Since 1905, when Honus Wagner struck a deal with Louisville Slugger in what is believed to be the first athlete sponsorship ever, the sports sponsorship model was built on having a well-known athlete endorse a product in exchange for cash compensation. Today, that traditional model is being flipped on its head as athletes are prioritizing ownership in businesses and investments over cash compensation today. Don’t get me wrong, the most well-known athletes today aren’t strapped for cash, rather they are supplementing earnings today with equity that can earn them money into perpetuity.
This is great news for athletes and marketing leaders alike. Ownership creates aligned incentives to ensure that athletes do all they can to support the businesses they are endorsing. Ownership also increases the likelihood that the athlete truly believes in the company they are endorsing rather than just collecting a paycheck. At Progage, we like to call this an authentic partnership.
Early examples of this include the late Kobe Bryant, Andrew Luck, and others investing in Body Armor rather than taking checks from the 800-pound gorilla, Gatorade. In fact, Kobe was one of the first athletes write the playbook for being an athlete-investor when he wrote a $6mm check to Body Armor that ended up netting his estate about $400mm when they sold to Coca Cola years later. Kobe was even known for pitching retailers himself and being highly active in helping Body Armor get off the ground during the business's early years. Body Armor has an excellent blog post about Kobe’s involvement here.
Recently, Lionel Messi launched his own venture capital firm in San Francisco, the hub of startups in the world, even though Messi doesn’t even speak fluent english. This can be seen as a testament to the importance of being around early stage companies with high growth potential as athletes look for their next challenge to conquer.
Chris Hemsworth launched (and just sold) Centr.
Conor McGregor launched (and sold) Proper 12 Whiskey.
Serena Williams launched a venture firm, Serena Ventures and has invested in over 65 startups (and counting).
Miles Teller and Rickie Fowler, among many others, are investors in and co-owners of Long Drink.
LeBron James has invested in Tonal, Blaze Pizza, the Boston Red Sox, and Liverpool FC, and he started SpringHill, Uninterrupted… and Ladder. He has been incredibly active in the business world, and these examples don’t even include his incredibly lucrative sports deals with companies such as Nike.
Patrick Mahomes invested in the Kansas City Royals, Sporting KC, 30 Whataburger locations, Whoop, Hyperice, Airshare and several other ventures.
Interestingly, even the NBA and the NFL have launched their own startup investment funds.
Of course there are many more examples that I did not list here, but when many of the world’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are doing something, it’s usually a signal of one thing: there is money to be made there.
Athletes are realizing the value in prioritizing ownership over cash. It can be higher risk, but recently athletes like Chris Pronger have highlighted how quickly cash can run out for even the highest paid athletes (Chris made over $100mm in his NHL career). With expensive cost of living, constant training, dieticians, travel, and a lavish lifestyle, millions of dollars can evaporate quickly, especially when an athlete’s career comes to an end and the checks stop flowing. Ownership in the form of equity allows athletes to build generational wealth using the leverage that is most potent while athletes are in their prime – their influence.
Athletes are teaming up with powerful operators and then relying on their personal brands to boost these businesses. And it’s working. Athletes are incentivized to work hard for their investments because their potential gains aren’t capped like they are with cash compensation deals, and operators are incentivized to create innovative solutions that have the opportunity to generate incredible returns. It’s a win for the athletes and operators alike, and the main question for both parties becomes how to take advantage.
As the landscape continues to shift, it will continue to be important for businesses to keep top athletes incentivized in the right way to maximize the value that comes from partnerships. For athletes, the push for ownership over short term cash will continue to be vital for financial success.
If you’re a business owner or a marketing leader, there is no single way to attract athlete partnerships. You need to be focused on building a great company that can generate huge financial returns before anything else, so that once you’re connected with an athlete they are excited to be a part of what you are building. If you are a business owner or marketing leader who wants to discuss athlete partnerships, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to set up a call to learn more about your business and help you brainstorm how you may be able to attract athletes and then use them to launch your business.
Progage came to life in early 2021, when NFL football player Kaden Smith and entrepreneur Kyle Fenner came together to create a sports marketing agency focused on helping brands win via creative storytelling and social media marketing.