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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 5, 2019 2 months ago

Buzzer beater: Entrepreneur aids athletes' search for a second act

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Buoyed by a deal with a superstar basketball player, a Tampa branding consultant seeks to help elite performers transition to the business world.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

It’s not unusual for retired professional athletes to enjoy productive careers in other fields after their playing days are done. Some, however, like Magic Johnson, go on to attain nearly as much fame as businesspeople as they did as superstar performers.

But leaps like that don’t just happen. They take professionals like Paige Thomas, founder and CEO of Elevate Branding in Ybor City, to pull off.

“That brand loyalty, after you retire, what do you do with it?” Paige Thomas, founder and CEO of Elevate Branding

Thomas, 33, recently scored the deal of her young career when she got the chance to create a brand-positioning portfolio for Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade, a document designed to help his transition to the business world after he retires from the NBA later this year. Wade, 37, has been involved in business and philanthropic ventures for years, “but the world just saw the sports side” of him, says Thomas.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge — getting people to look beyond the stat line, at the person behind the championship rings and impressive numbers. The man or woman whose story and values mirror those of the investors or consumers they’re trying to reach.

Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade is set to retire at the conclusion of the 2018-19 NBA season. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Keith Allison.

“I interviewed a couple of investors and started to understand what they really care about,” Thomas says. “It was not just the things that you're doing; it’s who you are.”

Thomas connected with Wade via Bob Metelus, Wade’s production media director and personal photographer, who has worked with Serena Williams, Houston Rockets star Chris Paul and golfer Sergio Garcia. Metelus says it’s not enough for athletes to simply endorse a product — they need to be proactive about maximizing their brand equity, and the control they have over it, instead of allowing themselves to be defined by the media.

“You’ve got to own your own content,” he says. “Content is king. The content that I provide, you don’t have to worry about asking someone to use it. You can create whatever story, whatever narrative you’d like to. You have more power, the power to do what you want to do with how your story is told. That’s my sales pitch to everyone I work with — you have to have control.”

Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar, is the archetype. While still in his prime with the Lakers, he laid the groundwork for life after basketball, and not even a high-profile HIV-positive diagnosis in 1991 could derail his ascent. Today, his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises, is worth $700 million, and he’s the co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Sparks WNBA team, as well as the majority owner of EquiTrust Life Insurance Co.

Mark Wemple. Paige Thomas helps elite athletes prepare for new careers after their playing days are over.

What sets players like Johnson and — if Thomas’s branding efforts work out — Wade apart is their realization of, and willingness to act on, the potential of the unique brand equity that comes with being an elite performer. “Their talent is currency,” she says. “As long as they do well on the court, they’re going to get face time, they’re going to get interviews, deals, things like that.”

But just like on the court, knowing what to do with all of that opportunity requires a team effort. “Some players have been fortunate because they had the right people around them,” Thomas says. “People who put a compass in place to figure out how to get from point A to point B.”

Dwyane Wade off the court. Photo courtesy of Bob Metelus.

For that reason, Thomas sees a growing awareness of the need for her branding services, and she trades ideas on a regular basis with former NBA Vice President Kevin Carr, who headed up the league’s social responsibility and player development programs before launching PRO2CEO, a Tampa-based consulting company that helps athletes and performers make the leap to business leadership.

“He’s all about transition, but not everyone is educated about how to make the transition,” Thomas says. If a player’s brand equity depreciates, she adds, he or she can quickly fall out of public view. “They don’t understand the power of impressions and building impressions, and so no one wants them because no one remembers them. That brand loyalty, after you retire, what do you do with it?”

Paul, the 34-year-old Rockets star, is a player who understands the need to make an impression. Though earlier in his career than Wade, he’s been working with Metelus, and Thomas sees the brand power he’s already established via a series of State Farm Insurance TV commercials.

“He’s staying in front of people,” Thomas says. “If you don’t take the time to maximize your name while you are playing, it’s even harder after you retire.”

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