Good Sports

From Fan to Fortune

Brian Feeny, 30, has fond childhood memories of watching his heroes slide into home and get crushed into dust near the end zone. "All my friends were into watching sporting events. I think it's a law in western Pennsylvania," says Feeny, who was also influenced heavily by his mom. "My dad wasn't into baseball games, but my mom and I would watch the Pirates, and we'd go to the stadium two or three times a year."

But while Feeny was a sports science major in college, he opted to study business in graduate school. "I thought I could marry the two, business and sports," says Feeny, whose first enterprise had nothing to do with sports. He founded Heirloom Gift Bazaar LLC. "I learned that general gift items is a really tough, tough market. It's more of a shotgun approach, where when you're marketing, you're saying 'I want to find somebody who is looking for gifts.' But it's a lot more focused when you're trying to reach a football fan who wants Pittsburgh Steelers merchandise."

Feeny sold Heirloom Gift, which is still up and running at Heirloomgift.com, and for less than $1,000, he started an online store (SportsFanfare.com) that sells thousands of officially licensed products from universities and professional sports teams in baseball, basketball, hockey, football and golf, as well as from auto racing. As Feeny explains it, "This is the place for the displaced fan. If you're from Texas A&M University or Indiana University, or if you're a Philadelphia Eagles fan, you're probably not going to easily find merchandise if you live far from those venues. If you want a hat or a blanket, you'll have to go online to get it." Preferably, Feeny hopes, at SportsFanfare.com.

And many people are doing just that. Feeny started the company in 2002, when he had a day job as a business analyst at an insurance firm. Soon after, he gave his notice. "It just grew so fast, tenfold what my other business had done," marvels Feeny, who now has three full-time employees. He finished 2003 with around $3 million in sales, and he projects the company will earn nearly $4 million in 2004.

There's no easy answer for how Feeny became successful, of course. Clearly, sports fans are a formidable customer base. He says that a lot of what he does has to do with his knowledge of how to get appropriate placement in Internet search engines, and the odds of him sharing his formula for that are about as likely as the Cubs or the Red Sox ever winning the World Series. However, Feeny says he also recognized that his market wasn't yet saturated. GSI Commerce Inc. is his biggest competitor, selling merchandise through regional sports outlets like Dick's Sporting Goods and national fitness centers like Bally Total Fitness. GSI's net revenue in the third fiscal quarter of 2003 was $47.5 million, if that gives you an idea of just what he's up against. But Feeny says that as big as GSI is, they aren't yet a Barnes & Noble or an Amazon.com. (Feeny had been interested in selling books online, but he quickly realized that it would likely be a lost cause.)

Feeny also notes that it's important to "forge relationships," which he has done with dozens of distributors and manufacturers. It might feel intimidating to work with major companies that distribute officially licensed products of teams, some of which you have worshipped since birth. But even if you feel small, the people you work with aren't going to think of you that way, says Feeny. "If you place a sizable order, they won't care who they're buying from."

How to Be a Contender

So you love sports, and you love the business world, but you're not sure what type of sports business you want to start? Here are but a few ideas:

  • Sports fantasy camps: Think City Slickers, only with baseball. These are growing in popularity-they let fans experience what it's really like to play on a professional basketball team, baseball team or what have you; generally, some sort of former professional athlete is on hand to give an aura of authenticity.
  • A sports magazine: The title Sports Illustrated is taken, but you could look for an underserved market with a growing fan base and start putting a magazine together.
  • A Web site devoted to a sport: You could sell officially licensed products and books on the sport and offer chat rooms, scores, articles and information about said sport.
  • Finding and buying a sports-related franchise: Velocity Sports Performance is but one example, and it's an unusual one. The Alpharetta, Georgia-based company, which had 15 franchises across the country at the end of 2003, specializes in training athletes--helping them increase speed, power and agility, while preventing sports-related injuries.
  • Sports-themed restaurant or bar: Who doesn't like to eat? For other ideas, simply think of the business first, and then apply sports to it. If you've always wanted a video production company, you could specialize in producing sports documentaries; if you're interested in printing, you could produce inspirational sports posters and sports-themed greeting cards; if you've always dreamed of creating snacks or drinks, veer toward sports drinks and energy bars; if computer games are your thing, specialize in developing sports video games. The list goes on and on.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Good Sports.

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