Once upon a time Ty Ballou almost choked on Flutie Flakes. Now, he rides on a sea of Josh Allen coffee.
In between, his company, PLB Sports and Entertainment, has moved more the 25 million units of jock-branded food, from jars of [Jaromir] Jagr Creamy Peanut Butter to [Ed] McCaffery Rocky Mountain Mustard to [Michael] Peca’s Impeccable Pickles.
This year, amid the viewing feast that is the NFL playoffs, PLB adds to the sustenance and spice. Besides Allen’s medium roast coffee, known as JA’s 17 Blend, PLB’s current menu includes Ja’Marr Chase Uno Chips, Trevon Diggs Pick & Dip BBQ sauce, and Stefon Diggs’ Diggs 14 hot sauce and lemon pepper seasoning.
Over 26 years, the parade of crunchies and condiments has propelled the privately held PLB to annual sales “in the seven figures and hoping to be eight,” Ballou said, and steered $35 million to charity. But like many late-night pantry raids, the company’s origins arose from desperation and hunger.
In the early 1990s, Ballou, who has a background in food development, moved to Pittsburgh to become the head of sales for Clark Bar. The bar was low and sinking, but the city’s Penguins were flying. Out of other ideas, Ballou licensed the Pens logo and slapped it on the package. Pittsburghers snapped up 100,000 of them. Holy cow, Ballou thought, this could be something.
The following year he made a deal with Penguins’ star Mario Lemieux. The Mario Bar with No. 66’s NIL on it hit 300,000 in sales in Pennsylvania and Canada. The next year, as Reggie Jackson entered the baseball Hall of Fame, Ballou made a deal with Upper Deck to revive the Reggie! Bar and sold 500,000.
Ballou had seen enough. He left Clark and founded PLB out of his two-bedroom apartment, with one other employee and his wife doing the books. His first forays, a salsa and some mustards, floundered. “I don’t know if we were ever close to shutting it down, but our income was extremely modest,” he said.
Among those early struggles, he made a deal with Doug Flutie, who was famous in the States for his heroics at Boston College and in Canada for leading the Toronto Argonauts to consecutive Grey Cup titles in 1996 and ‘97. At the time, the Bills were struggling to sell out, so, Ballou says, owner Ralph Wilson signed the quarterback for ’98, hoping he would entice a few fans from up north to come to Buffalo.
“The deal was for 10,000 boxes, but they weren’t selling,” Ballou said. “I thought we were gonna get stuck with them, but Doug agreed to do a few sales calls, and they started to move.” Flutie’s son, Doug Jr., had been diagnosed with autism, and Flutie had started a foundation to support research. He suggested they attach the cereal to the foundation to help raise both awareness and money.
“It skyrocketed,” Ballou said. “Walmart picked it up, and it just kept going. It’s what put us on the map and put a little money in my pocket. It also gave us credibility with agents.”
PLB began cleaning up in the grocery aisles. Nolan Ryan Steak Sauce, [Adam] Deadmarsh Deli Dills and [Wayne] Chrebet Crunch followed, among dozens of others. The list of stars included Todd Helton, David Ross, Mike Alstott, T.O., Chad “Ochocino” Johnson, Hines Ward, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Carmelo Anthony to name a few.
Two key developments kept the cash registers ringing. The first came in when Ballou was looking for capital to expand. He’d had talks with VCs, but they hadn’t amounted to much, when two individuals approached him about buying the company. He instead sold them a 7% stake, which came with their expertise. “I know product development and retail; they’re good and e-commerce and really good at social media. Now, all our sales are in local markets and online, so it was a good fit.”
The next turn came after a call from WWE, which at the time featured a successful tag-team trio called New Day that used the name Bootyos. They wanted to develop a Booty-Os cereal. “I wasn’t sure about it, but I said yes because I wanted to establish a relationship with WWE,” Ballou said. “We couldn’t find anyone to sell it, until finally FYE, which isn’t even a food store, said they would take it and sell it at $12.95 a box. I thought it was the end of my career.”
Instead, the wrestlers got behind the brand, and the cereal even found its way into some WWE storylines. They sold 100,000 boxes. “That showed us people look at it as a collector’s item more than a food item, and we could sell for more,” Ballou said. “Most cereals sell for $4.99 a box, we charge $15 a box in a two-box pack.”
When it came to finding partners, there were patterns but no formula for success. “We look for great people who are doing great off the field,” Ballou said, although he also compared the process to fantasy football. “You’re looking at the player, but also the team, because he has to perform, and the team has to perform for it to work. If the Bills are 5-12, we aren’t having this conversation.”
For the actual products, PLB works with the athletes to arrive at something they like and that makes sense for them. “When Josh was doing a cereal, he liked a like a loop with the Bills colors, so Josh’s Jaqs are blue and red loops.” When they were developing the coffee, they gave Allen three or four choices, and he picked the one he liked. He chose well—Wegman’s is selling about 30,000 pods a week.
“We’re a product development company with a marketing arm,” Ballou said, adding that he works with manufacturers and processors that produce for many of the biggest labels. “Our goal is always to make something that’s on par with national brands,” he said.
For the athlete there’s little downside. They give their NIL, social promotion and time for a photo shoot, while PLB fronts the development, design, website and inventory. The marketing push includes point-of-sale displays, and social and radio blitzes. “We’re a small company,” Ballou said of his five-person team, “but we work with some of the biggest agents and athletes in the world. Everybody thinks it takes six- or seven-figure deals to get someone’s attention, but if you come to an agent with a proven idea that doesn’t have much downside, they’ll listen.”
Some of the more satisfying collaborations have included Kurt Warner’s Crunch Time, which sold 150,000 boxes at Hy-Vee stores, the same chain where Warner worked while waiting for his NFL chance. Mahomes Magic Crunch also stands out, not just because it sold 900,000 boxes in only 30 stores, but, Ballou says, the Kansas City quarterback donated every dollar of his share. “We don’t mandate that every product has a charity tie-in,” he says, “but we strongly encourage it.”
For 2023, PLB will again roll out 10 to 15 new products. Ballou is looking to expand Allen’s coffee line and dip into college NIL, and the company will roll out its first products tied to English soccer. “We’re profitable and expanding,” Ballou said. “This was a lark that turned into a successful business.”
It started in earnest with another Hail Mary from Flutie. Flutie Flakes has sold 3.3 million boxes, with $16 million going to his foundation. “Doug and I have become friends over the years,” Ballou said. “I saw him in Miami two years ago, and we just hugged. Who ever could have imagined?”
(This story was updated with a new photo.)