The elite sportsperson as entrepreneur? It’s hardly a stereotype we normally apply to the world’s top football, basketball, rugby or tennis stars. We, the public are often quick to judge our sporting heroes, but rather than praise them for their achievements we’re often more likely to accuse them of being overpaid, spoilt, arrogant or living in a bubble, unwilling to engage with the real world and the real suffering that is happening around them.
In many ways it’s ironic that we don’t begrudge a straight As student the right to take their pick of the best universities, followed by the top jobs, and then look on as they achieve promotion after promotion, until they are able to retire in comfort and reflect happily on a career lived largely away from the limelight, that has brought them many of the best things that life can offer.
Contrast that with the life of a professional sportsperson who has been plucked from obscurity because they possess a unique talent. From the very beginning their hopes hang by a thread. They mustn’t get injured, they must forfeit their education, friendships, the community they grew up in, instead fighting every minute of every day to be the best at what they do. Because their careers are short, there is no time to stop and smell the roses; instead they preside over a vast network of dependents; families, agents, coaches, teams, journalists, fans and sponsors.
Another stereotype that is often wrongly applied to sportspeople is that they are all brawn and no brain. But let’s take a moment to consider that. In his book Stillness and Speed Denis Bergkamp talks about the countless hours he spent as a child, usually on his own, kicking a football against a garage door in the backstreets of Amsterdam over and over, experimenting with the different kinds of spin he could put on the ball. His dedication to the physics of football from such an early age meant that he was able to delight millions of fans throughout a stellar career, before retiring and taking a job as a coach, passing on the benefit of his knowledge to a new generation of hard working stars-in-the-making.
Zinedine Zidane was so talented and exceptional that one filmmaker decided his work on the football field constituted nothing so much as a work of art, filming him and only him for an entire match and releasing the footage to universal acclaim. Whatever you might think of him as a person, Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s autobiography has inspired a generation of athletes for whom football is a saving grace that keeps them away from a life of crime and moral deterioration. Didier Drogba is renowned for his charity work and diplomatic influence in his native Ivory Coast and throughout Africa, and away from football, countless elite sportspeople contribute as much as any politician to the moral fibre and wellbeing of societies that have often been guilty of making them feel like outsiders.
So it seems reasonable to argue that sportspeople aren’t dumb, but pressure can do funny things to you. The money that sport at the top level attracts brings with it the worst kind of hangers-on; false friends, an unwanted entourage, bad agents and corrupt practices. Some call it a “circus”. Isn’t it time we called it by its real name: a business?
Sport will always to a certain extent be about death or glory, pushing yourself to the limit, and blood, sweat and tears. But surely as a society we have matured enough to look beyond the agony and give elite sportspeople the chance to look after themselves and their families after the contest is over? It’s pretty tragic to read that nearly half of all NBA athletes are bankrupt within 3 years of retirement, or to pick through the grisly details of a professional athlete’s alcohol induced breakdown, separation from their families or social ostracism. No athlete that has entertained hundreds of thousands of fans should ever have to sign up to that.
One athlete that has been vocal about the problems that a lack of education about how to look after themselves financially and avoid the scams and bad investments that we seem to regard as de rigour for athletes to be subjected to is former France and Manchester United footballer Louis Saha. Fortunately for Louis, just a few weeks after injuries forced him to retire his wife introduced him to Patrice Arnera, an IT and contract management specialist with 15 year’s experience of working with cutting edge technology such as that provided by Salesforce, a company which has been so successful it is now mentioned in the same breath as super star tech pioneers like Apple and IBM.
Patrice and Louis are both ideas people, their wives had concluded, so maybe they could work together? The result is Axis Stars, which has given birth to the groundbreaking idea of treating sportspeople less like playthings, and more like entrepreneurs. Like many great entrepreneurs, sportspeople earn their money young, and like many great entrepreneurs, they make bad mistakes. Mark Zuckerberg may be revered now, but he was reputedly no angel when the first big pay cheques began to drop through his letterbox.
Axis Stars is a networking platform for elite sportspeople that allows them to manage their contracts, sponsorship deals and agents and indulge themselves too with sports cars and private jets if they want to (some things will never change). Joining Axis Stars also gives them access to mentors, opportunities to get involved in charity work and community projects, good advice, and information, such as FIFA guidelines on signing contracts, that will help to keep them on the straight and narrow. Axis Stars have pledged to vet every athlete, agent and sponsor to join the network, and participants will be able to rate the services they provide. Bad apples, it is hoped, will be quickly shown the red card.
It’s all about giving young, headstrong and relatively naive athletes a chance to think of themselves as business people, not objects of ephemeral adoration. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that giving a teenager with no education millions of pounds in wages is going to lead to disaster. So the business case is pretty clear; let’s look at the financials. The global sports industry generated more than $130bn in revenues in 2013 and is defying current market trends by growing at a rate of 8% year on year. Louis and Patrice are projecting cumulative revenues, based on subscription fees, sponsorships and contract commissions of €90m by year 5 of the business based on 8.5k athletes signing up to the service (there have been 200 sign-ups to date) and total revenues of $34.5m driven primarily by e-commerce and sponsorships.
The team hope to release version 3.0 shortly featuring a fully native iOS and Android Axis Stars branded solution. Another key element of the business model is a partnership with FIFA TMS whereby all FIFA contracts will be delivered via Axis Contracts. Global stars already signed up to the platform include ex-footballers Didier Drogba, Gary Neville and Mikael Silvestre, tennis star Gael Monfils, France and Toulon rugby player Frederic Michalak and Basketballer Boris Diaw. The Axis Stars advisory board also includes lawyer Bijan Sedghi and marketing consultant Mike Farnam who has worked with Manchester United and the Jordan and Williams F1 teams.
The team are attempting to raise $4m to fund expansion which includes integration of the FIFA TMS project, on-boarding of players, agents and sponsors, and expansion of the ecommerce capability in a fully branded solution across all digital channels. Between them, Louis and Patrice have already invested $700k as of their own money as well as €300k in sweat equity.
Both founders have worked hard to arrive at the position they are in now and the business model and plans for expansion are consistent with any young and ambitious start-up from any other industry. This one just happens to be for elite sportspeople, fully integrated with Salesforce using a solution provided by Apptus, the high-growth contract management start-up who recently raised nearly $80m to fund expansion. At its most basic level, Axis Stars is simply a good idea being well executed by 2 passionate founders with a humble approach to growing a business, which means raising funds from business people, not former teammates or young stars.
Sportspeople give everything for the best years of their lives, partly for themselves, partly for the team, partly for their families and loved ones, and partly for their fans. In the past year we have witnessed the deaths of 2 young rugby stars as well as Australian cricketer Philip Hughes, tragically cut down in his prime. Michael Schumacher lies in a coma in a French hospital whilst fellow F1 star Jules Bianchi may never recover from an accident which has also left him in a long term coma. These are the kind of risks that sportspeople take every day of their working lives, and a large part of why they earn what they do. It’s thrilling to watch athletes push themselves to their limits. What is not thrilling is watching them self-destruct when they are well past their prime, due to financial or other non-sports related issues.
It’s easy to roll your eyes, point to fortunes won and lost, sigh and say “boys will be boys”, “she had it coming”, or “it’s a different world”, but it isn’t and as a society we are better than that. We need to clean up the financial side of the sports business and take responsibility for the education of those who gave us so much pleasure as their stars burnt so brightly for a few glorious years. The days of death or glory are over. If you want to watch someone’s life ripped apart, go to the movies.