Paraag Marathe

The Future Front Office: Paraag Marathe, 49ers Enterprises

The structure of front offices – and the jobs within them – has evolved significantly in recent years. In this series, we’re speaking to some of the executives who represent the new generation of front office leadership, hearing about the nature of their work, the skills they require to thrive, what they’ve learned during their careers, and their predictions for the future of the front office.

In this latest interview, we’re talking with Paraag Marathe, President of 49ers Enterprises and Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the San Francisco 49ers.

Now in his 20th season with the San Francisco 49ers, Paraag Marathe’s route to becoming a sports executive began during his time as a student at Berkeley. In his sophomore year, Marathe “sent a bunch of resumes and cover letters to agents all across the country” and was able to secure an internship with IMG straight out of college.

Marathe quickly switched gears and made the move to management consulting, joining Bain & Company where his experience with IMG made him the go-to consultant on projects with various sports brands and franchises. One of those projects, an analytical evaluation of the 2001 NFL draft for the 49ers, led to Marathe joining the organization at the turn of the millennium and he hasn’t looked back since.

Diversifying & Delivering

One of the things that sets the 49ers apart from other NFL franchises is the organization’s diversification beyond football into multiple facets of sports and entertainment. For Marathe, the momentum required for that expanded portfolio was generated following the completion of Levi’s Stadium in 2014 as the franchise began to think about where to go next.

“We hired a bunch of very smart people with diverse backgrounds with the aim of transforming ourselves from a sports franchise into a sports and entertainment company,” says Marathe. “We hired people who were really good in business and leadership and maybe happened to know something about sports as opposed to the other way around. That gave us a competitive advantage in terms of the people we have.”

As well as building a diverse and talented team, Marathe believes that the success of 49ers Enterprises comes down to a number of key factors related to brand, location, innovation and experience.

“The 49ers is a global brand, one of the best brands in the world,” he explains. “Being right here in Silicon Valley we have access to academic, to venture capital, and to so much innovation. We also have our own innovative mindset and are always looking to push the envelope and do new things. We also built a blueprint. We had a blueprint in how we built Levi’s Stadium, in how we grew our organization to rise up the franchise ranks, so we wanted to use that blueprint.”

As the franchise has branched out into new areas of sports and entertainment, 49ers Enterprises has focused its energies in four main areas; sports investment, management consultancy, business creation, and venture capital. Distinctive projects such as the foundation of Elevate Sports Ventures, supporting Sacramento Republic with stadium construction, building a cricket league in the US, investment in Leeds United, and the funding of Series A start-ups have given the 49ers a well-earned reputation for innovation and heterogeneity both in sport and beyond.

When it comes to delivering diverse, large-scale projects, Marathe says the key is to be constantly looking for ways to improve things, even if they’re not obviously broken.

“(Delivering projects in sports) isn’t dissimilar from any Fortune 50 business,” he explains. “It’s about seeing the forest for the trees; it’s innovation. One thing that has served me well in my career – I think it came from (former 49ers coach) Bill Walsh – is the idea that just because something has always been done the same way for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it. It’s so easy to keep doing the same thing because if it’s not broken, why fix it? It’s not about whether something’s broken or not, it’s about making things better! That’s our mindset – how do we build things and how do we make them better? We could just be a successful football team, but we want to be more than that.”

The Skills Required

Given his broad remit across the football and business sides of the 49ers organization, Marathe’s role is wide-ranging and can change significantly from day to day. That constant change is energizing, but it also requires an abundance of different skills to manage effectively.

“Every day is different because it’s so diverse,” Marathe says. “I still negotiate all of our player contracts and manage our salary cap. One day I will be working on a player transfer or load deal for Leeds United, another day I will try to put together a structure for our T20 cricket league and what that might look like in the US. Another day I might be looking at a company that we might want to invest or partner with. Every week carries with it a different task.”

When asked about the skills that are required to succeed in such a diverse role, Marathe focuses on the qualities of self-belief and perseverance, particularly in the context of an industry that is inherently conservative and can be hostile to those perceived to be ‘outsiders’.

“Sports is very much about the status quo,” he explains. “It’s very much about who you know, not what you know – at least that’s what gets you in the door. Sometimes there is a lot of inertia against newcomers into a business, so for me it was about ignoring the noise. There are going to be critical voices out there, but if you believe in what you are doing and believe it is right then you’ve got to figure out how to ignore the noise and stay through it.

“Also, it’s sometimes the case that a task or challenge seems so daunting that it almost feels impossible to even start because you think you won’t be able to finish it,” Marathe continues. “It can be hard to find the energy to plough forward when you don’t necessarily see the outcome yet. You know what you envision but you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. That takes a lot of perseverance.”

Alongside those key qualities, Marathe also believes in the importance of constantly looking for areas of growth and opportunity. It can be easy for executives to get lost in the detail of their projects, but Marathe’s approach allows plenty of room for horizon scanning.

“If we’re task-oriented it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees and try to innovate while maintaining our goals and still succeeding at our core,” he says. “We always need to think about where else we can go; how else we can grow. Trying to see potential opportunities before they arise is really important.”

The Future of the Front Office

During his two decades in sports, Marathe has seen many changes in front offices and witnessed the rise and fall of different modes of organizational management. As he speculates on the future direction of front offices, he sees current trends around diversity and human capital going on to define the sector in the coming years.

“I think the face of our offices is already changing,” says Marathe. “20 years ago, the people who worked in front offices had already been in sports or they were the relatives of those who were involved in sports, but that’s changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Now you are finding good, young, smart business people of all colors and genders are getting more opportunities in sport. Maybe they didn’t have any sports background, but they do now and you are seeing it become much more of a meritocracy.”

For Marathe, someone who was an outlier in coming into sports from a business background in 2000, that change is an encouraging sign that the industry is headed in a positive direction and a vindication of the culture that has been established at the 49ers.

“It’s kind of neat for me to see these trends because we’ve prided ourselves on doing that for a long time here and you are starting to see it permeate across a lot of sports.”

Patrick Manhire is Head of Executive Search at Sportsology.

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