After his first NFL season, when he’d carved out a spot on the Vikings’ practice squad, Adam Thielen heard from Luke Inveiss, a defensive back he met a few years earlier when both were on a recruiting visit to Minnesota State Mankato.
Inveiss had finished his playing career at St. John’s and recently landed a job with the Institute for Athletes, a modestly sized agency in Minneapolis. He let Thielen know the company could be a good fit for him; Thielen, unsure what his future would hold while playing for a new coaching staff, agreed.
“I needed somebody that could really help me if I get cut, or if I’m looking for a job, or looking for things off the field,” Thielen said. “It was great timing, and just kind of a small-world thing.”
In the six years since, Thielen and IFA grew together, the receiver turning a starting spot into two Pro Bowls and the agency landing Alabama first-round pick Jonathan Allen before the 2017 draft.
When Thielen grew out of his first multiyear deal with the Vikings, IFA founder Blake Baratz negotiated a four-year, $64.8 million extension that makes him the 10th-highest-paid receiver in the league.
IFA, one of the Twin Cities’ only sports agencies, has built a football beachhead in Minnesota. Such clients as C.J. Ham, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly pushed into bigger roles with the Vikings, and Gophers products such as Blake Cashman and Tyler Johnson signed with the agency before getting drafted this spring.
Johnson, Baratz said, “reached out to us,” and added, “That wouldn’t have happened five years ago.”
Like its roster of gumptious clients, the firm has evolved in its own right, launching a creative marketing division that has worked with such local companies as Caribou Coffee and Sleep Number. Baratz turned part of IFA’s building on First Avenue into a social club with roughly 150 members. After his brother-in-law Mike Zweigbaum came on as CEO, the company launched Wisdom Gaming Group, an e-sports marketing company that streams roughly 55 hours of content a week.
To some extent, IFA has taken on the persona of Baratz, a Hopkins native who looked at many NFL agent stereotypes with a raised eyebrow and sought to diversify his business with revenue streams less fickle than ones tied to a player’s success.
“It’s not like I’m sitting there saying, ‘If I’m not a sports agent, then my life has no purpose,’ ” said Baratz, 40. “Quite the opposite. I think a lot of people get into this business and there’s a high level of stress — they feel the pressure to sign players and bring in revenue. That leads to agents selling a dream and doing the wrong thing, and you have players signing with agents for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, that’s a house of cards that’s going to come crashing down.”
Moving beyond football
Baratz graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a desire to work in sports, but at the time, he said, “I didn’t really know what an agent did.”
He quickly found it would take years of recruiting and developing clients before enough of them would earn lucrative deals as veterans to make a startup agency profitable.
Once players like Thielen, Allen and veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn started to put IFA on sturdier financial footing in the past three years, the company began to think about what it could do next.
As Baratz and Inveiss found themselves doing plenty of work on sports marketing plans for other companies, they realized they’d be better off doing it themselves. They put together a roster of contractors, wooed Vikings safety Harrison Smith as a client for marketing services and leveraged their status in the Twin Cities into promotion work for local companies. They now have about 20 full-time employees.
Baratz opened Brick x Mortar, the social club in IFA’s brownstone building on First Avenue, for people who’d aged out of the downtown bar scene but found traditional country clubs too stuffy.
Zweigbaum, 47, arrived eager for a new challenge after selling the scrap metal recycling company in north Minneapolis where he'd worked for 24 years. He’d been jolted by how much more interested his three sons were in watching an online gaming competition than they were in a Vikings game. He wondered if he could turn his own lifelong hobby — “I had Pong when it came out,” he said — into a successful business.
With longtime digital marketing strategist T.J. McLeod, Zweigbaum leads Wisdom Gaming Group, which now has 16 full-time employees and a team of roughly 70 contractors to produce marketing content for gamers.
Wisdom committed $18,000 to north Minneapolis communities this month after acquiring a professional Rocket League team; held a watch party for the League of Legends World Championship in November; and had planned to stage a Minnesota high school championship tournament at the Mall of America in March until COVID-19 forced its cancellation.
The company is also building a series of e-sports shows for streaming services like Twitch, YouTube, Facebook or Mixer, while working to raise millions in capital.
“We don’t just do one guy livestreaming,” Zweigbaum said. “All of our streams are based either on friendly competition, guides on how to succeed in the game or getting high-level influencers and aggregating their audiences to watch them interact with each other.”
Local players find a home
Of the 16 IFA clients currently on NFL rosters, five — Ham, Thielen, Cashman, Johnson and Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer — are from Minnesota.
“At the end of the day, if you’re in the sports world, it’s a pretty small community," Baratz said. "At the very least, you hope you can take care of your own. If you can’t build a reputation here, it’s hard to convince the kid in Alabama or Washington you’re the best choice.”
Thielen is now the Vikings’ third longest-tenured player and one of their most visible. IFA helped him and his wife, Caitlin, start their own foundation and become partners at ETS Performance training centers with Ryan Englebert, Thielen’s longtime trainer.
“IFA is doing stuff they don’t have to do, that’s not necessarily contracted or I’m technically paying for,” Thielen said. “They’re doing stuff outside of what is obligated of them.”
The local connection has helped Vikings players like Ham and Thielen make contacts in their own communities. When Thielen launched his foundation at the U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital two years ago, Inveiss and Baratz made the short drive from their offices to help put on the event. Inveiss donned a mask on June 5 to help Thielen distribute groceries to Lake Street residents affected by the fires and looting that shuttered business after the killing of George Floyd.
“We’re more well-connected here, and I think it’s a little bit of a snowball,” Inveiss said. “People that are from here and are really good people are who we’re looking to work with.”
For Thielen, it turned out to be a chance he’s glad he took.
“It’s a relationship you look back on and you’re like, ‘Man, I’m glad God kind of put us together,’” Thielen said. “I don’t know where I’d be, or what would be different, but I know my wife and I wouldn’t be where we are without their help.”