How Bobby Wagner Became The NFL’s MVP Investor [WAAMN Chapter 4.5]
The legendary linebacker followed the blueprint of musicians like Jay-Z to build what might be football's best startup portfolio.
This is your weekly installment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future serializations, subscribe here. Below you’ll find Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 5). Enjoy!
There are days you’ll remember, and then there are days you’ll never forget. For Bobby Wagner, one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, March 8th of 2022 was definitely the latter.
That’s when the Seattle Seahawks traded his longtime teammate Russell Wilson and dropped Wagner, the longtime anchor of their defense, in a subsequent cost-cutting move (suitors across the league immediately lined up to court him).
That same day, Wagner settled into a room full of venture capital giants at an investor day hosted by Marcy Venture Partners and its founder, Jay-Z.
“It was a moment for me, because a door—the place that I played for a long time—was kind of shutting,” Wagner tells me over the phone. “But you know, I’m sitting there and I’m looking at some amazing investments that have the potential to do really well. And it kind of just reminded me about my ultimate goal: wanting to play the game for the love of it versus the money. And so, part of that is making sure a you’re taking care of your finances.”
To be fair, Wagner’s ability to do that has long rivaled his prodigious on-field talent. He negotiated his own $54 million contract in 2019 with the Seahawks, making him the highest-paid middle linebacker in the league. But his off-field financial options are a whole new ballgame.
Celebrities have been pouring cash into startups for years, particularly those close to the action in California, from Ashton Kutcher to Joe Montana, as I detailed in my book A-List Angels. And Wagner, a big music fan, watched with keen interest as some of hip-hop’s top names made the move into the startup world alongside athletes he deeply admired.
“The two people that I looked up to the most when it came to sports and entertainment were Magic Johnson and Jay-Z,” says Wagner. “Watching both of them kind of use their platform—and use their talents in a different space to open the door for something else—was something that I saw. … It inspired me to [consider]: What does that look like on my end?”
For Wagner, the blueprint looked a little different than it did for Joe Montana, a national star who played most of his Hall of Fame career as the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback. When Wagner started investing, he was already an all-world defensive player, but not quite so recognizable, playing on a team far from the tightly-linked communities of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Fortunately, two years after joining the Seahawks, Wagner went to a financial seminar for athletes and met investor Robert Nelsen, who offered him a chance to invest a five-figure sum in biotech startup Denali Therapeutics. Nelsen told Wagner he’d donate the same amount to charity if the company went under. No matter: Wagner’s investment quickly tripled in value, and after a 2017 IPO, Denali boasts a market cap of $4 billion.
“If I failed, I would learn from why it didn't work,” Wagner remembers thinking. “And if I succeeded, I would learn from why it succeeded. And so, to me, it was win-win.”
Wagner has been building his portfolio as an angel investor ever since. In recent years, he continued to follow the musical blueprint by plowing cash into Andreessen Horowitz’s Cultural Leadership Fund alongside hip-hop legends including Nas and Diddy. These stars all get a chance to get into the firm’s hottest investments early, and then make them even more valuable by strategically applying their stardust, both in making connections behind the scenes and in publicly boosting user-hungry consumer-facing startups.
Diversification is crucial, as most fledgling companies—even the ones with famous backers—don’t make it. So Wagner has also invested with a range of other venture firms, including Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, which has raised hundreds of millions to fuel brands like catering upstart Hungry and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty.
Wagner has taken a step further with Seattle-based firm Fuse, where he started off as a venture partner before morphing into more of an operational role. That means he’s not just writing checks and attending the occasional gathering, but sitting in on partner meetings, listening to pitches, reviewing every company Fuse considers, and actively working to help them win deals with in-demand startups.
“At some point you gotta get your hands dirty,” he says. “At some point you gotta not be afraid to make mistakes, and not be afraid to go for it.”
To that end, Wagner remains committed to negotiating his next contract himself, too. Wherever he ends up playing next year—his list of possible destinations seems to include half the teams in the NFL—Wagner says Seattle will always feel like home, and business will keep him coming back. But the profile he’s built as one of the NFL’s most prolific investors means he can ply his startup trade from anywhere.
Now Wagner is looking to the next generation of musicians for inspiration. The Los Angeles native cites Kendrick Lamar and longtime manager Dave Free, as well as the late Nipsey Hussle, among those who’ve inspired him to think outside the box and use his platform for good.
Every NFL player has to decide “what life after football looks like for you,” he says. “I found peace in knowing that, whenever I decide to walk away from the game, I found the passion of mine that I look forward to committing to—whenever I choose to.”
But first, Wagner has some unfinished business: negotiating his next contract himself, and writing the next chapter of his Hall of Fame career on the field.
You just read Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 5), a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. Subscribe here. For more, check out my other books and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.