In the major American professional sports leagues, athletes in 2016 are making more money on average than any other time in history. Even by slightly dated figures, the average player will make several million dollars in a short period of time. Of course, how athletes invest the quickly-acquired money is still a matter of debate. And when it comes to investing in startups, there are surprisingly few recognizable sports names.
Considering the power that athletes have in their ability to reach fans, the lack of athlete-backed venture capital becomes that much more perplexing. On social media, superstar players are able to quickly get a message to millions of fans. Tom Brady, for example, recently had a Facebook post shared more than 49,000 times. That, added with the financial capacity, makes an athlete an ideal early backer for a startup.
So, why aren’t more involved?
CoachUp founder and president Jordan Fliegel and Bevy co-founder and CMO Nancy Smith–who both have connections to athlete investors–each spoke with BostInno about why there aren’t more athletes in the startup investor field. Also, they spoke about how it could potentially change in the future.
“There should be more people like Steph Curry and Shane Battier who get it and fully leverage not just their name and their reach but also their capital to help grow good businesses,” said Fliegel. Curry partnered with CoachUp in 2015, embracing the private coaching company due to his own history with the concept. Battier has been more involved in the startup community since retiring from the NBA in 2014.
And for Smith, she’s had great connections with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo (past and present Patriots).
“What struck me initially was how smart they both are,” Smith said about working with the two defensive stars. “The understanding that football is a career with a limited amount of time. As a player, your window is not a 20 year career. They’re both smart in knowing what they want to do long term and what they don’t want to do long term.”
The problem is that most athletes aren’t as shrewd in their investments as players like Wilfork and Mayo. Fliegel broke down the usual issue:
They’re interested in their retirement savings and real estate and other types of investments. The leagues have started to do a better job of educating the athletes in managing their money, but they’re not inclined to suggest that you should put money into a startup. It’s viewed as sort of high risk.
Since the average top league player (who will generate a few million over the course of three to four seasons) won’t make a tremendous amount of money when compared to what’s needed over decades, caution is the dominant financial strategy.
This also stems from who athletes are typically surrounded by.
“I think a lot of blame also goes to the agents. The agents and the money manager, which is typically different from the agent,” Fliegel explained. “So the agent’s job, once they get the athletes and their getting typically three to five percent every year of that athlete’s salary is to do everything he possibly can to hold onto that athlete as long as that athlete’s playing. And they don’t want to risk anything that might not work out.”
Of course, that makes perfect sense. Why take any chance at all of losing your client’s money, especially if it means that your job will be put in danger by an investment like that:
Why would an agent ever recommend an athlete to a startup? They don’t. The money manager is the same thing. They’re a professional money manager because they’re safe, because it’s always going up. And if the business fails, and the athlete knows it, even if eight fail and two succeed and the athlete makes money on the two, in athlete’s mind they recommended eight things that failed. And they go somewhere else. So they’re also playing the long game.
Given these obstacles, it seems difficult to imagine a major switch in how many athletes are backing venture capital. That said, Fliegel and Smith are see a more prolific path as being a possibility.
“(Athletes) definitely understand that it’s a risk, but that it’s a good calculated risk,” said Smith.
And Fliegel even sees a specific model for getting more athlete investment:
You have to create a system where those types of deals, where the athlete has to spend a little bit of money so the startup can say the athlete’s an investor, and in exchange they also do a little bit of social and PR promotion. That turns out to be a pretty good deal. And it’s not just athletes, I think it’s celebrities in general. But they’re getting essentially a discount on their investment vs. everyone else in the round in exchange for leveraging their brand on social, which makes them look good.
The most important factor, undoubtedly, has to be that an athlete has a personal belief in the company.
“They do it because they believe in what we’re doing,” Fliegel says of the players involved with CoachUp (like Curry and Patriots receiver Julian Edelman).
Smith also took this viewpoint, citing the early interest that Wilfork and his wife, Bianca, took in Bevy.
“They were very excited about investing in what we were doing because it was a very real problem that they had,” Smith said. “So they were like ‘this is the kind of thing that gets us excited, you’re answering a real need and a problem.’”