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What Do NFL Players Do When They Leave the Game? Increasingly, They Open a Franchise. Here's Why. Franchisees thrive on the same skills pro athletes learn: speed, versatility and great coaching.

By Jon Marcus

This story appears in the May 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Rafa Alvarez

It's hard enough to squeeze a dozen people into the prep room of a sub shop.

It's even tougher if they're all NFL players.

But that's who's wedged between the refrigerator, the bread oven, the meat slicer and cartons of ingredients in the back of a Jersey Mike's in a strip mall on the fringes of Ann Arbor, Mich., just after the lunch rush. The men are students at the NFL Business Academy -- a program, run out of the University of Michigan's Stephen Ross School of Business, that teaches franchising and entrepreneurship to help prepare players for the often rocky transition to life after pro football.

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"A lot of players have been led to believe that all they can do is play football," says Indianapolis Colts nose tackle Joey Mbu, one of the men packed into the tiny space. "We don't want that to be us."

Standing before them is Peter Shipman, Jersey Mike's area director for Michigan, northern Indiana, and northwest Ohio. The men nod as Shipman walks them through the ins and outs of every facet of the business, from sandwich making to customer service, before ending on an inspirational note. "All I can say to you guys is, don't fear the unknown. You can adjust; you can adapt. You guys are professional football players. You know how to work hard."

They leave the prep room, and Shipman introduces Bob Middleton, 2016 Jersey Mike's franchisee of the year. Middleton owns or co-owns more than a dozen locations in Michigan. "One of the things you have to ask yourself is Can I execute this?" he says as the players down free subs. "You have probably all played with amazingly talented athletes who didn't make it, and they didn't make it because they didn't listen to the coaches. What I do every day is, I'm a coach."

Even for someone like Shipman, who has hosted pros before, these visits can be heady experiences. He recalls showing around an earlier crop of players and pantomimes a double-take: "I turn around and do one of these and think, Holy crap, that's Drew Brees!"

The questions come next, and they're well-informed and pointed. Minnesota Vikings punter Ryan Quigley wants to know the cost of food that goes bad, and how it's factored into the accounting. Bills running back Patrick DiMarco asks if it's better to buy an existing store or start from scratch, and to lease or own the underlying property.

After the session, the players applaud the sub shop workers and head back to the bus. The next stop? An Orangetheory Fitness franchise.

Back on campus, the students -- including Atlanta Falcons defensive end Ben Garland, Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware and former Tennessee Titans linebacker Stephen Tulloch -- dutifully fold themselves behind the tiers of desks in a lecture hall and settle in. They spend three 10- to 12-hour days here, listening to faculty, entrepreneurs and former colleagues who started business ventures of their own, such as onetime St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora.

They're anticipating (or, in the case of Tulloch and a few other retirees, experiencing now) the tough slog that comes for athletes when they put away their uniforms and close their lockers for the last time. Rich, famous and at the top of their sport, many find themselves fumbling that adjustment. Sixteen percent file for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the league, according to researchers at CalTech, George Washington University and the University of Washington. This despite earning a median $3.2 million during their typical six-year pro careers -- more than twice what most Americans make in their lives. Separate reporting by Sports Illustrated suggests the percentage of former players under financial stress is 78, and that 60 percent of former NBA players go bust.

"A lot of guys, they never prepare for it," says Tulloch, over lunch in the business school dining room during a break between classes that include Negotiation and Influence, Introduction to Business Plans, Marketing Strategy and Tactics and an introduction to accounting. "They think they'll play for a long time, but it doesn't really work that way. They don't see life after football. They lose sight of the future."

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Stepping out of the spotlight triggers "a natural identity crisis," says Vobora, who was forced off the field for good by a career-ending injury. "That's what I faced. It was easier to cope with the pain medication than to ask myself, What's next? Many players have that What am I after football? You had to have such singular focus when you were in football, you never had the chance to ask yourself that question."

The academy started as a collaboration between the league and the NFL Players Association, to address this very problem. It began at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and later moved around -- making stops at Harvard Business School and Northwestern -- before settling in five years ago at Michigan's Ross School, named for Michigan benefactor, real estate magnate and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Now it runs during the players' off-season and the university's winter break. Some 650 players have enrolled in the voluntary program over the years, the NFL reports; some have since launched or expanded companies or foundations or gone back to actual college, the league says.

"Our goal is to help players recognize those transferable skills they have as athletes and bring them into the next phase of their lives," says Arthur McAfee, the NFL's senior vice president of player engagement. These superstars are suddenly competing against people who may have left college around the same time, he says, but "who have had the advantage of having been in the workplace for that much longer. So although [the players'] income levels may be higher, they find themselves in the work world a little bit behind."

Vobora found this out firsthand when he set out to open a high-end gym in Dallas called Performance Vault, for elite athletes and U.S. Special Forces. He got "a million things" wrong, Vobora says, laughing. But he gradually realized that skills he'd learned in football came in handier than he expected. It's not about athleticism, he says; it's what he calls "ath-life-icism."

That means "all the attributes, like speed, strength, agility," says Vobora, who has since branched out into a nonprofit, the Adaptive Training Foundation, that provides free personal training for injured military veterans and other people with disabilities. "What does agility mean in business? The greatest trait of an entrepreneur is to be adaptive and constantly course-correct."

A little extra help doesn't hurt, however, especially for guys who are behind at the proverbial half compared to people who have been in business since they graduated college. That's why franchising plays such a big part at the academy.

Image Credit: Diane Weiss

Athletes gravitate toward franchises. That's where a surprising number of them invest their pay. Four-time Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya (Cincinnati Bengals, L.A. Raiders) owns six Penn Station East Coast Subs locations. Former offensive lineman Ron Stone (Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders), defensive end Raheem Brock (Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks) and three-time Super Bowl winner Willie McGinest (New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns) all have opened Wingstop restaurants. Super Bowl winner Keyshawn Johnson (New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers) has Panera Bread and Cold Stone Creamery franchises. And New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees -- an NFL Business Academy alumnus -- has a bunch of Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches shops and is a partner in a franchise called Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar, with 17 locations and seven more planned. And that's just football.

Related: 5 Things You Need to Know Before Investing in a Chick-fil-A Franchise

It's not only that these guys like fast food, although several have enthusiastically pronounced themselves longtime fans of it since their college playing days. There are other reasons that make franchising such a good fit for pro athletes.

"Let's think about it. I'm a football player. I've been seeing playbooks all my life," says Mbu, whose dream is to be a Chick-fil-A or Dunkin' Donuts franchisee. In that role, he says, "You have a playbook, and they assist you on that transition from football to business."

Mbu -- who is 6-foot-3 and 323 pounds, 25 years old and made more than a quarter of a million dollars last year -- is bounding to class in an orange T-shirt with the logo of his alma mater, the University of Houston, from which he has a degree in sports management. His Cameroonian mother, he says, "will be so proud" to read about his exploits in a classroom, and not just on a field. "Her whole thing is education."

Professional athletes, McAfee says, "come from a very structured space. They have the ability to go from a classroom setting to film review to practice to application by game day. Franchising fits right into that, in that you have the ability to learn how to do it, you have the ability to go out and do it, and you have someone to assist you in its application. And they have seen people being really successful in it. They can see themselves doing that."

Two of the franchisors that leverage this the most are Jersey Mike's and Orangetheory Fitness, both of which count former pro athletes among their franchisees. Linebacker and former Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo (Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins) took a class at Orangetheory a few days after his Super Bowl win in 2013 and opened his own a year later. Now he has a dozen in California, with a goal of more than doubling that. Ex-defensive lineman Mike Golic (Houston Oilers, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins), the former cohost of ESPN's Mike & Mike, owns several Orangetheory studios around Boston. Linebacker Ned Bolcar (Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins) is a multi-unit Orangetheory franchisee in Pennsylvania and former pitcher Chris Narveson (Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals) owns Orangetheory franchises in and around Charlotte, N.C. Former linebacker Angelo Crowell (Buffalo Bills) opened a Jersey Mike's near Florida State University and now has a dozen of them, with five more planned.

Though he didn't go this route, Vobora gets it. "Part of the franchise thing, I think, is following a formula, but I also think there's a strength in knowing you're part of a team, and relating that to the locker room culture. There's this sort of community."

Or, as Mbu puts it: "You're not out there by yourself."

Not everyone here will necessarily go into franchising. Tulloch owns commercial real estate in Fort Lauderdale, where he's launching a drive-through coffee shop. Eleven years removed from college, he says, "I want to brush up on my skills."

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Carl Davis is here for the same reason. He runs a nonprofit called the Trenchwork Foundation in his hometown of Detroit that promotes education and health among kids, and provides them school and sports equipment. Teammate Willie Henry, who's also at the business school, is on the board.

Without the extra help, "I would have hit a couple bumps on the road," says Davis. "Man, we pretty much cover everything here -- real estate, marketing, accounting. Just the overall concepts of how to carry out business plans. Now I can take the strategies and put them into our work."

Davis isn't done, he says. He plans to get an MBA at some point. He's seen other players leave the league and wander through life. "There's a lot of guys who are done and just don't know what they're going to do next."

Tulloch nods in agreement. "I wish more guys would show up for this."

Len Middleton, a lecturer of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Ross School and a codirector of the NFL Business Academy, says that may be changing. Athletes at universities including Michigan are being counseled that "the sport will end at some point." But the income doesn't have to. "You can live like a king for a day, or you can live like a prince for the rest of your life if you do this right," Middleton says. "We show them how they can control their own pathway."

Related: 5 Affordable Restaurant Franchises You Can Start for 5 Figures

Middleton, who played basketball in college, says he wants to see the voluntary program stretched to its capacity. "I would love to see that room completely full," he says. The athletes who've attended "stay connected to each other. They talk to each other, and it's nice to see. In the fall they compete against each other, but this is a program that brings them together. We just haven't figured out how to get these guys to be our sales agents in the locker room. Now we have the success stories that we need to get this word out."

It's not as if the athletes don't have business skills, says McAfee, who previously worked for the NFL Players Association. It's that they might not know they do. "The ability to build a team, work with a team, think fast, recall, recover. Leadership capabilities. Teamwork. All those skill sets are transferable," he says. "We have to spend much more time reminding players that they're fully capable of bringing those transferable skills to any business."

That's what Vobora learned, after his early missteps.

"My own rock bottom made me ask the deeper questions," he says. "I think athletes don't give themselves enough credit. Screw what other people think, because if you're going to be an entrepreneur, that's where it starts."

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