U.S. Open triggers memories for marketing exec Frank Vuono, the man who matched Stewart with plus-fours and the NFL.
“The last time I saw him was at the Ryder Cup in Brookline,” says Frank Vuono. “It was the most intense match I ever have seen. I was in the gallery. He came out of the bathroom, snuck up on me and goosed me! Then he started running up the fairway and yelled like a Jersey guy, ‘Hey Frankie, how ya doin’?’ ”
It was the last time Vuono saw his friend alive. A month later, Stewart, his agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, course architect Bruce Borland, pilot Michael Kling and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue, died when the Learjet they were in lost cabin pressure, during a flight from Orlando to Dallas. Eventually, the plane veered off course and crashed in a field in Mina, South Dakota.
Vuono, a lifelong Lyndhurst resident and co-founder of 16W Marketing, LLC, a sports marketing in Rutherford, was VP/Retail Licensing for NFL Properties from 1985-93, responsible for the gear coaches wore on the sidelines. He was friendly with Robert Fraley, a powerful agent who represented many coaches, including Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, and Mike Ditka.
“We had become good friends,” says Vuono, a longtime member and former president of Glen Ridge Country Club. “So we’re talking over dinner one night and I said, ‘Who else do your represent?’ He told me about this golfer, a guy who lived next door to him at Bay Hill in Orlando, named Payne Stewart. He said Payne was a huge football fan and was made for this market. I asked if Payne would be interested in wearing the Antigua gear that we were doing for the coaches.”
There was no official deal with the league at the time, so Vuono and Fraley looked for companies to make the gear. “We clicked and became friends very quickly,” Vuono says. “Payne was a Wilson Staff player, but they didn’t want to do a deal for the clothes. I was dealing with a company called Pine Hosiery in North Carolina. We had them knit the designs into the socks, so players wouldn’t have to wear two pairs for a game. They were showing me the factory, and there were these machines all covered up and dusty. I pulled off the covers, and found out they were machines to make argyle socks. Now I had Payne outfitted from head to toe. We worked with Kangol and got the hats set. We all shook hands and had a deal.”
Vuono’s signing coincided with Stewart’s ascension from charismatic talent to major champion on the Tour. Stewart won the 1989 PGA Championship, U.S. Open titles in 1991 and ’99, and nine more PGA Tour events. In 2001, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
But at the time, the NFL hadn’t officially signed off on anything, and Vuono’s bosses weren’t so sure this was a good idea. “Val Pinchback, who was in charge of the schedule, wasn’t sure this was a good idea. I was a young kid and didn’t know we didn’t do stuff like that. But I said to Val, “Imagine a Sunday golf tournament, when Pat Summerall is announcing a tournament and he talks about Payne’s outfit — and all the teams he wore that week — and then talks about the football games coming up on CBS!’ Well, Summerall goes on an on about the rivalries in the NFL, about Payne’s outfits, cross-promoting all of it. Then our corporate sales guys would walk into C-suite offices and say, ‘Hey you guys are doing the Payne Stewart deal. What else can we do?’ So, Val says, ‘Okay, maybe there is something to this. Get it all in a contract.’ Then I really had to get to work.”
That work turned NFL-licensed products from a $300 million business into a $2.5 billion juggernaut, including the NFL Pro Line, NFL Pro Shop, and NFL Throwbacks. Vuono, 58, who played football at Princeton University, went on to create the NFL Quarterback Club. He and partner Steve Rosner created 16W, and represent Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Howie Long, Ron Darling, Cris Collinsworth, and many other athletes and broadcasters. “Steve and I have been together for 21 years now. We have done many great things, including helping the New Orleans and the Saints recover after Hurricane Katrina, getting Quest Diagnostics to partner with the Giants, and now working with the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. We have built a lot of great relationships along the way.”
This special relationship with Payne Stewart is top of mind with Vuono this week. “Being here in North Carolina, at this time, makes me think of so many things. I remember being in the Wilson headquarters, when Payne went into a closet and pulled out a driver they were working on. It was huge, called The Whale. They told him people thought it was ugly and wouldn’t sell. So he said, ‘I like it,’ and started playing it. When we met I was just getting started as a golfer and he helped my grip and worked on my swing. I still use that grip. I still can’t believe he is gone. I was so lucky to know him.”