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Chargers’ Ekeler Takes to YouTube to Build His Brand

Building on his own viewing habits, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has turned to YouTube to grow his visibility off the field.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler watches a lot of YouTube.

“I subscribe to six or seven channels and find myself watching it instead of TV or movies,” said the 23-year-old, who signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017. “It’s a younger generation thing, YouTube is a big platform, and there’s a lot of good content to figure out how to do anything.”

Ekeler said he’s used YouTube to do everything from learn how to change a tire to educate himself about personal finance and the stock market. He’d also watched people work out. A self-described gym rat, occasionally recorded his own workouts, too, in an effort to watch himself improve and learn.

READ MORE: Alex Rodriguez Takes Fans Behind the Curtain With New YouTube Channel

Eventually, something clicked. Why can’t I do that? Now, Ekeler is devoting his offseason to building his brand via making a YouTube channel out of his workout routines.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “I just started posting them for fun, I’m not trying to make money, it’s just something for me.”

That doesn’t mean he can’t try to draw an audience, though. The channel isn’t large by any means and boasted fewer than 300 subscribers prior to being shared last week by the NFL’s Instagram account. For now, Ekeler says, that’s a start.

“It’s building a brand,” he added, before noting he may try to actively grow the site down the road if he believes it provides revenue potential. “It’s amazing, people can get behind the scenes and find out who you are and not just playing on Sundays and in interviews.”

According to David Artzi, founder of DA Athlete Marketing, which handles Ekeler’s marketing efforts, it’s a strategy in line with where brand-building is going in a time when younger generations and their shifting consumer habits begin to play a greater role in an athlete’s fanbase. Artzi believes it’s more important than ever for athletes to establish themselves as their own brand and connect with fans on a more personal level if they aspire to grow off-the-field income sources.

“There’s a misconception with athletes I’ve worked with before that, just because they’re in the league, they’re entitled to getting partnerships and sponsors,” Artzi said. “They need to build their own brands. And with guys like Austin, they’re finding more creative ways to build their brands off the field.”

For Ekeler, perhaps the easiest part is that it’s not forced. YouTube was an obvious extension of his own consumer habits, as well as a natural platform considering he was already recording his workouts and occasionally posting them to Instagram. He believes the organic nature of the content plays a major role in his desire to create it.

“YouTube is something you can’t force,” Ekeler said. “It has to be something you can put up with. It’s like if a rock star writes a song — they better like it because they’ll be playing it for 20 years.

“You can’t be dreading the content.”

That authenticity can also be a valuable audience growth tool when it does come time to grow the product. Gen Z and younger audiences are more likely to relate to athletes on a personal level as well as trust the more implicitly. To that end, they desire a more genuine connection to brand incorporation, too. 

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Artzi believes a natural next step would be to leverage Ekeler’s passion by organically including a brand within future videos.

It’s just one way to grow the channel, which Ekeler expects to continue into next offseason. Another could be to hire a video editor, which would both save himself time as well as facilitate a more consistent style between episodes. Stretching the channel beyond workout videos also isn’t out of the question, perhaps through a vlog to further allow fans into his life.

No matter the trajectory, though, don’t expect Ekeler to stop using YouTube in his daily life any time soon. After all, flat tires don’t fix themselves.

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

Athletes In Business

Trio of NFL Players Work Together for A Dunkin’ Retirement

Ricky Jean Francois, Jordan Reed and Sam Shields are building a Dunkin’ empire in South Carolina and Georgia to better set themselves up for retirement.

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Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to his fifth season, Ricky Jean Francois received a significant lump sum of cash from the contract he signed with the Indianapolis Colts. He knew exactly what to do with it. 

“I needed a retirement fund,” said Jean Francois, a 10th-year defensive tackle who’s currently a free agent. “I had the money but didn’t want to spend all the money. I wasn’t going to be a 30 for 30 subject about going broke. If I had the resources, we needed to get a retirement plan going.”

His financial manager, Sherard Rogers, suggested Dunkin’ franchises as a potential pathway for his post-career plans. Rogers brought Jordan Reed and Sam Shields, two of his other clients, into the fold, and together the three players started U Donuts, LLC. The business has since purchased territory rights between Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, with the potential to build 26 stores. The company began with three locations and now has nine operational, with four more planned to open this year. Jean Francois said U Donuts is prioritizing steady growth over exploding the number of franchises.

READ MORE: Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

“It’s a growing brand that will let us take it as far as we want to,” he added. “Everybody loves coffee. “We thought it’d be smart to get into something a lot of people can’t not start their day with”

Dunkin’ relies on franchisees like the trio of NFL players to continue its growth throughout the nation, said Grant Benson, Dunkin’ Brands senior vice president of franchising and business development. Benson noted Jean Francois, Reed and Shields all demonstrate high confidence in the Dunkin’ model, which makes them easy to work with.

“Many of the skills learned in sports can translate to franchising, and these professional athletes know how to work hard and utilize the operations playbook to their advantage,” Benson said. “We look forward to working with U Donuts to bring great products and an exceptional guest experience to our loyal guests throughout South Carolina and Georgia.”

The trio of NFL players combined their efforts to help other prepare for their post-NFL lives. Jean Francois said the trio could have prioritized individual endeavors but understood early on that combining resources will better prepare all of them for retirement.

“It’s better when you have other people that want to get their post-career started now, investing now,” he said. “I get to learn from them, they get to learn from me, and we all get to make our money work now and see what our money is doing.”

Likewise, Jean Francois said he’s excited to set himself up for other business endeavors, which might start sooner rather than later, as he’s unsure of whether he’ll be on a team this fall.

“We all work together, get on calls with one another and our other partners that are professionals, so I know it as well,” he said. “I’m on the back end of my career, so I have to start preparing and be used to it.”

One additional venture could be real estate. The group is currently purchasing the real estate on which future Dunkin’ locations will sit, provided they don’t get a better offer for the land. 

READ MORE: Chargers’ Ekeler Takes to YouTube to Build His Brand

“I want to look at dirt and not see it as dirt, [but] I see the future Dunkin’ built there,” he said. “Being part of it makes you work, makes you work the brain.”

As the trio of players continue to build their coffee and donut empire, Jean Francois wants more players to focus on building their post-career plans early on, so they can retire and walk gently into a comfortable life.

“When you have the resources, why not set an example for others?” he said. “We’ve all seen these recent deals. If these guys put 10% away, they can own whatever they want and coast.”

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Athletes In Business

Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

After years on the sidelines in retirement, the Pro Bowl quarterback has entered business world by co-founding ReadyList Sports.

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Photo Courtesy: ReadyList Sports

Jake Plummer isn’t ashamed to admit it: The former Pro Bowl quarterback had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to co-found a startup. He’s just glad his wife gave him a push.

He had been out of the NFL for nine years in 2015, and none of his post-retirement projects had stuck. None of them necessarily had to, either, with the windfall he accrued over 10 NFL seasons. He briefly took up coaching. He dabbled in real estate. He advocated for Charlotte’s Web CBD, a hemp oil. A stint on television with the Pac-12 proved to be short-lived. “That got old pretty quick,” he says.

But he had no clear direction until Chad Friehauf, a friend and former teammate on the Denver Broncos, showed him with a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation at a Boulder, Colorado, coffee shop. The subject was a business venture called ReadyList Sports, a product that digitizes football playbooks and makes them interactive. Plummer returned home and went about his week until his wife, Kollette, urged him to call follow up with Friehauf.

READ MORE: Jaguars’ Unique Arrangement Builds U.K. Audience

“’Did you look into that? It looked like a pretty cool idea. If it was to work, it would be a pretty awesome deal,’” Plummer recalls Kollette telling him. “Some men are afraid to admit it, but I’m not: My wife is usually right.”

Plummer signed on, and the two former quarterbacks got to work. As CEO, Friehauf handles the technical aspects. Plummer’s strength, meanwhile, is thinking ahead, not only to where the company is going but who it can partner with to get there.

“He’s definitely a big door-opener for us, whether it’s teams, coaches, investors, front office people, just his network now that his teammates are coaching high school or his teammates have kids in youth sports,” Friehauf says. “He’s great at seeing the big picture of where we want to take this thing.”

For Plummer, that means as high as possible. The product is tailored for all levels of competition, and Friehauf says ReadyList has clients ranging from youth flag football to the collegiate level via the University of Louisville. But its crown jewel is a longstanding relationship with current New York Jets and former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who used the system in Miami after Plummer originally approached him during Gase’s time as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. The next step is to add more clients like him.

“The pro level is where we feel we can validate this,” Plummer says. “Once you can convince a couple of coaches who are influential – and not just influential by making people do stuff, but if they do something, everyone is like, ‘Oh, we better check this out’ – that’s what we’re pursuing.”

Plummer says he’s encountered his fair share of pain points in his first-ever business venture. Among them: business terminology, the ever-changing timetables and updates associated with ReadyList’s technology, and, of course, work-life balance.

“You learn through business and starting this up that the work’s really never done,” he says. “There’s always somebody I haven’t called or emailed or told about this, so it can be tiresome if you don’t say ‘Alright, it’s 5 o’clock, I’m done. I won’t make any more calls, won’t answer any more emails.'”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, however, lies in persuading the often-close-minded world of football to think differently. That was never a problem for Plummer, who famously left the NFL to pursue a career in handball. It can be another matter entirely for coaches who are sometimes used to teaching players in a certain way for decades.

“We’re hoping that this tool can convince coaches, ‘Hey, there’s a better way to teach and there’s a more efficient way to run practices and everything,’” he says. “Kind of streamline that so time can be spent strategizing how to beat an opponent, not just getting kids lined up right.”

But four years of startup life have taught Plummer something valuable. After years on the sidelines following his retirement, he now realizes was more ready to take on a large-scale venture than he ever knew.

READ MORE: Less is More: How Andrew Luck Handles Off-The-Field Partnerships

“Being a quarterback, I realize I was already so immersed in business, but I didn’t know it,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to really play a lot of different roles. So as the business side of things has come around, I’ve learned a lot about it. It’s really been an easier transition than I thought, just because, as a QB, you’ve got to know your personnel, right?

“You’ve got to know your guys, how they respond when you push them, how you respond when they’re praising them, and the same goes with business. You’ve got to know when to put the pedal to the metal and when to lay off a little bit.”

Plummer is well aware that the work is only beginning. ReadyList intends to launch a new high school-specific product within the month, while the football offseason represents a prime sales opportunity for teams eager to get their selections in this month’s NFL draft up to speed as soon as possible once they’re signed. It’s been more than two decades since Plummer was in that situation as a first-round pick out of Arizona State. He’s learning to reacclimate to the learning curve.

“As a businessman now, to correlate to playing ball, you have failures,” he says. “You lose games, but you’ve just got to back to the drawing board and figure out what you can do better next time.”

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Athletes In Business

Former NHL Defenseman Tells Canadian Stories Through Whitby Watch Co.

Former NHL defenseman Jay Harrison is sharing Canadian stories and a message to other athletes to follow their passions with Whitby Watch Co.

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Photo Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Harrison had an unusual idea for retirement following a 10-year career in the NHL. He wanted to tell stories about his native Canada. It just so happened that his medium would be watches.

“Watches are cool expressions and represent more than a way to keep track of time,” said the former Maple Leafs, Hurricanes and Jets defenseman. “There’s a statement around it, and one huge component is what a watch says and doesn’t say.

“We’ve always loved watches and had this great idea to tell Canadian stories in a distinct and understated way. You have to be asked about it to boast in a pride a lot of Canadians have.”

READ MORE: Champ Bailey Uses Bailey Companies to Corner the Business World

Harrison, co-founder Duncan Fletcher and a group of investors launched Whitby Watch Co. in October with two initial products. The Intrepid Diver is a diver watch based on William Stephenson, a Canadian largely considered to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. According to Harrison, diver watchers were traditionally worn by James Bond. They’re reliable yet fashionable, understated yet distinct.

The second line, meanwhile, is a pilot watch called the Avro Arrow. Set at multiple price-point entry levels, it’s an homage to the cutting-edge aeronautic engineering prowess Canadians pushed in the mid-20th century.

Despite their Canadian roots, Whitby Watch Co. is already something of an international company. The watches are made by German watch manufacturer Jannes Vollmuth, whom Harrison credits for ensuring the designs are brought to life in an accessible, fashionable way with high-quality materials. Harrison and Fletcher are confident Whitby Watch Co. can eventually gain a foothold outside their home country on the sales side, too.

“A lot of the stories we’re excited to tell from a Canadian perspective have broader Western reach,” said Fletcher, executive director of Game Change and Professional Association of Athlete Development Specialists. “William Stephenson has a special resonance to Canadians who aren’t aware of it. These are the kinds of stories we’re eager to share and have the opportunity to bring to Canadians who aren’t as aware as they could or should be. The first couple are out there, but we have a few more that are more compelling coming.”

Harrison traces his love of watches back to a brief stint playing in Switzerland, the heartbeat of a world-renowned watch industry.

“It was the greatest place to get into the watch world,” Harrison said. “A great place to understand what timepieces can represent and to understand horology.”

While Switzerland is largely considered the homeland of premier watch brands, there is a current trend of microbrands in the timepiece industry that Harrison and Fletcher are excited to be a part of. Harrison says they hope to differentiate Whitby Watch Co. in the space by making their pieces more accessible. To that end, they’ve implemented a direct-to-consumer model which offers greater accessibility than a standard retail relationship might provide.

But they also understand the odds facing them as a niche brand in a highly competitive industry. To that end, Harrison believes success won’t be found in the bottom line, but in taking the chance at all.

“The watch market is an incredibly competitive space and looking at it for scale, and starting a brand probably isn’t a great idea to make a dent in the watch market,” he said. “What we have is a passion project for us. All of our stakeholders, we love watches, and we love where we’re from.”

READ MORE: Former NFL Lineman Looks to Change the Way We Share Music

In so doing, they’re also sending a message to athletes to make sure they have interests and business opportunities lined up before their careers are over.

“If you have these interests, take action on it,” Fletcher said . “We both work with active and recently retired athletes to make their migration to a new space, reducing the fear of going into those new environments. We’ve had an energy and interest in watches, and we’re trying to be that role model.

“The game doesn’t remove that interest as an opportunity. You can find those small steps to engage and learn more about it so when the day comes, you can go full throttle.”

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