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Athletes In Business

NBA Associates Program Offers Former Players a Path Back to Basketball

The NBA’s Basketball Operations Associates Program provides job training for league positions including business operations,player relations and scouting.

Bailey Knecht

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When her playing career ended due to unbearable sciatic nerve pain in 2011, the WNBA’s Ashley Battle wanted to distance herself from basketball. The sport—part of her identity—was taken away from her before she was ready, and she was filled with resentment.

“I was kind of bitter with basketball, so to speak, because I didn’t have opportunities to go back to the WNBA or opportunities to play overseas, so I just wanted to go as far from basketball as possible,” Battle said. “So, I got into banking… I was bored out of my mind.”

After an unsatisfactory few years of working in banking, she made the transition to the sports division of financial planning company Barnum Wealth Management. She was finally dipping her toes back into the sports industry, and she knew it was time to dive back in for good.

READ MORE: Future of Basketball Trending Toward More Beautiful, Global Game

That’s when she was introduced to the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associates Program, a yearlong paid program at the NBA league office in New York, where former players gain front office experience for positions in the NBA, WNBA and NBA G League.

Participants learn about everything from analytics to scouting to business operations. They also get experience in resume building, networking and office skills. Now in its third year, the program has placed 100 percent of its participants in positions with either the league or teams.

Right now, Battle is in her fifth month. She’s specifically honed in on referee operations but has also dabbled in basketball operations and player development work — all, she says, in the name of “ just trying to get my hands involved and learn as much as possible.” She believes she’s found her calling with the program, especially when it comes to assisting others through the ups and downs of life as a basketball player.

“For me, when I wanted to help these athletes, it was, ‘How can I help them not make the same mistakes I made or others have made?’” she said. “It was all about helping players who came before me and who will come after me.”

Another one of the program’s biggest supporters is Cherokee Parks, a former NBA player who completed the curriculum and now works in player development for the league. Parks continues to stay involved with the program and build relationships with current participants.

“It’s always great when we see guys come through the office and connect with guys in similar situations who have been disconnected for a while and want to get back involved,” he said. “The excitement and eagerness shows on their faces when they know there’s a program available and people designed specifically to help them get back in certain circles.”

While he was in the program, Parks tapped into his experience as a former player with firsthand experience with the league’s player initiatives.

“Coming into this role, you are what the programming is about,” Parks said. “Someone else puts energy into these programs, so getting to the point where, being in the associates program, you get to see how all that comes to life. You can merge the two because you see how it’s developed and know how it was being involved in these programs as a player.”

In addition to that personal experience, former athletes learn to take advantage of the unique arsenal of skills they’ve developed over their playing careers.

“We believe the skills you learn as a players are transferable, whether it’s creative problem-solving, time management, perseverance, grit, teamwork—skills that every employer in the world wants to have access to,” said Greg Taylor, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development, who works closely with program participants. “They’re not starting from scratch at all. Basketball is what they do, not who they are, and they all have different levels of skill.”

“Being a player, you just have all these intangibles, and when you’re playing, you’re not necessarily aware that they’re transferable in corporate America,” Battle added. “You have some skill sets that people are being trained to do, but you already have them.”

With the success of the program thus far, Taylor hopes that more and more former players will take advantage of the opportunity. But, ultimately, the growth of the program depends on the community of players sharing their success stories, he said.

“The most effective strategy is word of mouth, so past players saying, ‘This program is super effective,’” he said. “When the fraternity of the former players are inviting players, that’s most effective.”

That sense of stability and community is key in helping players to thrive after their playing careers are over.

“We like to say that if you join the NBA, you’re in the family for life,” he said. “Just because your playing days have ended doesn’t mean our relationship has ended. We think through the challenges of athletes, and when their career is officially over, that’s a personal decision. But while you’re in the league, you have to think about life after basketball because, someday, the ball will stop bouncing.”

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And even though the ball stopped bouncing for Battle before she was ready, the associates program has opened up new doors for her that she never could have imagined while she was working at a bank in Pittsburgh just a few years ago. Her most recent opportunity with the program featured a trip to Mexico as a league ambassador with Basketball Without Borders.

“I didn’t know there was something missing, but there was a void in my gut not being filled,” she said. “Right now, I’m getting a really well-rounded view of a lot of different divisions in the league, and the curtain is being opened to where I’m seeing things I wouldn’t have been able to prior.”

When she stopped playing, Battle couldn’t imagine devoting any more time to basketball. But now it’s back in her life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Athletes In Business

Cryotherapy Meets Jaylon Smith’s Crucial Three C’s

The Dallas Cowboys linebacker’s investment is more than a business move. It’s a personal statement by someone whose NFL career almost ended before it began.

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Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Cryotherapy has entered Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith’s life in a big way.

Smith was introduced to the low-temperature recovery technology during his breakout 2018 campaign, and he credits his on-the-field success in part to the process. Now, the third-year pro is going all in and investing in Houston-based iCRYO in a move that Smith said aligns with his investing philosophy: the three C’s.

For Smith to invest in any partnership, he needs a potential deal to have the right character, chemistry and competence.

READ MORE: Trio of NFL Players Work Together for A Dunkin’ Retirement

“If you align on those three, and it fits with everything I’m trying to do from a brand and capital standpoint long term, I’m in,” Smith said. “That’s what they possessed.”

Along with becoming an equity partner, Smith hopes he can help be a major part of the branding for iCRYO moving forward.

“Just to get the word out about cryo,” he said. “It’s something that’s been around, but not everyone has experienced it. I can be a voice, a face, for cryo and iCRYO. I just love what it does from a healing standpoint relieving muscle pain, sprains, swelling.

“Cold therapy is wonderful, and I believe everyone should be doing it, not just athletes. It’s an energizer in overall life.”

Smith discovered the practice last year at the Cowboys’ practice facility. Now that he’s a regular user, he wishes he would have discovered it earlier. During his junior season at Notre Dame, Smith suffered a brutal knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl that required an intensive rehabilitation regime. He plummeted from a likely top-five draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft all the way down to 34th, ultimately missing his entire season.

Smith debuted in 2017 and partly credits his cryotherapy discovery for his standout second season, during which he recorded 121 tackles and was named 2018 Pro Football Focus’ Breakout Player of the Year. With the physical demands of football, Smith said the cryotherapy helps him recover much faster than traditional ice baths.

“The sport I play, in the NFL, it’s a very physical and violent game,” Smith said. “Availability is everything. It’s all about how fast you can recover.”

Smith’s investment is more than just an endorsement deal or some money; he’s putting his money where his mouth is, said Kyle Jones, iCRYO COO and co-founder. Jones opened the first company’s retail location five years ago and has since sold “a couple dozen” franchise locations, grabbing a significant market share in a relatively new industry that could reach $5 billion by 2024.

The two hit it off during the 2018 holiday season at a Boys and Girls Club event, and as they teamed up it became clear to Jones that, given Smith’s injury history, this investment was personal.

“He’s shown nothing but serious involvement,” Jones said. “He wants to know the science, get involved with the business. He’s very hands on.”

Beyond his position as an equity partner focused on providing brand awareness support, Jones expects Smith to own several franchises in the near future.

Smith has always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and this entry into the cryotherapy space is not his first business endeavor. He also started an eyewear line called CEV Eyewear, a venture he enjoys both for his love for eyewear as well as the brand’s name, Clear Eye View, signifying the sort of focused approach he believes everyone should have for life. Beyond his own businesses, Smith said he’s always looking to allocate a portion of his money into real estate, private equity and venture capital investments when possible.

As an NFL player, Smith understands he has access to opportunities many other aspiring entrepreneurs don’t have. He’s hoping to capitalize on them as much as he can before those advantages go away while learning as much about business as he can when he’s not on the field.

READ MORE: Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

“I want to maximize the platform of being a professional athlete,” he said. “You’re granted with stature and stardom, and you can leverage the impact and influence for access and connections.”

Smith is only two years removed from the injury that many expected to end his career and remains cognizant of how quickly football can be taken from him. Off the field, like many other modern professional athletes, Smith is already looking beyond the horizon, looking to set up his post-playing days.

“Whenever I’m not playing, I have a love and desire for entrepreneurship,” he said. “I’ll continue to dive into that and educated myself and my peers, providing access to people I love and people who deserve opportunities.”

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Athletes In Business

Trio of NFL Players Work Together for A Dunkin’ Retirement

Ricky Jean Francois, Jordan Reed and Sam Shields are building a Dunkin’ empire in South Carolina and Georgia to better set themselves up for retirement.

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Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to his fifth season, Ricky Jean Francois received a significant lump sum of cash from the contract he signed with the Indianapolis Colts. He knew exactly what to do with it. 

“I needed a retirement fund,” said Jean Francois, a 10th-year defensive tackle who’s currently a free agent. “I had the money but didn’t want to spend all the money. I wasn’t going to be a 30 for 30 subject about going broke. If I had the resources, we needed to get a retirement plan going.”

His financial manager, Sherard Rogers, suggested Dunkin’ franchises as a potential pathway for his post-career plans. Rogers brought Jordan Reed and Sam Shields, two of his other clients, into the fold, and together the three players started U Donuts, LLC. The business has since purchased territory rights between Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, with the potential to build 26 stores. The company began with three locations and now has nine operational, with four more planned to open this year. Jean Francois said U Donuts is prioritizing steady growth over exploding the number of franchises.

READ MORE: Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

“It’s a growing brand that will let us take it as far as we want to,” he added. “Everybody loves coffee. “We thought it’d be smart to get into something a lot of people can’t not start their day with”

Dunkin’ relies on franchisees like the trio of NFL players to continue its growth throughout the nation, said Grant Benson, Dunkin’ Brands senior vice president of franchising and business development. Benson noted Jean Francois, Reed and Shields all demonstrate high confidence in the Dunkin’ model, which makes them easy to work with.

“Many of the skills learned in sports can translate to franchising, and these professional athletes know how to work hard and utilize the operations playbook to their advantage,” Benson said. “We look forward to working with U Donuts to bring great products and an exceptional guest experience to our loyal guests throughout South Carolina and Georgia.”

The trio of NFL players combined their efforts to help other prepare for their post-NFL lives. Jean Francois said the trio could have prioritized individual endeavors but understood early on that combining resources will better prepare all of them for retirement.

“It’s better when you have other people that want to get their post-career started now, investing now,” he said. “I get to learn from them, they get to learn from me, and we all get to make our money work now and see what our money is doing.”

Likewise, Jean Francois said he’s excited to set himself up for other business endeavors, which might start sooner rather than later, as he’s unsure of whether he’ll be on a team this fall.

“We all work together, get on calls with one another and our other partners that are professionals, so I know it as well,” he said. “I’m on the back end of my career, so I have to start preparing and be used to it.”

One additional venture could be real estate. The group is currently purchasing the real estate on which future Dunkin’ locations will sit, provided they don’t get a better offer for the land. 

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“I want to look at dirt and not see it as dirt, [but] I see the future Dunkin’ built there,” he said. “Being part of it makes you work, makes you work the brain.”

As the trio of players continue to build their coffee and donut empire, Jean Francois wants more players to focus on building their post-career plans early on, so they can retire and walk gently into a comfortable life.

“When you have the resources, why not set an example for others?” he said. “We’ve all seen these recent deals. If these guys put 10% away, they can own whatever they want and coast.”

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Athletes In Business

Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

After years on the sidelines in retirement, the Pro Bowl quarterback has entered business world by co-founding ReadyList Sports.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Courtesy: ReadyList Sports

Jake Plummer isn’t ashamed to admit it: The former Pro Bowl quarterback had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to co-found a startup. He’s just glad his wife gave him a push.

He had been out of the NFL for nine years in 2015, and none of his post-retirement projects had stuck. None of them necessarily had to, either, with the windfall he accrued over 10 NFL seasons. He briefly took up coaching. He dabbled in real estate. He advocated for Charlotte’s Web CBD, a hemp oil. A stint on television with the Pac-12 proved to be short-lived. “That got old pretty quick,” he says.

But he had no clear direction until Chad Friehauf, a friend and former teammate on the Denver Broncos, showed him with a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation at a Boulder, Colorado, coffee shop. The subject was a business venture called ReadyList Sports, a product that digitizes football playbooks and makes them interactive. Plummer returned home and went about his week until his wife, Kollette, urged him to call follow up with Friehauf.

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“’Did you look into that? It looked like a pretty cool idea. If it was to work, it would be a pretty awesome deal,’” Plummer recalls Kollette telling him. “Some men are afraid to admit it, but I’m not: My wife is usually right.”

Plummer signed on, and the two former quarterbacks got to work. As CEO, Friehauf handles the technical aspects. Plummer’s strength, meanwhile, is thinking ahead, not only to where the company is going but who it can partner with to get there.

“He’s definitely a big door-opener for us, whether it’s teams, coaches, investors, front office people, just his network now that his teammates are coaching high school or his teammates have kids in youth sports,” Friehauf says. “He’s great at seeing the big picture of where we want to take this thing.”

For Plummer, that means as high as possible. The product is tailored for all levels of competition, and Friehauf says ReadyList has clients ranging from youth flag football to the collegiate level via the University of Louisville. But its crown jewel is a longstanding relationship with current New York Jets and former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who used the system in Miami after Plummer originally approached him during Gase’s time as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. The next step is to add more clients like him.

“The pro level is where we feel we can validate this,” Plummer says. “Once you can convince a couple of coaches who are influential – and not just influential by making people do stuff, but if they do something, everyone is like, ‘Oh, we better check this out’ – that’s what we’re pursuing.”

Plummer says he’s encountered his fair share of pain points in his first-ever business venture. Among them: business terminology, the ever-changing timetables and updates associated with ReadyList’s technology, and, of course, work-life balance.

“You learn through business and starting this up that the work’s really never done,” he says. “There’s always somebody I haven’t called or emailed or told about this, so it can be tiresome if you don’t say ‘Alright, it’s 5 o’clock, I’m done. I won’t make any more calls, won’t answer any more emails.'”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, however, lies in persuading the often-close-minded world of football to think differently. That was never a problem for Plummer, who famously left the NFL to pursue a career in handball. It can be another matter entirely for coaches who are sometimes used to teaching players in a certain way for decades.

“We’re hoping that this tool can convince coaches, ‘Hey, there’s a better way to teach and there’s a more efficient way to run practices and everything,’” he says. “Kind of streamline that so time can be spent strategizing how to beat an opponent, not just getting kids lined up right.”

But four years of startup life have taught Plummer something valuable. After years on the sidelines following his retirement, he now realizes was more ready to take on a large-scale venture than he ever knew.

READ MORE: Less is More: How Andrew Luck Handles Off-The-Field Partnerships

“Being a quarterback, I realize I was already so immersed in business, but I didn’t know it,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to really play a lot of different roles. So as the business side of things has come around, I’ve learned a lot about it. It’s really been an easier transition than I thought, just because, as a QB, you’ve got to know your personnel, right?

“You’ve got to know your guys, how they respond when you push them, how you respond when they’re praising them, and the same goes with business. You’ve got to know when to put the pedal to the metal and when to lay off a little bit.”

Plummer is well aware that the work is only beginning. ReadyList intends to launch a new high school-specific product within the month, while the football offseason represents a prime sales opportunity for teams eager to get their selections in this month’s NFL draft up to speed as soon as possible once they’re signed. It’s been more than two decades since Plummer was in that situation as a first-round pick out of Arizona State. He’s learning to reacclimate to the learning curve.

“As a businessman now, to correlate to playing ball, you have failures,” he says. “You lose games, but you’ve just got to back to the drawing board and figure out what you can do better next time.”

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