Paraag Marathe is getting more done than you are.
In recent months, the San Francisco 49ers executive vice president restructured the team’s salary cap, allowing them to trade up to the pricey third slot in the NFL Draft. As president of the team’s business arm, 49ers Enterprises, he closed a deal to boost the team’s ownership of English soccer’s Leeds United. Then he was appointed as vice chairman of Leeds. He was reelected as chairman of USA Cricket and joined a SPAC seeking a fitness technology buy. In May, he takes over as treasurer of the Sequoia Hospital Foundation and is on the board of two eating disorder nonprofits, too. Come Tuesday, he’ll be teaching his class on negotiating at Stanford’s business school.
“In any successful enterprise, it’s all about the people around you,” Marathe, 44, said in a recent video call. While the northern California native is quick to give credit to others, the reality is he’s built his career by being the person successful people want to have around them—most notably, the York family, the majority owners of the storied NFL franchise.
“I think the Yorks think of Paraag as one of their own—not one of their employees, but one of their own,” emphasized Indra Nooyi in a phone call. As CEO of Pepsico at the start of the last decade, Nooyi was gently lobbying the Yorks to switch their concessions from Coke to Pepsi when patriarch John York introduced Paraag as “‘one of the movers and shakers of the San Francisco 49ers organization,’” Nooyi recalled. Then, and in the 11 years since, Nooyi has found Marathe “endearing, insightful, incisive,” she said, adding, “I only wish I knew him a long time ago. I would have hired him at Pepsi. He could have been a great CEO candidate.”
That Marathe returns the loyalty to the Yorks is clear in conversations, since he usually ends up framing his non-NFL business efforts through the prism of the 49ers. Take, for instance, joining the board of Athlon Acquisition, a special purpose acquisition company formed in December by Boston Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Mark Wan. “I want to learn what it’s all about to see if it’s something [49ers Enterprises] ever wanted to do,” Marathe said.
It would be wrong to see Marathe’s involvement as a zero-sum game he’s intent to win for the 49ers, however. His optimal outcome is always a net gain for all involved, whether it’s restructuring a player’s contract or weighing in on an acquisition target for the SPAC.
“When I was putting together the board for Athlon, I reached out to him because I wanted smart people who had great networks and reputations that would help elevate the visibility of Athlon,” Wan, also a part-owner of the 49ers, said in an email. “He was therefore a natural for that role and always full of great ideas.”
As Marathe teaches his graduate students at Stanford, “It’s not about what you get but how you feel about what you get,” he said. “That has been a guiding a philosophy of mine.”
Right now, he wants Leeds United fans to feel good about what they’ve got. 49ers Enterprises initially bought a 15% stake in the 102-year-old team in 2018 and this January boosted that to 37%. His appointment as vice chairman was a sign that the Yorks were taking an active role in the club’s future; that, Marathe recognizes, is often met with decidedly mixed feelings from English soccer fans. “One of the things that may not have served American owners of European football clubs all that well is that sometimes it appears to be viewed as a dispassionate economic opportunity,” he said. “That’s the antithesis of us. I watch [Leeds] games the same way I watch 49ers games—I’m screaming at the TV,” he added. During matches, Marathe and the Yorks trade texts, like any fans do, celebrating the wins and commiserating on the losses.
This season is Leeds United’s first in the English Premier League since 2004. And with eight weeks left, the team is likely to finish mid-table, healthily above relegation, meeting the immediate goal of majority owner Andrea Radrizzani and his 49ers partners. In the long run, Radrizzani and Marathe aim to put Leeds, once one of England’s dominant clubs and still one of its more popular sides, back in the same breath as the “Big Six” teams from London, Manchester and Liverpool.
“We have so many resources and blueprints we can export with relative ease, plugging into the Leeds business to help them grow on and off the pitch,” Marathe said. “I do this in my sleep.”
His confidence comes from having to earned his way to the top. Marathe had a pretty typical childhood in Saratoga, Calif., where like one in eight Americans, his parents were immigrants, from India. Young Paraag would “eat sports for breakfast” and dream of playing a sport professionally. His average build spiked that plan, but he saw a different path into sports after watching Jerry Maguire as an undergrad at Berkeley. With no experience or connections, he snagged opportunity a few years later when his then-employer, consultant Bain & Co., was hired to figure out a way to value draft picks for Bill Walsh and the 49ers front office. Marathe handled the assignment well enough to land a permanent job with the team.
When the 49ers wanted to build Levi’s Stadium, the Yorks put Paraag in charge. The technologies developed for the arena led to launching VenueNext, an ecommerce company that just sold for $72 million and, indirectly, led to the investment in Leeds, since Radrizzani first connected with the team during a stadium tour with Marathe. The team keeps its other investments close to the vest but allows that Levi’s Stadium turned the 49ers from a football team into a “multi-billion-dollar sports and entertainment company.” The facility vaulted the 49ers from among the least valuable teams to one of the NFL’s most valuable, a model Leeds will likely draw upon as it ventures to replace its aging home.
Marathe’s experience in 49ers operations is the basis for his work as chairman of USA Cricket, too. The job is a volunteer position he took on in 2018, with the goal to develop the game enough to get the U.S. competitive on the international stage. “When I joined, I didn’t even know how to play the game. But I know how to build organizations, I know how to build things,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s about building an organization, building momentum and building support for it.”
Major League Cricket, a league of T-20 cricket launching top-level pro play in 2022, asked Marathe for guidance as it sets about seeking investors and developing the league, said MLC’s Vijay Srinivasan. Marathe helped secure the league’s first dedicated venue, a tenant-less minor league baseball stadium just outside Dallas. “Just the fact that someone with his wealth of experience in the professional sports landscape in the U.S. lends his expertise and time on a volunteer basis to cricket speaks volumes,” said Srinivasan in a video call. “I can’t pinpoint another instance globally in cricket of that crossover happening.” Last month, Marathe was reelected to serve as chairman of USA Cricket for another three-year term.
“With cricket and with Leeds we—49ers Enterprises—were able to plant the flag about who we are and what we do,” Marathe said. The organization continues to kick the tires on possible other investments, perhaps in a soccer club on the continent or a sports analytics company with global reach. Ideally, he’ll find ways to help make American football more than just a North American sport.
“NFL-wise, the next frontier for us to potentially really expand is globally—popularize our game in the same way that [soccer and cricket] are now the No. 1 and No. 2 most popular games in the world,” Marathe said. The 49ers will be at the front if he has his way. “I want it to be known that when someone is looking to do something, to connect with us.”
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