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Upside of franchising

Pro athletes look to get good field position


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Seventeen franchisors recently found a highly desirable group of potential franchisees at a conference in Las Vegas: prospects with money. But money's not everything, athletes are used to teamwork, following systems and promoting themselves.

Damon Jamal "Mo" Collins isn't about to knock opportunity. He found it last June at the franchise conference in Las Vegas that linked professional athletes with franchisors, and he was back at The Palms in Vegas earlier this year to do the same.

"I'm always looking," said the former 340-pound offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders. (Note: 340 pounds was his weight when he first signed with the Raiders in 1998; we were too polite to ask for an update.)

Collins, who is a high school coach, signed with CSA (College Sports of America) after meeting representatives at the June show. It seemed like a natural extension of his work as a coach, he said. He partnered with his neighbor, Natrone Means, who as a running back led the San Diego Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance in 1994. The two also share the same sports agent.

In addition to his other jobs, Collins owns a barber shop under the moniker, Da Shoppe, in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. The original intention was to start a chain that would become the cornerstone of the community they were serving. After attending the conferences, he said, he was thinking about converting. "I like the support system and the infrastructure," he said. He had three systems to talk to at the show: Roosters Men's Grooming Center, Kennedy's All-American Barber Club and V's Barbershop.

"They say a recession is the best time to buy," Collins said.

That sentiment was like a fight song in the ears of the 17 franchise representatives in the room.

As lenders get sidelined, here was a room full of men with money. "The NFL (National Football League) paid out $3.3 billion last year," said Kris Burnell of Franchise Athletes who coordinated the conference along with UpsideGroup.

The format of the show is similar to speed dating. Franchisors manned tables, armed with samples of their products and/or literature on their concept. Athletes then rotated through with a gentle reminder every few minutes to move to the next table. The change in format from the first event in June was a suggestion by the athletes who preferred meeting one-on-one, as opposed to sitting through a series of presentations by franchisor reps, said Doug Jackson, franchise development for the Upside Group, a franchise consultant based in Phoenix.

The franchisors were a mix of established ones, such as Baskin Robbins and Haagen-Dazs, to upstarts, such as Red Mango and Child N' Play. "Blue-collar" concepts like Five Star Painting and USA Insulation, versus professional services - everything from massage and tanning to retail golf store, Golf Etc.

Burnell, who parlayed his law degree in to sports management, started organizing investment shows because athletes, unlike the regular workforce, retire early in their careers, flush with money. At 65 $30 million may seem like a fortune, but "at 30 you can burn through it fast," Burnell contends. Not only do the ex-players get bored, they can't afford not to stay active. They're used to eating thousands of calories when they train, Burnell explained, a habit that turns deadly once their playing days are over. The need to find a job is often driven by the wives. "I get all the time, 'Please get this guy out the house, all I do is clean up after him,'" he says, grinning.

The NFL has done a good job of preparing players for the after-life - after playing football, that is. That's why many in attendance were still active players - wanting to get a head start on filling their time once they walk off the field for the last time.

The show is not a place to buy, Burnell asserts, but rather an opportunity to meet franchise sales staff and do some due diligence.

A repeat from the earlier show was 5-Star Painting. Brandon Williams of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tra Battle of the Dallas Cowboys listened intently to president and chief development officer, Alex Lawrence's pitch and asked questions about the services the franchisor offered. Lawrence offered to talk with them later about any questions they had on his or any of the other concepts. And then they were on their way to the next booth.

Anthony Bucci of Sarcone's Deli, a Philly institution, seemed like a long-shot since he was only looking for franchisees in the greater Philadelphia area. However, the first person who stopped at his table was from Philadelphia. (Bucci may have had a coup had the Eagles not been playing in the Super Bowl. Their quarterback Donovan McNabb was signed up to come, but had to cancel at the last minute due to more important plans.)

 

The NFL has done a good job of preparing players for the after-life - after playing football, that is. That's why many in attendance were still active players - wanting to get a head start on filling their time once they walk off the field for the last time.

Bucci and his partner are only franchising the deli side of the business, not the bakery that provides the fresh-baked Italian bread for the sandwiches - which Bucci describes as "food you'd eat with a fork, on a roll." Sandwich ingredients include roasted peppers and asparagus.

And if you want proof, the deli follows tradition: Bucci said every loaf of bread is cut into two sandwiches with a "slug" cut from the center to make the sandwiches 10 inches. When asked why they don't just make the bread the right size, Bucci dismiss the question with, "the bread's hand-made, that's the size it comes out." ( I guess there is such a thing as a stupid question.) "Slugs," however, are used for croutons, accompaniments for homemade soup and samples, to "keep people in line busy."

Bandana's Barb-B-Q already knew how to get its product into the locker room, but not how to get its offer in front of the players. Their barbecue was one of two meals selected by the Saint Louis Cardinals as their after-home-games feasts.

Execs had considered bringing samples of their barbecue to the show, Jay Mihulka said, but were discouraged by the hotel's food and beverage manager.

Still with the tagline, "Smell the smoke," they may have increased the body count at their booth.

Not all the interest came from the players. Tiffany Jones seemed more interested in learning about the different concepts than her fiance, Drayton Florence of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who was constantly distracted by former teammates.

A non-athlete attendee, Charles Ansah was at the show on behalf of several athletes who couldn't make it. His idea was to take the concepts to Africa, where there's less competition, but more money than most people think is there. Pizza, he said, is a good example of a product Africans would like, but that would also appeal to travelers from the U.S. to Africa.

Pat Pitrone of USA Insulation was back for his second go-around. He said he's still talking to some of the players he met at the last show - unfortunately the football season started and the young men's fancy turned to the business of football.

Before the second day of the show, many of the franchisors were already talking about coming back to Vegas for the next show. Bucci of Sarcone's was even plotting on how to ship his sandwiches to the event.

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