please check yourself back to 2004).

Here’s how it worked: we convinced an event sponsor to let us provide the bags, cleared any conflicts (i.e. an athlete endorsed by Nike wouldn’t want Adidas gear in bags at his event), pitched the brands to give us X number of items and, finally, distributed the gift sacks at these events to the very people who can most afford to buy the items inside.

And how did we make money? We got the brands to pay us. The more expensive the gift (a $5,000 mattress or a $10,000 watch), the less likely my company was to receive money, since the brand was already donating tens of thousands of dollars of merch. So we balanced the costly with mundane items such as beauty products or snacks, where the brand was more than happy to pay to get their pomade or popcorn into the hands of Jay-Z or Eli Manning.

One bag loomed large for me; the 2003 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Chicago. This one was a challenge because of the sheer number of sponosr restrictions (e.g. Gillette is an MLB sponsor, so no Schick razors allowed in the bags). Fair enough and we complied with the list given to us.

We put together bags worth nearly $20,000 each and flew two employees out to Chicago for the week. One of my guys called me from the hotel, frantic because the MLB rep came into the conference room and removed nearly all the items from the bags (and just happened to kick out the very items which brands actually PAID us to include). This was a potential business disaster for us -- on the money and brand ends.

I asked to speak with the rep, who told me the items she kicked out were in conflict with MLB licenses and that she didn’t have all the conflicts listed on the sheet sent to me several months before. In other words, SHE f*cked up.

And I let loose on her with a tirade that literally brought her to tears. I only let up when she whimpered the words “Please stop. I’m pregnant and this stress isn’t good for me”.

I’m not a screamer. This was a rare loss of control for me. And I look back ashamed, not just because I verbally attacked a woman with child but also for losing control of my emotions.

Maybe we could have found a compromise for the bags if we just talked. Needless to say, we never worked with MLB again.

Now here’s your business lesson:

There is precious little in this life we can control, but one thing within our power is how we act—and how we REACT—to a given situation. This is a skill which defines us—in life and in business. Losing control is never the answer.

So don’t be ruled by your emotions. It’s just business, baby.

baby screaming

John Lavallo57 Posts

John is Columbia Business School MBA with expertise in marketing, business leadership, and law. John is a successful entrepreneur who took his first company public. He currently resides in New York City.