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Athletes In Business

How Rakuten Is Leaving Its Mark on Steph Curry’s Underrated Tour

Rakuten teamed up with Steph Curry to provide funding for the Underrated Tour, which offers support for high school players trying to improve their game.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo credit: Underrated Tour Powered by Rakuten

When Tokyo-based Rakuten expanded to the United States, establishing strong, influential partnerships was a major goal for the tech company. Now, Rakuten has added one of the most influential figures in sports to its list of partners: the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry.

In January, Curry announced that he was teaming up with Rakuten for his Underrated Tour, a series of basketball camps for unsigned high school players with a three-star ranking or below.

“The whole underrated story, and his story of coming up through the ranks and being told he couldn’t do it and then breaking through that — for us, in our history as a company, we’ve been underdogs,” said Kristen Gambetta, director of sports and entertainment for the U.S. branch of Rakuten. “We, as a company, relate to having that mentality and breaking into new markets like the American region and being an underdog. We’re a big global company, and we’re constantly trying to innovate and be better, so we saw this great alignment around optimism, which is something core to who we are and who Stephen is.”

Participants receive hands-on training from Curry’s trainer, Brandon Payne, and other elite coaches, as well as guest lectures, team-building exercises and information on NCAA eligibility.

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“In doing this, he’s providing a platform for kids to really have a better future and the chance of being seen by college coaches wouldn’t have seen them before,” said Gambetta, who was on the team responsible for establishing the partnership. “Our company believes in the future, and it’s really important to us that this platform is leaving an impact on kids coming out of the camps.”

“That’s the idea behind the Underrated Tour: to create a basketball camp, in partnership with Rakuten, for any unsigned high school players rated three stars and below,” wrote Curry in The Players’ Tribune. “A camp for kids who love to hoop, and are looking for the chance to show scouts that their perceived weaknesses might actually be their secret strengths.”

Because of Rakuten’s involvement, there is no cost to camp attendees. In turn, Curry will provide exposure for Rakuten’s U.S. branch, through appearances and promotions.

“We’re a growing brand in the U.S. because we’re headquartered in Japan with a massive presence, so we’re trying to take that model and build up in the U.S.,” Gambetta said. “Partnering with Steph on a global level is powerful for us to work with him and help align ourselves with our shared values.”

The tour will also take advantage of Rakuten’s established technology.

“As they were building the tour platform, they were consulting with us on different pieces, and it wasn’t all cookie-cutter,” Gambetta explained. “It was very collaborative, like, ‘Does this feel right to you as presenting partner?’ and cross-checking that and making sure we could integrate our business services, such as our messaging app, Viber. It’s used to notify attendees and give them exclusive content. It’s a private space for them to interact.”

Rakuten is already the official partner of the Golden State Warriors, so when Curry’s camp came knocking, it was a natural fit.

“They reached out to us, thinking we’d be an interesting fit because they were looking to work with someone more global in nature, so there was that international fit, as well as us being the Warriors’ patch partner,” Gambetta said.

“The Underrated Tour is Stephen’s brainchild, rooted in meaningful and authentic insights from his journey,” said Curry’s business partner, Jeron Smith. “We saw a unique opportunity to shine a light on Steph’s story in a way that hasn’t been done before and inspire the next generation of underrated athletes. This is the latest example of Steph using his platform to make a difference, and we’re thrilled to partner with Rakuten to help empower others.”

So far, the tour has made stops in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Phoenix, with stops in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Oakland on the upcoming schedule.

“We were on the ground in Los Angeles when [Curry] dropped in, and it was amazing seeing him pull aside the kids,” Gambetta said. “I’ve worked in this industry for a long time, and to see such a big star interact with them, pulling them aside, coaching them — he’s always authentic and humble, and what he provides these kids is invaluable.”

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The most recent stop in Phoenix was exclusively available to high school girls and included an informational panel with members of the sports industry.

“This is something that is another shared value; providing that opportunity for women was something we collaborated on, to ensure an all-girls stop,” Gambetta said. “We were excited to see that come to life. He’s been outspoken about that, like the Players’ Tribune piece, and that just further instilled that we’re working with the right person with shared values that we’re passionate about. We want to ensure that we’re inclusive in our activations as well, so that gives us that opportunity.”

Considering the positive response from camp participants, Gambetta and her team are satisfied with the results of the partnership so far.

“I think giving that platform to kids who are not five-star athletes, we thought it would be powerful, but you don’t know until it comes to life,” Gambetta said. “It’s been very positive. One of our other core values is empowerment, and you could feel that these kids felt they were empowered to break through the status quo of people telling them they can’t do it and that they’re underdogs.”

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.

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“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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