This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration
By: Tyler Endebrock, @tjendebrock
Ronnie Zeidel’s goal has always been to stay as close to the game of basketball as possible. After getting his start in basketball operations with the New York Knicks, Zeidel’s journey started to take shape. From helping build SLAM Magazine as an associate publisher and serving as president and founder of Clutch Media & Marketing to working for the NBA and NCAA, Zeidel was making his mark on the sports industry. However, Zeidel is now up for a new challenge in helping players: athlete representation with his agency RZA Sports.
As a Queens, New York native, Zeidel stayed in-state for college to study English at the University of Albany. He moved to California for a year after college, but knew he would find his way back to his home state in hopes of working within player personnel at the NBA level. He understood he would face hurdles since he didn't play professional basketball, so he had to try different ways to break into the industry.
“I wasn’t a college player and I certainly didn’t play in the league, so for me, the focus was to just get in and work my way up.”
Zeidel’s high school classmate, former NBA player Duane Causwell, secured Zeidel his initial meeting with the Knicks. Zeidel started working directly under Ed Tapscott and current Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. In his role with the Knicks, Zeidel conceptualized and ran the first New York Knicks Youth Camp.
“This was before computers were out in the early 90’s, so it was really more of a guerrilla marketing effort than anything else. I literally took over a closet where I made my own office and worked for free as an intern for over a year.”
While loving his work, Zeidel continued to prove his worth. His perseverance eventually led him to scouting opportunities with the team. After a few years with the Knicks, Zeidel received a call from Dennis Page.
“Dennis had just created a new basketball magazine called SLAM. We had a three-hour interview, and Dennis and I really clicked. He really saw my passion for the game of basketball. After our conversation and seeing what that first issue of the magazine was about, I was on board.”
Zeidel served as advertisement director and eventually associate publisher for 14 years and enjoyed every minute of it.
“We had a great team and our covers were extremely creative, but it was really hard at first. Nike, adidas, Puma, Reebok, Pepsi and Coca-Cola all laughed at us at first saying, ‘Oh you’re going to do a basketball-specific magazine? There are plenty of sports magazines out there.’ We didn’t really care. We had a certain flavor to our magazine and had a great editorial staff. We were a bunch of basketball guys who really just loved the game.”
After his time with SLAM Magazine, Zeidel had a three-year stint as president and co-founder of Clutch Media & Marketing, a full service sports marketing, public relations and media firm. Following his time with Clutch, the NBA and NCAA approached Zeidel to help them launch iHoops, a joint initiative by both associations.
“iHoops, now under the umbrella of USA Basketball, was a youth basketball initiative where I served as vice president of marketing partnerships and brand development. My role was in business development, sponsorships sales and brand development, which meant I had to co- produce national commercial spots that would air on CBS, TNT and ESPN. Former Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg was the CEO, and we had a really terrific board of directors that consisted of people like Adam Silver, Stu Jackson, Coach K, Kathy Behrens, Len Elmore and Greg Shaheen.”
Although Zeidel enjoyed his time with iHoops, he decided to move on to other ventures. After iHoops, Zeidel transitioned into consulting positions where he worked with many basketball related brands and products.
Within all of his experiences, Zeidel built a nice network with connections to brands, agents, players, team operators and scouts. From those connections, he received offers to work for agencies in the past, but he never felt fully comfortable with what was in front of him. Now, he is taking the agency business into his own hands by creating RZA Sports.
“Over the course of this past summer, I decided I really wanted to work as an advocate for basketball players who want to continue their basketball careers after college. My goal is to work as a mentor and partner with these athletes and to help them navigate the basketball landscape, which can be tricky, throughout their career”.
“Even the most skilled players that have a great work ethic only play at the professional level for four to five years. The lucky ones will play 10 to 12 years, but they still wind up retiring at a young age. Often times these kids have nothing to fall back on, so my goal is to help them identify their interests and strengths so that we can collectively find opportunities for them outside of basketball once they are ready to move on. This will begin to take shape the day I sign them because waiting until their playing career is over can be damaging.”
“I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and I’ve touched so many facets of the game. Now, I want to use my skill set, network, capabilities and knowledge to help players grow.”
Zeidel’s prior work gives him a leg up on most first-time agents since he has scouted, worked in the media, sold sponsorships and is extremely connected to the game. He understands that only 60 players get drafted each year and the more experienced agents will fight for those first rounders. Accordingly, he takes a slightly different approach to the representation side.
“Yes, I want to recruit the best of the best, and in due time I will, but in addition to first-round NBA talent, I’m looking to build a network of players who can thrive overseas at a very high level.”
Zeidel continues to network with scouts, European agents and college coaches here in the United States so he can best serve his clients. He has been doing a tremendous amount of due-diligence on opportunities for his clients outside of the country.
“Over the course of the last three to four months, I have spent time studying and understanding the landscape of the international leagues and creating the best possible partnerships all over the world. Now, my website is off the ground and I have networked with the entire European and Asian landscape. I am ready to start recruiting to the point where I can look someone in the eye, whether it’s the player, his mom, dad or coach, and tell them, ‘You may be an NBA caliber player, but if not, I can take your skill set and help you navigate a great career overseas.’”
Coming over to this side of the business, Zeidel understands and respects what many other agents have been able to accomplish. However, he also believes he has the skill set, network and experience to make an impact.
“I think I bring something incredibly unique to the table that helps set me apart from traditional agents. I may not have signed players to my own agency in the past, but I have so much experience across so many mediums within the basketball industry and have signed many NBA players to marketing deals. From Vince Carter to J.J. Redick and Shaq to Stephen Curry, I have worked with so many athletes at a very high level. I know it will be an uphill battle and it won’t happen overnight, but if I work with the right people and we work really hard collectively, we can really make a difference.”
Want to learn more about RZA Sports and Zeidel? Check out his website.