The 5 Most Business-Savvy Athletes
Written by A. Selway Ryan
For these five player-entrepreneurs, the real payoff is even sweeter than the wins. Here’s who made it big off making it big – and how they did it.
1. Venus Williams
She Got Game, Set, and Match
With her fiery charisma and dominating presence on the court, Venus Williams has the will to win at anything she sets her mind to – and she’s set her mind to an awful lot.
Besides being one of the best tennis players in the world – she’s ranked No. 3 for singles and No. 2 for doubles – Williams is also the CEO and founder of interior design firm V Starr Interiors. She also has her own fashion line and is part owner, with her sister Serena, of the Miami Dolphins.
She pulls down over $15 million just for playing, and another $40 million from an endorsement contract with Reebok. And incidentally, she’s a New York Times bestselling author, for her book Come to Win.
Sure looks like she did.
2. Tiger Woods
Showing His Stripes
Remember the Facebook movie? ‘A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.’ Tiger Woods is, by any measure, cool, having netted over a billion dollars in salaries and endorsements since he started his career as the Mozart of golf.
But since his many marital infidelities came out, he’s become a bit too cool for school. He got drunk and crashed his car, made a humiliating public apology for his above-the-law behavior, and got a divorce that cost him north of $100 million. It’s no wonder he’s trying to go back to Buddhism – he can’t afford not to.
His suffering may come from desire, the ones satisfied by heading a golf design firm, becoming a bestselling author, or licensing his name and image to everything from shoes to video games. He’s credited with single-handedly building the then-fledgling Nike Golf division into the uncontested industry leader with over $600 million in sales – not to mention putting golf itself on the map of big-business sports.
Easy, Tiger – you’re only human.
3. LeBron James
Scores on the Rebound
‘Who’s Michael Jordan?’ you may hear your kids say one day, and that’s the day you’ll feel older than you ever have. But it’s not your fault – it’s LeBron’s. He’s 21st century, digital-age good, and the analog greats just won’t cut it. He was drafted out of high school as the new Jordan. Even Jordan had to work at being Jordan.
He makes the salary cap in basketball, so there’s no reason he wouldn’t play the field a little – just don’t tell that to a Cavaliers fan. Wherever he ends up winning his first title, it’ll probably be the first of many. He already has an Olympic gold medal – and he’s still only 27.
But that hasn’t stopped him from monetizing the money shots in a big way, with endorsements from Nike, McDonald’s, Sprite, and others that triple his annual salary. To make things simpler, he owns his own marketing agency.
Hey, Cleveland may scold – but he’s got the gold.
4. Roger Federer
Aside from being the greatest tennis player of all time, Roger Federer oozes style – and the world’s biggest luxury brands have taken note. With endorsements from Credit Suisse, Gillette, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, and Rolex, among others, Federer has one of the most lucrative portfolios in sports. Not bad when you’ve already won $56 million in prize money alone.
With a racket in his hand, he’s unstoppable: record-setting sixteen Grand Slam singles titles, one of only seven people who’ve won the career Grand Slam, and one of only three people who’ve done it on three different surfaces – clay, grass, and hard courts.
Switch the racket out for a bankbook and that career grand slam gets metaphorical: his ten major endorsement contracts add over $40 million to his annual salary. One way or the other, Federer Express delivers – big time.
5. Greg Norman
It’s not just because he’s Australian that they call him ‘The Shark.’ It’s because he likes them, often references them, and called his multinational corporation Great White Shark Enterprises. It might be incidental that he’s known for tearing into the competition – on the course and off.
A World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, Greg Norman never really left the course after his professional career ended: now, as the head of Greg Norman Golf Course Design, he makes them.
The company has produced 60 courses worldwide and has another 58 in development, and associated company Medallist Developments even designs and constructs whole communities around the courses. When the current projects are completed, they’ll have a total value of over $4.5 billion.
Then there’s the Greg Norman Turf Company, the Greg Norman Collection of sportswear, Greg Norman Estates (a winery), and the Greg Norman Production Company, a sports marketing firm.
We’re going to need a bigger boat.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.