A brand new game: for these athletes, entrepreneurship is the next playing field.

Author:Hughes, Alan

PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES SPEND THEIR LIVES HONING THEIR SKILLS TO PIT them against others during competition. Strenuous practices, strict diets, and arduous workout regimens are designed to ensure peak performance. Sadly, when the cheering stops and the last tip-off or snap of the ball is completed, many athletes find themselves without the skills needed to survive in the business world.

According to A Study of Players Who Left Professional Football in the 90s, 25.8% of the ex-NFL players polled said they experienced financial problems after retirement. In the 2002 survey, 37.3% said they could maintain their current lifestyle after their playing days. And while the average salary in major sporting leagues with prominent African Americans is still a tidy sum ($4 million in the National Basketball Association, $1.1 million in the National Football League, and $1.9 million for Major League Baseball), the average career span for professional basketball, football, and baseball is a mere 4.5 years, 3.2 years, and under five years, respectively.

A growing number of athletes, however, are finding continued success on a different playing field: entrepreneurship. From the Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, whose company licenses his name to Reebok and Starter, to the NFL's Cris Carter, who, along with his brother and business partner, John, aspires to own a professional sports franchise, BUCK BLACK ENTERPRISE will look at this growing trend and what it takes for athletes to score in the world of business.

Business is not a new game for black athletes. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson was a renowned entrepreneur who owned a Harlem nightclub in the '40s and '50s--a time when many African Americans were prevented from voting. The last 20 years or so have seen an explosion in the number of black sports figures who actively pursue business opportunities. While hard data is scarce, Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and author of Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies, cites a combination of four events that has given rise to entrepreneurship among athletes.

* An increase in salaries that began in the mid-70s led to athletes making more money at a time when people were becoming increasingly aware of investment opportunities.

* Increased media coverage of sports provided athletes with greater visibility and name recognition than past athletes. This self-branding can be transferred into business success.

* Sports has taken on more of a commercial appeal within the last decade or so as athletes realize their potential as business entities. "The leagues as well as the players are thinking of themselves as professionals in more than just a sports sense," says Coakley.

* Stories about past athletes who made bad investments or went bankrupt have been a lesson to athletes today looking to bolster their business and financial acumen.

While one of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face--access to capital--isn't as much of an issue for athletes, they, too, have their own set of obstacles. Since professional athletes spend much of their time on the road and are generally not as hands-on as the average entrepreneur, having the right people in place is essential. "I found early on that the key was to have good people and that my function was going to be to provide proper leadership, at least during the time I was playing football," says Dave Duerson, president and CEO of Duerson Foods L.L.C. A former safety for the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, Duerson's company supplies meat products to Burger King, Hyatt Hotels, White Castle, and Hardee's. Duerson projects 2002 sales to be approximately $24 million in 2002 and $51 million for 2003.

Another challenge unique to athletes is the stereotype that "dumb jocks" can't succeed in business. For African Americans, the challenge is two-fold when combined with racial stereotypes. "Being a black man in business is difficult in and of itself," says Duerson. "Being a black athlete in business is even tougher because I have to disprove this `dumb jock syndrome,' even with a Notre Dame degree. Being African American, we have to be great just to be considered good."

Athlete-entrepreneurs have several things in common, even while their choices of businesses vary. Generally, they are not earning tens of millions a year and opting for lucrative endorsement deals. As a rule, they are five to six years into their sports careers and have either settled down to start a family or suffered an injury that made them aware of the precarious...

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