Over the past few years, pro athletes have become a rising
presence in the franchise world. Many chains have made recruiting former
players a part of their game plan for expansion, hosting seminars and
networking events and offering support to get the stars up to speed on running
a business. More athletes, meanwhile, have gotten intrigued by the prospect of
running a franchise after seeing prominent names strike it big as owners.
Junior Bridgeman, formerly of the Milwaukee Bucks, has built up a portfolio of
companies that oversee hundreds of franchises, including Wendy’s, Chili’s
and Fannie May Fine Chocolates. More recently, current National Football League
great Peyton Manning has become a Papa John’s franchisee and pitchman.
The Postgame Show
The recruiting push is largely a result of the recent
recession, which drove banks to tighten lending standards, and made it tougher
for buyers to get the financing they need to buy franchises. Athletes bring
lots of capital to the table, as well as strong marketing power—an attractive
mix for franchisers. On the job, players can be good leaders and motivators,
and are used to working within a team and “following a playbook,” says John
Rotche, president of Title Boxing Club, which has screened more than 30 athletes
this year who are interested in becoming franchisees.
Many athletes face steep learning curve. Some, in fact,
can’t make the transition: Although franchises are reluctant to give examples,
they say some big names have flopped at running outlets. So, chains insist that
athletes or their management teams are rigorously trained and vetted, the same
as any other prospective owner.
Papa John’s says it has four current or former athletes as franchisees—Mr.
Manning, Mr. Mashburn, James Atkins and Jerome Bettis —and collectively they
run around 70 of the company’s pizzerias. The company required all of the
players, or their business advisers, to attend the same training sessions as
other owners, including an in-person visit to corporate headquarters plus a
two-week business-management overview.
Players can also get help outside of individual franchises.
The Professional Athlete Franchise Initiative, a program of the International
Franchise Association that helps players transition into a post-sports career,
is piloting a program where athletes get mentored by successful franchisees and
complete a yearlong business-education course and brief apprenticeship. The
biggest challenge is to better manage the athletes’ expectations.
Time in the Field
Brandon Gorin, a two-time Super Bowl champ, spent several
months in 2010 meeting with mentors before he settled on the idea that
franchising would be the best opportunity for him. He was attracted to having a
team behind him and not having to do a lot of creating himself or moving
around. He settled on Marco’s Pizza—in part because a friend’s brother owned a
location—and now owns four shops.
Mr. Gorin found he had certain skills that made for an easy
match, including time management and appreciating an organization’s structure. He
can also lend his star power to the brand; he helps oversee expansion and
development in the Indianapolis region, so he goes to support new owners during
openings. He acknowledges that there were difficulties, including making his
own decisions and moving the company forward as its leader.
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