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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

How Steph Curry ‘Ruins’ the Investing Landscape

By displaying a unique prowess and an unparalleled feel for the flow of a game, Stephen Curry—who was once considered too small and too slight to be a dominant presence at the highest level—became the best NBA player of the past five years. His rise from a three-year player at mid-major Davidson is one of the most astonishing and fun-to-follow narratives in sports over the past decade. But like other NBA stars on the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes list—LeBronKDAndre Iguodala—Curry has an influence on American culture that will likely extend far beyond the realm of pro sports.

As a Golden State Warrior, Curry is situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, and he’s made a variety of inroads across multiple industries. Through his enterprising holding company SC30, Curry holds equity in companies like SnapTravel—where he was a lead investor—as well as the esports team Team SoloMid and the fast-rising e-commerce company Brandless. Curry’s deal with Under Armour more or less reinvented what was possible for a sneaker deal and forced brands like Nike to reconsider what they typically offer star athletes.

Something that distinguishes Curry from other athletes on this list is how involved his family is in what they participate in. While many athletes have leaped into the programming space, the Currys’ natural crossover feel for that world may turn out to be precocious. Ayesha Curry, Steph’s wife, already has a show on the Food Network, and Curry has a new show on Facebook Watch. Late last year, he signed an intriguing deal with Sony, a prescient pact that will allow him to option not only TV and movie projects but gaming and VR concepts as well.

While it feels slightly cheap to compare an athlete’s playing style to his investing approach, Curry’s outlook fits for a nice, narratively tight parallel. When Bloomberg asked Curry about his approach to business last year, he said, “I’ll call it ruining the game on the court, being disruptive, playing the game my way, my style. I wanna bring that same mentality to how we make sound judgments and investments.”

Curry and his family have positioned themselves as well as possible to dominate the next generation’s favorite forms of media. If you want to keep up with the Currys, a great place to start would be their fast-growing YouTube channel.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

How LeBron James Became a Generational Business Icon

When LeBron James left Cleveland to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the decision registered as a mild to medium surprise. After winning the NBA title with the Cavs in 2016—the city’s first pro sports title in more than 50 years—he’d made good on his return home and earned the freedom to continue his legacy elsewhere. But moving to L.A. had an interesting side effect when it came to the landscape of LeBron’s prolific career as a pro athlete: It illuminated his incredible sensibility as a businessperson and entrepreneur.

If we were to list every single interesting business transaction LeBron has made in the past couple of years, we’d be here all day. But here are a few highlights: He became a programming whiz, landing a docuseries on ESPN and a thrillingly incisive talk show on HBO. (He’ll also star in Space Jam 2, a movie that will begin filming this summer.) He made $35M on an investment in fast-casual chain Blaze Pizza. He founded a media company called Uninterrupted, a social media and editorial platform that immediately received a $15.8M investment from Warner Bros. Alongside longtime business partner Maverick Carter, he built the production company SpringHill Entertainment, which has about a dozen film and TV projects in production or in development, including a show inspired by Sixers All-Star Ben Simmons.

It’s easy to imagine LeBron cutting deals on his off days in L.A. in a group chat with entrepreneurial masterminds like Warren Buffett and Magic Johnson. Like Michael Jordan, he will likely always have a lucrative lifelong Nike deal. But above all else, LeBron has become the ultimate example of modern success in the increasingly lucrative pro sports environment. While he will make a lot of money directly from basketball contracts, it feels safe to say that amount will pale in comparison to what he will earn as a producer, creator and entrepreneur. (Forbes estimates that he’s worth about $450M now, and that number feels conservative, especially if his production company keeps generating business.)

LeBron has become an enormous role model to all pro athletes who hope to have compelling second (and third) acts. That success has flowed into the community as well. Earlier this year, he founded a public school, I Promise School, that takes a progressive approach to education and guarantees free tuition to the University of Akron for every student who graduates. LeBron has also been active with STEM initiatives at the University of Akron and elsewhere. 

LeBron was raised by a single mother in a two-bedroom apartment on the west side of Akron, Ohio, and now he’s one of our generation’s most visible and open-minded moguls. What’s more American than that? 

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Kevin Durant Owns ‘The Boardroom’

When Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016, the basketball reasons were fairly obvious. Two NBA titles later, Durant could end up signing again with Golden State this summer, or he could end up going somewhere else. But even if he does the latter, Durant’s business interests will keep him rooted in the Bay Area, thanks to his involvement with some of the startup world’s most prominent businesses.

Like his teammate Andre Iguodala, another member of our 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes list, Durant took advantage of the Warriors’ proximity to Silicon Valley. Alongside business partner Rich Kleiman, Durant founded Thirty Five Ventures. Together, Durant and Kleiman have invested in everything from delivery platforms like Postmates—which they bought into all the way back in 2015—to electric scooter startups like Lime. (This month, Lime announced another $310M in funding, bringing the company’s valuation up to $2.4B.) 

Durant is also paying close attention to, well, attention: Thirty Five has invested in social media–driven startups like Caffeine, Overtime and Hugging Face. Throw in a few investing apps for good measure, and it’s a very diversified portfolio.

Durant is also dipping his toes into programming through Thirty Five’s media branch. He’ll be the featured personality of ESPN+’s forthcoming The Boardroom. Durant is building a subscriber base for his YouTube channel and has assisted athletes such as Richard Sherman and Karl-Anthony Towns with their own channels. To cap off a busy year, Thirty Five sold a documentary series to Fox about basketball culture within San Quentin State Prison.

While Durant’s stature in the venture and production communities is remarkable, his latest direction might be the most exciting one yet. Over the past year, hehas focused on youth initiatives and education. In 2018, he donated $10M to the public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in order to build an aftercare center; the facility opened early in February 2019. In a partnership with American Family Insurance, Durant launched a YouTube project called “Dream to Achieve,” a docuseries that examines the next generation of entrepreneur.

KD might be in a different city next year—that will play out how it plays out. But he’s not going anywhere as an investor and builder of companies.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Alex Rodriguez Built a Fascinating Second Career

As an All-Star–caliber player for much of his career, Alex Rodriguez embodied financial success for a baseball player while still in his prime. His 10-year, $275M contract with the Texas Rangers stood as the all-time record for a single contract until recently. (Only Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325M deal beats it, for total money.) All of this is notable because, as a businessperson, it’s possible A-Rod’s entrepreneurial activity could eclipse those earnings.

While A-Rod’s visibility as an entrepreneur has increased substantially since his retirement from baseball, he’s been an active investor through his company, A-Rod Corp, since 2003. The group—which includes a capital management business called Monument and a construction company called Newport—specializes in real estate and construction investments with an eye on sustainable construction. (Last year, A-Rod Corp announced that it was the lead investor in Petros PACE Finance, an Austin, Texas-based company that helps fund clean-energy projects.) A-Rod Corp manages 13,000 units nationwide and also has a hand in building high-end gyms in Latin America.

A-Rod Corp has also placed a few bets on emerging markets, including the health-care startup Oscar, the esports team NRG (with fellow Entrepreneurial Athlete Marshawn Lynch) and the direct-to-consumer beverage brand Iris Nova. So it’s probably no surprise that he’s also been anointed by ONE37pm’sfavorite think tank—Shark Tank—as a semi-regular Shark. He’s got a feel for programming: Last year, he launched a podcast series with Barstool Sports, The Corp, which is a lighthearted take on corporate finance culture.

A-Rod has also kept his toes in baseball, both as a cable commentator and a special adviser to the Yankees. Of the athletes on our 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes list, A-Rod could very well be the next to spin the tires on team ownership. He’s invested smartly in real estate, while still showcasing an appetite for risk. He’s built an enviable path forward for other athletes to follow.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Colin Kaepernick Is Changing the World, Whether You Like It or Not

Colin Kaepernick’s impact on American culture can’t be overstated. His season-long protest of racism in 2016 essentially got him blackballed from the ever-conservative NFL, and it introduced him as a thoughtful leader and powerful activist. Kaepernick’s stand took on symbolic importance, and initiatives like “Know Your Rights” created positive impacts in marginalized communities nationwide. A partnership with Nike initiated a widespread national conversation that was instantly hailed as one of the most successful ad campaigns in years. 

Alongside activists like singer Harry Belafonte and director Ava DuVernay, Kaepernick inspired other prominent athletes to get involved. His voice motivated a number of successful fund-raising drives, including the Million Dollar Pledge, which donated money to 37 separate charities. While Kaepernick’s business experience is less traditional than that of some of the athletes featured in our 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes series, the fund-raising and activism platform he’s built has quickly become a force to be reckoned with. Even his silence is deployed strategically, and while Kaepernick became an important national voice almost overnight, his patience suggests he’s set up for the long haul.

With his “Know Your Rights” platform and his increasing stature in both the activist and athlete communities, Colin Kaepernick has the ability to get his message out to a wide audience instantaneously. By picking and choosing his spots, Kaepernick controls his message fully. It won’t be surprising when, one day soon, he translates his savvy sensibility into game-changing, socially conscious entrepreneurship.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Ninja Made Crazy Bank Last Year and He’s Not Slowing Down

Almost overnight, 27-year-old Tyler Blevins—who streams as Ninja—became a household name. Thanks to a record-breaking Twitch stream that featured Drake, Travis Scott and a few other notables from the worlds of music and sports, Ninja became one of the most influential voices in the streaming and gaming space. While cultural ubiquity came suddenly, Ninja had been grinding for almost a decade.

Ninja began his career as a competitive Halo 3 player, but by 2011, he found a competitive advantage over his peers. He began streaming his competitions and PUBG sessions, developing a rabid audience of paying subscribers. It was a prescient move and a lucrative dive into a new category. Much of Ninja’s income comes from streaming—anywhere from $500k a month to (shout out, Internet sleuths) much, much more than that. While Ninja is best known as a streamer and gaming influencer, he also plays with Luminosity Gaming, a prominent competitive gaming group.

As Fornite still isn’t showing any signs of slowing down as a cultural fad—see also: Epic Games’ recent valuation—Ninja is primed to capitalize even further. Streaming as a principal moneymaker can be grueling, so look for Ninja to partner with more brands and to utilize his visibility in the gaming landscape to host more events and tournaments. 

As gaming becomes more and more viable as a mainstream entertainment option, no one is set up better than Ninja, who will lead other personalities to increased cultural prominence. As more and more people learn about the gaming and esports space, Ninja’s career will serve as an interesting reference point. No one is earning more than Ninja—according to Forbes; his Twitch channel is more than twice as popular as the second most popular, Riot Games. No matter where gaming lands in cultural imagination going forward, Ninja’s success has set a precedent that others will follow.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Why Pokimane Is Leveling Up

As the race to capitalize on gaming culture escalates, gaming’s biggest personalities have separated themselves from the pack. While a lot of that attention has focused on Ninja, a Fortnite gaming influencer who has become a celebrity, plenty of other personalities merit wider exposure. One of those gamers is Imane Anys—also known as Pokimane—probably the biggest female gaming influencer in the world.

In a social media landscape that rewards users for being enterprising, few have played the game as well as Pokimane. She has 3.2M subscribers on YouTube and is a formidable League of Legends competitor. She has a partnership with the Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch—where she has over 8,000 subscribers, paying $4.99 a month—which named Poki their top streamer in 2018. Her appeal extends beyond gaming—her ASMR channel, POKI ASMR, has a half million subscribers. She has almost four million followers combined on Instagram and Twitter. 

As more and more money flows into the streaming industry, look for Pokimane to become not only an increasingly prominent figure in gaming but also in the wider pop culture: Above all else, a wide and fluid understanding of what audiences want. Recently, Twitch tapped her to host an event at the NFL’s Pro Bowl, introducing Pokimane as their public-facing representative toward a potential (huge) new audience.

The best for Poki may be yet to come.

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

Build Your Business Like Beckham

In 2007, English soccer star David Beckham—at that point one of the most recognizable figures in the world—made a surprising decision to join the Los Angeles Galaxy, a flagship franchise in Major League Soccer, America’s top pro league. Becks still had a few peak years left and could have remained in Europe, perhaps transitioning into coaching at a storied club like his generational peer Pep Guardiola.

Instead, he took his first steps to establish an even bigger legacy in the sport as an owner.

After his playing career ended, it wasn’t surprising to see Beckham pursue roles at the highest levels of soccer, whether it was with the rapidly expanding Chinese Super League or continued ubiquity in the sport, thanks to lucrative promotional deals with Adidas, Breitling and Coca-Cola. (He signed a lifetime contract with Adidas in 2003, ostensibly worth $160 million but most likely worth much more.)

Beckham, who always wanted a stake in his own MLS franchise, more or less wrote it into existence. As part of his contract with the Galaxy, Beckham requested an option to purchase an MLS franchise in the future for the predetermined rate of $25 million. In 2014, he exercised that option, and now Miami’s MLS team—Inter Miami—will begin to play in 2020. (For reference, Forbes recently valued champion Atlanta United at $330 million.) 

Beckham is well positioned to join the elite ranks of player-turned-owners like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and his foresight to include a purchase option may turn out to be the most entrepreneurial move of anyone on the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes list.

It’s yet to be determined just how large the audience for domestic pro soccer is in America; while no one denies the sport’s popularity is growing, the MLS markets are a little hit-or-miss. But when we do find out about soccer’s cultural potential, Beckham’s role as an owner and ambassador will be a major partof that discussion.

This piece is part of our monthlong series, featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Entrepreneurial Athletes Grind

How Maria Sharapova Built a Candy Empire

In her 20s, with a few Grand Slam titles under her belt, tennis star Maria Sharapova witnessed the importance and value of good branding up close, securing coveted sponsorships with Tag Heuer, Nike and Land Rover. So when she had the opportunity to start her own brand—the candy company Sugarpova—she plopped down the capital, which was about $500k.

The rest is history. 

Now, Sugarpova is a business with annual revenues in the $20M range—Forbes estimates the value of the company at around $195M. And as the brand continues to get picked up by big national chains, those revenue figures could easily swell; currently, the company has a distribution deal with Kroger and 7-11. In a small amount of time—Sharapova founded the company when she was 25—Sugarpova has become an incredibly formidable enterprise in a category.

During the height of her playing career, Sharapova was one of the biggest moneymakers on tour, owing to a big audience—for years, she was the most followed tennis player on Facebook until she was recently surpassed by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While a 15-month ban for taking an illegal substance momentarily dampened her appeal, Sharapova bounced back, securing a big endorsement campaign with Evian

In an interview with Fox, Sharapova talks about how her willingness to learn—and to then apply those findings to her company—has paid dividends. 

“When the [candy trend] started a few years ago, you saw companies going through that cycle and I’ve been through that process as well, saying, ‘OK, what mistakes have they done? And where can we improve our flavor from what they’re doing?’ I feel like I’ve let them make mistakes first.”

As someone who has made mistakes, and learned from them, Sharapova’s success has built a lane for other athletes to follow. Sugarpova could get even bigger—but for now, she’s biding her time.

“There’s definitely other categories that I’m interested in pursuing but that takes time,” Sharapova said. “but for now it’s going to [have] to stay in the candy sector.”

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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Dele Alli Is on His Way to Becoming a Gaming Legend

As a midfielder for the Tottenham Hotspurs, Dele Alli is a subtle, yet supernaturally savvy, stylist—you might not notice his impact until he’s taken off, and all of the sudden the team’s lines blend together much less seamlessly. Off the pitch, however, is a bit of a different story. He’s a natural pitchman, a side he’s showcased in his capacity as a spokesperson for BT Sport, Adidas, the gaming headset company HyperX and the English retail chain boohooMAN.

While all of that adds up to a lucrative side-hustle, that’s not the reason Alli is on the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes list. He’s on the list because he knows where attention in pro sports is going, and he’s making moves to capitalize on his stature in the sport.

Last summer, Dele created a goal celebration that became a viral fad; naturally, the phenomenon became the #DeleChallenge, and if you were someone who might be perusing a digital sports publication casually, it was unmissable. He leaned into it, which led to an increase in his footprint on social media. Since the challenge went wide, he’s added around two million Instagram followers in the past six months alone. 

However, Dele’s entrepreneurial enterprising only snowballed from there. He began to host gaming streams on Twitch for games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, capturing massive audiences immediately with the help of guest appearances by Tottenham teammate and England national team hero, Harry Kane. Watching Dele’s stream over the summer reminded me of Twitch’s own moon landing moment—it was engaging, fun to watch, and absolutely worth a small admission price. (Compared to personalities Drake and Juju Smith-Schuster, Dele is the much better gamer).

This visibility is what makes Dele one of the sports’ worlds most fascinating entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the space—as gaming becomes more and more mainstream, Dele already has a potentially lucrative niche carved out. Dele is only 22 and likely has a storied career in front of him, whether it’s at Tottenham or elsewhere in Europe. But as gaming culture continues to penetrate traditional sports culture, Dele may very well be remembered as a foundational figure. 

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.