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Leon C. McKenzie: When Professional Athletes Need Loans, They Look To The Man Behind Sure Sports Lending

Tyler Endebrock



This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration

By Tyler Endebrock, @tjendebrock


Leon C. McKenzie, President and Founder of Sure Sports Lending

Leon C. McKenzie, President and Founder of Sure Sports Lending

When you walk into a lending company’s office, you would not often expect to see walls full of signed NFL and NBA jerseys, hear ESPN’s “First Take” in the background or watch a 6-foot-10-inch NBA power forward taking pictures with the company’s employees. However, on any given day in the Sure Sports Lending (SSL) office, you might see just that. Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Leon C. McKenzie, President and Founder of SSL, to discuss his journey to creating one of the most niche loan practices in the country.

McKenzie attended West Chester University of Pennsylvania, not far from where he grew up, and received his finance degree before heading 25 miles east to Villanova for his MBA. His father was a high school math teacher, which led McKenzie to initially try his hand at teaching. It took no time for McKenzie to realize his passion was in money.

“I started out as a secondary education major in college, and I quickly found out I like money a lot more than I like kids. After school, I worked as a financial analyst for a couple of large real estate companies, and then I was given the opportunity to work for a bank that was doing large loans within commercial real estate. I learned a lot about the credit side, but I don’t think I was ever really built to be a banker. The nine to five banking stuff just wasn’t my jam, since I always had ‘the party starts when I get there’ mentality, so I went out on my own for a little bit and kind of bounced around doing some consulting projects.”

“Shortly after moving to South Florida, I was approached by a professional athlete who needed a loan, and he was having a hard time getting it through the banks. By complete accident, I was able to put together an extremely sound structure for banks to be able to loan money to athletes. After about three months of work, I got the athlete a $2 million loan based on this structure.”

Athlete lending was not a thought of McKenzie’s when he first entered the financial world. When McKenzie was younger, he aspired to be a professional athlete. Once he realized he had no professional future playing sports, he always thought of sports as just entertainment. However, when he met his then girlfriend, now wife, he told her he would enjoy finding a way to combine his two loves: money and sports. As McKenzie looked more into it, he saw the athlete lending industry was incredibly under-serviced. He had a vision to show that athletes are regular people too, and they need loans just as much as anyone else.

“In my banking meetings I often tell the bankers, ‘Athletes are like strippers: They are great to look at, but no one wants to do business with them.’ People love to go and watch their buddy play football and then go have a drink with him in the VIP section, but once the player says, ‘Hey, I want to buy a house,’ their ‘friend’ wants nothing to do with them. That sort of negative perception has catapulted our business. Banks have always had the capability, but not the wherewithal, and certainly not the appetite, to loan money to athletes. This changed for us, since now we have banks that want to do business with us.”

McKenzie’s vision started to become a reality, and he began creating a company that would underwrite loans to athletes, based on the athlete’s contract. Depending on the loan request and how quickly the player needs the loan, the entire process can reach completion in as little as 72 hours through private investors. If the priority of the loan is cost rather than time, the loan process reaches completion in about a week through a bank (McKenzie discusses both the private investor and bank loan processes later in the interview). Under McKenzie’s tutelage, the company continues to try and perfect their craft each day.

“The goal was always to be the lowest-cost provider for a loan. Now, the goal is to be the best, fastest and cheapest provider of loans to athletes. Prior to the economic downturn, and before I incorporated my company in 2009, banks would throw money to anyone. However, athletes were still borrowing from predominately private lenders at 18 to 34 percent. I remember on my second or third loan, the player took my loan package to a banker, but the banker wouldn’t accept it and said, ‘This is too good to be true.’”

“People think athletes don’t need to borrow money because they don’t fit into the conventional lending guidelines, but that’s not the case.”

— Leon C. McKenzie

McKenzie credits strong planning and a good amount of luck to starting his business at the time that he did. Real estate investors and displaced bankers were standing on the sidelines with money to invest, and they were looking for high returns. He was approached by multiple investors interested in lending to athletes for around 30 percent.


Leon C. McKenzie with TV personality and former NFL player Merril Hoge at the Sure Sports Lending Annual NFL Combine Cocktail Party.

Leon C. McKenzie with TV personality and former NFL player Merril Hoge at the Sure Sports Lending Annual NFL Combine Cocktail Party.

“I did one at 24 percent, and I showered for about a week straight afterwards because I felt so dirty. It was terrible, so I tried to build up my bank network, while also having some private investors. That’s when I really started what came to be our current business model. We found about three to five different banks in every sports city, which were banks that had 3–10 branches per bank. They are just big enough that it isn’t like you are walking into someone’s living room, but they are small enough where I could meet with the bank president and the credit officer. It is great because the athlete is doing a lot of good for that bank, and then he is treated like family when he comes in.”

“The big missing piece for these loans was insuring the contract, and now we have three or four main insurance companies for the loans. These smaller community banks are comfortable working with our insurance companies. Now we have a network of almost 175 banks, so when a player needs a loan right away, we can get him his money from our investors, then get him into a bank soon thereafter at a better rate. Our average loan rate for all the players we have done in the last year is at about seven percent. Even if they need the money right away, we can get them a maximum 12 percent annual rate with our investors, then get the loan refinanced three weeks later with one of the banks.”

McKenzie is very happy with the amount of sophistication the company has added to the loan process just in the past few years. He credits the smoothness of the process to his current team and the talent he continues to bring in to the office. They have everything down to an exact science, and they even have contests to see if the loan closing can finish faster than the previous one.

SSL now provides loans to NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS players. However, it is not often that the company gets a “lead” from the athlete himself. SSL mostly works with financial advisors, agents, business managers, etc. to get the athlete the money they need.

The company can provide pre-draft loans to NFL and NBA athletes (they are working on fine-tuning pre-draft loans for MLB) who need the money to train and get their lives in order before they sign with a team. The pre-draft loan amount is determined by the player’s projected draft slot from multiple draft boards. Once a player signs a professional contract, they can come to SSL to get a contract loan, based specifically on that player’s unique contract. The company also created the “McKenzie Mortgage,” which gives players the chance to receive a favorable mortgage (up to 110 percent financing) on their home, even when they are not getting paid. If the player is not getting pay checks until the season starts, he does not have to make payments on the loan until then.

To initiate the entire loan process, SSL needs to have the player’s contract, which they hand over to Darren Heitner and Alan Wilmot at Heitner Legal to examine the contract and make sure there will be no issues. Based on the contract examination, a player can borrow up to 30 percent of a guaranteed contract and 10 percent of a non-guaranteed contract. Once the contract is examined, SSL starts the underwriting process by customizing the term sheet depending on the contract. They request documents from the athlete such as pay stubs, tax forms, bank statements, driver’s licenses or even a 4506T in place of tax returns.

SSL will then decide if the loan needs to be done in-house or with a bank. If it is the latter, SSL will utilize one of its affiliated banks in the player’s city they are playing, or where they grew up/played college ball, so they have a connection to that bank. From start to finish, SSL can close a loan with a bank in about a week, and they have the ability to close anywhere in the country via webcam.

McKenzie understands that there is somewhat of a negative stigma with athletes needing loans and lending companies providing those loans. To that, he says there are a host of reasons to have athletes take out loans. One, these loans are a way for kids coming right out of school to build credit. Two, he believes that players should let their cash work for them and outperform what they are paying for interest. He mentioned there is a soft-spot in his heart for helping kids who did not have much money growing up.

“Executives in media companies making $500,000 per year can walk into a car dealership and buy a $200,000 car, no problem. We have athletes signing a four-year, $40 million contract out of college, and if they want a $200,000 car, they need to walk into the dealership with $200,000 cash. So what happens is these guys, who don’t know any better or weren’t raised in that environment, will go in with a wad of cash to buy a $200,000 car. It’s frustrating that these kids are making money, but they have to carry loads of cash to buy anything. I want to see people getting out of that mentality and building credit. It is dangerous to carry cash like that, and building credit is much better for these kids in the long run.”


Leon C. McKenzie and his SSL team have found their niche and excel at it in the #sportbiz.

Leon C. McKenzie and his SSL team have found their niche and excel at it in the #sportbiz.

“People also don’t seem to understand that this is just like any other job. You don’t walk in, finish the interview, get the job offer and get cash slid across the table to you. You leave with the same amount of money you came in there with. Some leagues may provide moving stipends for the players, but most of these kids make money only during the season. When they aren’t making money, especially before they begin their careers, they need these loans to get by and live the life they want. When athletes like LeBron James or Dwayne Wade already have accumulated assets, everyone wants to be their banker. The hard part of banking is taking them through their career while they are earning their money.”

“I like to brag about having four rookies per year over a two-year period, and it’s very rewarding for me to help these guys out. And these guys are good. SSL’s all-star team would beat most agent’s all-star teams, and pick any sport you want. These are good players, and it’s easy to see what’s on the come, but our loans are not speculative. Our loans are paid off on what’s known. The opportunity to be a banker and help these players work through is why these community banks we work with are killing the big banks. Three years after the initial loan, the player has his $600,000 loan paid off, with $2 million in the bank, and knows everybody in that bank. It wasn’t until 2013 or 2014 that I saw how much these loans meant to both the player and the bank, and watching the relationships evolve is incredible.”

For McKenzie, another rewarding part of this business working with international players and forging relationships with their agents to allow the players to have money once they come to the States. Most banks do not understand the process for players coming into this country to play sports, but SSL is able to help the players get money that no one else could get them, just by having the patience to work on all the waivers needed.

As far as the future of the company, McKenzie says the sky is the limit. They have seen a huge growth in the McKenzie Mortgage, and they have also seen a huge spike in business loans to the athletes, such as start-ups and investments. They are beginning to tap other markets, and they are taking away the $75,000 minimum loan requirement for MLS, which they hope will continue to add to their strong relationship with the soccer leagues, including the English Premier League.

“Right now, I’m proud to say we are heads and shoulders above the competition, and it is my goal to figure out how to keep that lead and expand on it.”

Front Office Sports would like to thank Leon C. McKenzie for taking the time to share his knowledge of the sports lending industry and his journey. You can find him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter.

To learn more about Sure Sports Lending, please visit their website at to further understand the athlete lending process, read case studies about SSL and read up on Leon’s non-profit public charity called the McKenzie Promising Futures Fund. If you would like to follow SSL on social media, check them out on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

This interview was presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration

Tyler is a contributor with FOS. He recently graduated from the St. Thomas University School of Law, where he received a joint JD/MBA in Sports Administration degree, and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida. He has held positions with Select Sports Group, Sure Sports, the University of Florida Athletic Association, Gatorade, and more. Tyler can be reached at


How The UNC Tar Heels Organized Roy Williams’ Court Dedication

To celebrate the dedication of Roy Williams Court, UNC staff were tasked with putting together a special reunion dubbed Carolina Family Weekend.

Front Office Sports




via UNC Basketball

(*Teamworks is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

The history of the NCAA Tournament can’t be told properly without the inclusion of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels and head men’s basketball coach Roy Williams. Now in his 16th season as Tar Heels head coach, Williams has guided UNC to five Final Fours and three national championships alongside a host of individual coaching awards.

To honor Coach Williams and his impact on UNC basketball, the university dedicated the court inside the Dean E. Smith Center to him with a ceremony in August of 2018. To celebrate the occasion, men’s basketball staffers were tasked with putting together a special reunion dubbed Carolina Family Weekend that included hundreds of UNC’s greatest players from Williams’ time as a student, assistant coach, and head coach in Chapel Hill as well as the current team and members of Williams’ family. This mainly fell on the shoulders of administrative assistant Cynthia Friend and business operations/special events manager Kaye Chase.

READ MORE: Mississippi State Volleyball Camps Run Efficiently While Building for the Program’s Future

To help notify all the invitees about the event and maintain their contact information, Friend and Chase needed an effective communication tool in Teamworks. UNC’s athletic department had already been utilizing the software for two years for a number of internal logistics like messaging, compliance related tasks, distributing travel itineraries, and document sharing, but found another use for it in Teamworks’ mass communication abilities.

“There were multiple parts to the reunion including the unveiling of the court, dinner, a golf outing, and pick-up games on Saturday. We needed to get all that information to the lettermen as well as get their RSVPs in the most time-efficient way that we could,” says Friend.

The two then were able to set up different profiles for each prospective guest within the program that included their respective contact info and their eventual response. To maximize likelihood of a response, Friend and Chase used Teamworks to send both emails and texts to all prospective attendees.

“Going into this, we really were not sure how we were going to handle RSVPs,” recalls Chase. “So we made a form, which auto-populated into an Excel spreadsheet. That saved us quite a bit of time.”

Friend and Chase then were able to efficiently let the hundreds of attendees know where they were expected to be for each event as well as other key logistical details. If and when small changes to the schedule occurred, all attendees could be notified easily through Teamworks. The end result was a very smooth weekend that had many of the former players raving on social media both during and after the weekend.

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READ MORE: Miami Hurricanes Leverage Technology To Prepare For Actual Hurricanes

Moving forward, the Tar Heels plan to hold more reunion events, particularly for their teams that won national championships or reached the Final Four. 2019 marked Roy Williams’ 29th season in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. It is only a matter of time before one of his legendary teams is honored with a special return trip home to Chapel Hill. When that time comes, UNC administrators will have the procedures in place to make it happen after acquiring the contact information for nearly every letterman in program history through setting up Carolina Family Weekend. 

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“It’s great to have these processes and this information already in place for smaller events and reunions,” Chase says. “Having all of our lettermen organized into this database has been really great for us. We’re looking forward to finding more ways to use it and more reasons to bring our alumni back to campus.”

To learn more about how Teamworks helps empower the sports world’s best, visit today.

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USOC Continues Turn to Tech to Increase Medal Counts in Tokyo

The U.S. Olympic Committee is careful in the technologies its sports use, but overall technology is now an important tool in helping train athletes.





Photo via USOC

Phil Cheetham is careful to avoid analysis paralysis.

The term was used to describe providing athletes with too much information from the variety of ways data can be collected today. Cheetham, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of sport technology and innovation, said the TMI condition is possible, but easily maneuvered around by allowing coaches to be the gatekeeper.

“We’ll feed coaches as much as we can,” Cheetham said. “They’re the filter, they have to take the data and filter it into coach speak and into the drills and exercises.”

Cheetham’s role is largely to interact and advise with the various National Governing Bodies that make up the U.S. Olympic teams as they enter into the final training stretch of Tokyo 2020.

READ MORE: Inside Sports Tech Tokyo’s Aspirations to Be Gateway to Asia for Sports Tech Businesses

His main goal is to help the various teams, coaches and technical directors select technology that is simple to use and helps understand and improve athletes more rapidly and to avoid injuries.

“If tech can help an athlete be quicker and better, then we’re for it,” Cheetham said.

That said, Cheetham said the technology used within the U.S. teams across the sports spectrum have to not be too intrusive. The equipment — like wearables – must be simple and easily integrated into a piece of clothing or shoes, without impeding the athletic performance. They also need to be accurate, and accuracy is improving regularly, but still can be a problem.

Cheetham, a former Olympic gymnast for Australia, also has a passion for diving and has several pet projects working with those two sports at the USOC.

The technology within the U.S. Olympic community is greatly helped by a fund created by philanthropists from Silicon Valley. Cheetham said the fund is made up of entrepreneurs and billionaires from V.C. firms and tech companies, to provide an advisory board.

“It’s not just money, but expertise and networking,” Cheetham said. “These guys are the top of Silicon Valley, so they know everybody. If we want to know what’s best in motion capture, artificial intelligence or virtual reality, we can go to them first.”

The Olympic organizations often have a chance to be among the first users for a lot of technologies in sports — and while it can be great to be on the cutting edge of the innovation, Cheetham said it’s important not to let the athletes be guinea pigs.

“A lot of times, we get prototypes, and that’s good and bad,” he said. “A lot of times, a weekend warrior or high school and college athletes can do the basic testing and when the tech is close to ready, that’s when it comes to the Olympics.”

That’s because if the data doesn’t work, it can’t help the teams improve. Technology, like one of his pet projects in motion capture, has increasingly gotten better and faster, collecting so much more data and more efficiently without disrupting athletes. Now the statistical models created can be much more useful in following trends and designing training around how long to train and when to take breaks.

READ MORE: Why Alibaba’s Push Into Sports Is a Natural Fit for the Chinese E-Commerce Company

“We’re really interested in tech that helps us track training length and intensity, and if we can do that, we can periodize training sessions better and taper perfectly for a competition,” Cheetham said. “When you’re training at an elite level, you’re walking a tight-rope of performance and injury. You can’t win a competition if you’re not in it, and the tech is helping us avoid injuries.”

The data collected can also provide coaches with more accurate information for better coaching, like if a shot put throw is off six degrees. It’s no longer “I think you were.” Now, it’s “I know you were.”

When it comes down to the technology used, Cheetham said the USOC takes yearly solicitations and ranks projects and budgets based on which ones will have the best chance to improve medal count. Often, the projects are easily transferable from one sport to another.

One example he provided was a radar technology used to track shot put, javelin, discus and hammer throws. The USOC technology was originally developed to track golf balls.

“We’ll do some blue sky projects, but most are good sells and no-brainers.”

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Why Alibaba’s Push Into Sports Is a Natural Fit for the Chinese E-Commerce Company

A long-term Olympic partnership showcases the cloud computing power of Alibaba and makes it a global player in the sports tech industry.




Photo via Alibaba

Alibaba, China’s massive e-commerce company, is making its presence felt in sports.

The Chinese company first entered the sports realm in 2017, signing a long-term partnership with the IOC to become the official “Cloud Infrastructure and Services” and “E-Commerce Platform” partner of the Olympics.

Heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, Alibaba has partnered with Intel with intentions to develop the first AI-powered 3D tracking technology. The partnership will utilize Alibaba’s cloud computing with Intel’s hardware and deep-learning algorithms.

The partnership with Intel will hopefully bring Alibaba more name recognition and insight into the company’s operations, said Joey Tan, Alibaba Cloud head of global initiatives and general manager of sports business unit.

“It’s just getting the brand out there,” Tan said at CES this week in Las Vegas.

Alibaba Cloud is the world’s third largest cloud provider, behind Microsoft and AWS, and its foray into sports has all been cloud-driven. Tan said Alibaba’s exploration into sports is about four key points: digitizing fan engagement, innovative broadcasts, cost-effective operations, and high-performance athletic training.

READ MORE: Inside Sports Tech Tokyo’s Aspirations to Be Gateway to Asia for Sports Tech Businesses

At the first Olympics as a sponsor, the company put on the Alibaba Olympic Games Showcase at PyeongChang in 2018. The immersive and interactive exhibit gave more than 100,000 attendees a glimpse at how technology can change future games.

In September 2018, Alibaba partnered with the Olympic Broadcasting System to launch the OBS Cloud to digitize broadcasting of the 2020 Olympics. The OBS Cloud helps streamline broadcasting workflow.

The OBS Cloud also goes along with the announcement of the Intel partnership, which will create deeper conversation around performance tracking by giving fans insights into the world-class athletic performances.

“It’s creating better athletic content to tell better stories,” Tan said. “It’s for broadcasters to tell wonderful stories, but at the same time, use it for teams and federations to do more fine-tuning with the athletes.”

Alibaba holds lots of American sport broadcasting rights in China. The company won Pac-12 rights and the ability to broadcast 175 events annually. The company’s streaming arm, Youku, won rights to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Youku also has a partnership with the NFL.

Sports were a natural fit for the evolution of the Alibaba company, Tan said, as founder Jack Ma believes strongly in “health and happiness.”

Alibaba has so much technology in the retail realm, and Tan said they’re pulling that technology and applying it to sports — helping showcase the company to a wider audience.

READ MORE: Toyota Grows Olympic Involvement With Six New Partnerships

“We are using the Olympics as a primary showcase of our abilities,” he said. “Sports brings health and happiness, so in 2017 we said ‘let’s make the health and happiness vision true.’”

In December, Alibaba launched the Olympic Store on Tmall, the Chinese retail website operated by Alibaba. Chinese fans can purchase Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 products all year. There are additional plans to launch a global e-commerce platform.

There are no major immediate plans to enter the U.S. market with its sports products, but Tan said the U.S. is certainly on the radar screen.

“The U.S. is one of the biggest markets in the world when it comes to sports consumers,” he said. “Our first strategy is with Intel and working closely with the USOC.”

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