- Many athletes want to become investors and entrepreneurs but lack the connections, access or education it takes to get started.
- In 2017, The Players’ Impact (TPI) launched as an organization to help athletes navigate venture investing and entrepreneurship.
- Tracy Deforge, who is CEO and Co-Founder of TPI — and a former athlete herself — shares lessons from her entrepreneurial journey
For athletes, success requires an all-consuming focus on maintaining and improving their skills and abilities. As high-level athletes pursue their careers, exploring new business opportunities can often fall by the wayside.
“Athletes are often working on their craft so much that they're always either playing, training, recovering, et cetera. They aren't necessarily able to go out and have jobs, never mind internships or other things,” says Tracy Deforge, CEO and Co-Founder of The Players’ Impact, a community of professional athlete investors and entrepreneurs. “That really positions them not to be able to optimize their opportunities.”
Many athletes, for example, want to become investors and entrepreneurs but lack the connections, access or education it takes to get started. Others simply need help navigating the waters of new areas like capital raising, business formation or startup investing.
The mission of Deforge's organization, The Players’ Impact (TPI), is to empower athletes in business. Active, retired and Olympic athletes can learn about entrepreneurship, engage in venture opportunities and invest. This education comes during and after their careers.
As she prepares to take the U.S.-based TPI (which has chapters in 11 American cities) international with launches in Australia, Brazil, Canada and multiple European locales, Deforge spoke with First Republic Bank about TPI and her own entrepreneurial journey.
Understanding the world of sports and business
A former Division 1 track-and-field college athlete herself, Deforge has worked in sports since her university days. “As part of my work-study through college, I was able to work in the athletic department and that's really when I fell in love with the business side of sports,” she says.
After earning her JD at Seton Hall — which she chose for its sports law program — Deforge went to work for the National Hockey League (NHL) and then Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLB.com).
Since it operated as “a separate entity from baseball,” MLB.com was “a startup with the benefit. of a brand and a budget,” says Deforge, and her time there provided her with first-hand experience in evaluating other startups.
“I was looking at pitch decks every single day through a business development lens and constantly evaluating business models and opportunities on behalf of MLB.com,” says Deforge. “It was a natural progression from that to jump out into other startups.”
That “jump” would lead Deforge to work at the unique intersection of sports, entertainment/media and technology ever since – including roles as COO of a pioneering mobile video SaaS offering, and targeting sports broadcasters and partners in a venture investment firm focused on sports and entertainment.
Deforge and Jason Lavender, who would become her co-founder of The Players’ Impact, started networking with and talking to athletes in 2017. Deforge quickly realized that many of the athletes she spoke with had similar questions and hesitations about participating in venture investments.
“Venture was an asset class that was not broadly talked about by athletes’ financial advisors or wealth managers. It was a different and much riskier asset class. And athletes weren't sure how to navigate it because they were not given any consultation or coaching around it,” says Deforge.
“The questions went from things as simple as ‘how do you value a company?’ and ‘what does a valuation mean?’ to as deep as understanding the intricacies of business models, looking at competitive landscapes, wanting to know how to assess the team and so on,” says Deforge.
The Players’ Impact was launched in May 2017 to help answer those questions while providing athletes with community and connection, empowering them to succeed in business.
Creating opportunities for athletes to succeed
The Players’ Impact is making investment and entrepreneurship a team sport for athletes from across the globe, spanning 28 different sports. TPI focuses on empowering athletes both while they’re playing and after — to maximize and optimize their opportunities — and helping them transition to their post-career lives.
“It has evolved very quickly,” says Deforge of TPI. “We started out introducing investment opportunities and offering education around venture investment. But we learned right away that our athletes were also entrepreneurial and they wanted to be on the other side of the table, raising capital and building businesses.”
TPI offers programs and services on both sides of the proverbial table — all of which put athletes’ experiences and needs at the center. These include:
- Curating and vetting venture investment opportunities, and making them available and accessible to all TPI members at investment thresholds that make sense for them
- Executive education for athletes through the TPI Academy Accelerator Program, which is an intensive program designed to build up athletes’ founder skills, mentor network and fundraising capacity to help them accelerate their own ventures
- An exchange program where athletes are able to work with early-stage companies as brand ambassadors — helping test products or advise the companies on business concerns
- Business consulting services to help TPI’s athlete-founders think strategically about what their brands stand for and how to grow them (with a mind for incorporating philanthropic efforts and other ways of doing well by doing good)
- A media and events arm and members-only Online Locker Room that keep athletes informed and engaged with quality content and opportunities to network and connect.
“We know that the most meaningful thing for our athletes is connecting with each other,” says Deforge. “TPI is a very diverse community, but it’s full of like-minded high-achieving individuals. It gives athletes a place to come together surrounded by others like them.”
Bringing this like-minded community together has led to many successful outcomes. A number of thriving startups — including businesses like Windpact, EarBuds, WePlayed and Finger Licking Dutch — have all been launched by TPI athlete-founders. On the venture investing side, TPI has already seen two successful exits to date, with at least three more portfolio companies set to exit soon.
Promoting gender equity
For Deforge, bringing communities together also goes beyond business. In 2009, she founded the Boston chapter of WISE (Women in Sports and Events), a not-for-profit that provides peer support, mentoring programs and professional development and training to help women in the sports and events industries reach their career goals. The Players’ Impact is also committed to helping level the playing field for female athletes during and after their careers.
Deforge understands firsthand the challenges and barriers women face in traditionally male-oriented fields like sports and venture, and she works with many women still facing them. She sees progress since her time as a COO raising capital — when she was “constantly trying to convince” investors of her value — but advises up-and-coming women in business that even as they struggle, they’re helping move things forward.
“There’s a quote that goes something like ‘one bad meeting does not mean a bad career, and one bad day doesn't mean a bad life,’” says Deforge. “The thinking behind that is that, of course, you're going to struggle. You choose how to approach it with a positive mentality. You're not always going to be in the position where it's an uphill battle every time.
“For me, I know that I may never see that sort of Shangri-La (of gender equity) in my lifetime, but if I'm paving the path for my children and we're moving things forward in the conversation — just like the folks before me who made a difference in blazing trails — we have to continue doing that,” she says.
Delivering support on a global scale
Ultimately, paving paths for athletes of all genders to succeed is part of TPI’s mission. That commitment helps the organization grow organically, and is key to its expansion to new international locales.
“I'm most proud about the fact that our community has grown by word of mouth,” says Deforge. “We earn athletes’ trust by doing what we say we're going to do, and by being consistent and helping them. We're not selling things to the athletes. We're not trying to take advantage of them. We are really just there to empower them.”
To learn more about how The Players’ Impact empowers its community of active and retired professional athletes, visit theplayersimpact.com.
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