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Why More Pro Athletes are Scoring Franchises After Sports Fame

From the NBA to the NFL and NHL, star athletes are aiming to win big in business as they look to their financial futures following sports.
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Jamal Mashburn had everything an athlete could dream of. During his 12 years in the NBA in the 1990s and early 2000s, "Monster Mash" was instrumental in turning around the Dallas Mavericks; he also set several scoring records and was even selected for the All-Star Game while playing for the New Orleans Hornets. But despite all that success, he couldn't stop thinking about briefcases.

"I was thinking about my exit even when I entered the league." --Jamal Mashburn Photo© Josh Ritchie

"Growing up in Harlem and riding buses, trains and cabs to get to school downtown, I was always curious about what was in the briefcases people were carrying," he remembers. "I always wondered, What are they doing? The people always seemed important and had direction and purpose. I grew up idolizing the briefcase. To me, it symbolized information and knowledge."

Because his father had been a professional boxer, Mashburn had few illusions about the life of an elite athlete when he was drafted by the NBA. Unlike many of his teammates, he recognized that his career was always just one injury or one bad season away from ending forever. So, instead of blowing money on cars and houses, he began buying franchises with a group of investors, including his old college basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, Rick Pitino.

Now, six years after his last layup, Mashburn has a briefcase full of contracts for 37 Papa John's, 34 Outback Steakhouses, three Dunkin' Donuts and the largest Toyota dealership in Kentucky. "I think I was a little bit of an anomaly, because I was thinking about my exit even when I entered the league. Most guys don't start thinking about that stuff 'til their seventh or even 10th year," he says. "They've been in the basketball industry since they were a young kid. It's all they know. And now they have to find something else, another passion."

The Stats
Mashburn is more of an anomaly than he knows. Roughly 60 percent of NBA players find themselves bankrupt five years after retiring, while 78 percent of NFL players are in financial trouble two years after taking off the pads, according to the NBA Players Association and Sports Illustrated, respectively. Poor financial literacy, bad investments, outright fraud and the common delusion that careers last forever have made some of the strongest humans on earth some of the most financially vulnerable.

While there's no magic bullet for the problem, Michael Stone, an NFL safety for seven years, is among those who believe the franchise world can provide former athletes a safe way to ease into their post-sports life. That's why he formed the Professional Athletes Franchise Initiative (PAFI), which in October 2011 signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Franchise Association. The goal is to educate pro athletes on franchising and to network them with franchisors. Athletes get a stable post-sports career; the companies get franchisees with deep pockets and built-in publicity.

"Just imagine if you were a doctor and spent all that time and money going to med school, but once you got your license, you had only four years to practice medicine. Then, overnight, everything you worked so hard to learn has no value," Stone says. "That's what athletes face. They have a few years to maximize a lifetime of preparation and training, because once it's gone, it's gone."

Stone believes franchising is uniquely suited to the skill sets of professional athletes. "It's a good fit, because franchising parallels sports," he says. "Athletes are executors. You follow prescribed movements put together by a coach and organization to win a ballgame. In franchising, you have the game plan and business model put together by the franchisor. Like an athlete, the operator has to come in and execute the plan."

Going Pro
There are no official statistics on how many sports stars have gotten in on the action, but there is growing evidence that athletes and franchising do mix. Jamba Juice recently signed a deal with tennis ace Venus Williams to open five stores in Washington, D.C. An investment group led by Super Bowl champ Keyshawn Johnson, along with NFL star Reggie Bush and other elite athletes, has opened Panera Bread franchises along California's central coast. And Junior Bridgeman, a Milwaukee Bucks stalwart, has parlayed his 12-year basketball career into a franchise empire that includes 162 Wendy's and 121 Chili's restaurants, bringing in $507 million in revenue per year.

PAFI does not aim to sucker athletes into blindly signing franchise agreements. Instead, Stone wants to create a community of educated athletes making smart financial decisions. He wants to build a trusted bridge between franchisors and the pros, who are often overwhelmed by con men, investors and family members trying to get a piece of their earnings. To that end, in the summers of 2010 and 2011, PAFI sponsored two-day education summits at which top names in the franchising world gave athletes a boot camp in the basics of franchising, helping them figure out the steps to take and the skills to develop in order to succeed.

"We're not concerned about getting guys to come to the summit and open a franchise, though we do have 28 brands that are charter members," Stone says. "We want to create a pipeline. Over the next five to 10 years we want to start a wave of successful athlete franchisees. It's always a stain on sports when guys retire into bankruptcy. We want a deep relationship with the NBA as well as the NFL. And we're pushing hard with Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, too."

Building a bridge to the pro leagues is not just a charity drive. Franchisors see athletes as prime candidates, since they typically have a large pool of investment cash, lack the expertise to start their own business from scratch and have large networks of friends in the same position. And pro athletes come with built-in marketing buzz. In a time when the credit crunch has hamstrung mom-and-pop investors, self-funded athletes or sports groups are a lucrative niche market for franchisors.

The Dallas-based Wingstop franchise knows firsthand the power of bringing pro athletes into its system. Troy Aikman, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and three-time Super Bowl champ, is an investor and sits on the board of directors, besides serving as the company's national spokesman. Wingstop markets its concept directly to athletes through franchise shows and networking, and now counts NFL players Raheem Brock, Willie McGinest and Ron Stone as franchisees.

Most recently, Milwaukee Bucks power forward Drew Gooden signed a deal to open four Wingstop restaurants in the Orlando, Fla., area. "I think the basketball strike really drove home for Gooden that his basketball career is going to be over someday," says David Vernon, the company's vice president of franchise sales. "He's a smart young man and brought onboard a partner with good casual-dining experience. The smart athletes know they have to bring on someone with expertise, especially if they're still focused on playing."

Angelo Crowell, a linebacker in the NFL for seven seasons before injuries ended his career, was interested in a more hands-on management approach when he opened his two Jersey Mike's Subs outlets in the Tallahassee, Fla., area. "I had heard all the horror stories about 80 percent of startup companies failing," he remembers. "With franchising you don't have to reinvent the wheel--you just roll the wheel."

When he found that Jersey Mike's had territories open near him, he knew it was a sign; he had more or less lived on the chain's Club Sub sandwich since his junior year in high school. And he's more than a passive investor. "I have two managers who run the stores on a daily basis, but I'm definitely involved in all operations," he says. "You'll see me behind the line sometimes. I'm the owner, but I'm also one of the best employees."

Crowell doesn't pine for his glory days in the NFL. "It's just as exciting being an entrepreneur and employing 50 people as it was playing football," he says. "It's more of a success story for me. I own my own corporation. The more people understand the work that goes into running these restaurants, the more they respect it. I see myself as a head coach and general manager of an NFL team, and my employees are my players."

Winning Strategy
Mashburn applauds other pro players moving into the franchise world, but warns that it's not some sort of plug-and-play cash machine. Owning a franchise takes just as much work as it took to reach the pros.

"I ask guys who are interested in franchising, ‘Did you wake up one day and put your name in the draft?' No, it was a process. You played in grade school, high school, college and, if you were lucky enough to be healthy after all that, you put your name in the draft," he says. "Guys miss how long my journey was to get to this point. They think they can just buy a franchise and make money. They might as well go buy a boat. You have to understand what you're getting into and to humble yourself to find people to mentor and educate you. I think guys who were pro athletes have trouble with the humility part."

Michael Stone agrees. "I think a lot of athletes want to retire and move into the corporate realm and come into an organization at a management position. But they're 30 years old and they've never been in a corporate setting. I understand the frustration these guys feel. They may have a great NFL résumé, but in reality that's just a big gap in their real résumé," he says. "My biggest piece of advice to athletes is to network. Get to know people in your community as your career comes to an end. Use that to gain experience and to grow."

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