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Conversation With: Michael Ledo, Founder and CEO of RISE Sports Advisors

The star collegiate athlete turned entrepreneur, whose advisory manages $150 million, talks about how he molds an athlete entrepreneur, why his firm recently launched a subsidiary, and more.
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Michael Ledo

Despite turning into a two-time All-American running back at the University of Saint Francis, an NAIA institution in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Michael Ledo knew that sports did not define him. After all, he was pretty confident that he wasn’t carving out a career as a professional athlete. Instead, the now CEO and founder of Frisco-based RISE Sports Advisors, graduated in 2005 with a business degree and jumped right into scratching his entrepreneurial itch to help pro athletes grow their business ventures.

Ledo grew up in Indiana around one of the most prominent and accomplished Black sports agent in his uncle Eugene Parker, who represented seven NFL Hall of Famers, including Deion Sanders, Curtis Martin, Rod Woodson, amongst others.

With some familial influence in one hand and the entrepreneurial drive in the other, Ledo set out to create an agency that could help athletes build their own businesses, while also providing sound financial advice with an eye on the future, post-playing career. After all, according to the documentary “Broke,” an episode in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, more than 70 percent of professional athletes fall on financial hardships shortly after they retire. Thus, RISE Sports Advisors was founded in 2016.

Today, RISE has a roster of 12 clients, including former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates, and New England Patriots defensive lineman Matthew Judon, amongst others—with more on the way—and nearly $150 million in assets under advisement. A few of the ventures these athletes are involved in, or invest in, include iCryo Cryotherapy, JB3 Charitable Fund, Carmen Place Real Estate Development, and Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery.

In an exclusive conversation with D CEO, Ledo shares his vision for what he sees RISE becoming, his passion for mentoring athletes in their entrepreneurial endeavors, and more.

D CEO: What gap in the sports management industry did you see that needed to be addressed?

Ledo: “The fundamental thing was we wanted to provide athletes with an infrastructure that just did not exist. A lot of athletes have all these advisors around. They have a financial advisor, they have an agent, accountant, they have attorneys. But they don’t have somebody that intentionally develops an infrastructure for them while they’re playing to become an entrepreneur. There’s no plan or strategy to get where they want to be. So, we had to first come up with what the ‘need’ was. You hear these horror stories about guys with their finances making bad decisions. In many cases its worse than what I would have thought. Our specialty is athlete enterprise development and management. So, we help develop them, but then we manage as well.”

D CEO: What is the sales pitch for attracting athletes to join RISE?

Ledo: “I think the first thing is understanding their value alignment. We know our value proposition is that we have the infrastructure, the experience, and the ecosystem to help build an athlete entrepreneur. We’re going to help develop and then we’re going to help manage extremely well as they grow their enterprise. The first thing I want to know is what their vision is. Do they even have an interest in being an entrepreneur? If they want to be a passive investor and they don’t have an interest in being educated and learning, and don’t like being held accountable to what they set out to do, they aren’t for us. So, we try to identify what they want to do.

“Do they really want to build a legacy? Do they really want to build generational wealth? When you want to be a serial entrepreneur you need somebody that will you focus on certain things. No different than Lebron James, Serena Williams, or Tom Brady. Those people have an infrastructure that supports that. They have to have an intentional, disciplined desire to want to make the right decision. And they have to be willing to reprogram themselves. It is no different than someone changing their diet or workout routine. Are they willing to make the necessary pivots and adjustments to get where you want to go?”

D CEO: What is the education process like when working with athletes that are interested in expanding a business brand?

Ledo: “Some of them have ideas, in which case some are not the best business ideas because they have no exposure or experience. Some of them don’t have any ideas at all. My skillset is sitting down with someone and figuring out what their interests are and helping devise a strategy to get there. Most of these athletes have very little exposure to business. They don’t have exposure to business operations, alternative investments, real estate, or venture capital. So, what we have to do is start with education and exposure. Once they get the exposure, they may start to see what their interests might be.”

D CEO: What are the most common mistakes athletes make early on while trying to develop as an entrepreneur?

Ledo: “I don’t care how good you are, the best investors like Elon Musk, Mark Cuban, or Warren Buffett, they’ve all made bad investments. Everyone is going to make a bad investment. I think the biggest issue with athletes is that they don’t know how to manage the operations in an enterprise. They don’t have the educational infrastructure on how to manage cash flow. They’re only going to play their sport from anywhere from 5 to 10 years—if they’re lucky. When they create a lifestyle that is unsustainable, unmanaged, and they’re not investing [properly]. They’re going to have bad investments, but they have to diversify their money. Diversify so that they’re not so singularly focused on something that if one thing fails, or one thing doesn’t go as well as they thought, that they’re still solid.”

D CEO: Since RISE focuses on not only growing athletes as entrepreneurs but also as people, how do you balance the professional/personal relationship?

Ledo: “I think when you work in the sports entertainment industry so much of it is about relationships and relatability with these athletes in the marketplace, and very little of it is about accountability, verification, and structure. So, when you have an organization like us that’s bringing structure and accountability so people may not like that because then they can’t maneuver in a way that they may have in the past. With these athletes what happens is the people that hang out with them and party with them casually, all of the sudden, end up being incredible businesspeople with ideas. What is their track record? Have they done that? Are they doing that? Or do they think that [the athlete] is a good person to fund their idea?

“One of the things we try to do is not speak in absolutes. We try to advise and give them a different perspective, or a different perspective as they consider doing things, or just the honest view. But we’re never trying to cross the line of stepping into a boundary or place. We don’t cross the line of what the client put up, and each client had a different line.” 

D CEO: What do the next five years of RISE look like? What is the path to continue to grow and expand?

Ledo: “I think we grow by helping our clients grow. First and foremost, our interests are aligned with their interests. If their bottom line grows, we grow. If their bottom line goes the other direction, then we go the other direction. It’s not trying to grow too fast and being greedy and taking care of the people we have and helping them grow. We recently launched another subsidiary of our company, RISE Capital Partners. We’re now doing our own targeted funds and we just did a fund where we invested in a lot of land in North Texas, and we’re also looking to launch a targeted fund on franchise investors. We’re dealing with about three or four brands and franchises that we’re going to raise some capital investments, then diversify that money in cash flow. We’ve also done a partnership with the University of North Texas and its sports management MBA program where we are doing an online course for professional athletes to educate them on angel investing. And we want to expand [our client base]. We want to start adding some female athletes, major leaguers, and NBA players to our roster.” 

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