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From athlete to owner: J.J. Watt’s second act across the pond

In Sports
February 25, 2024
J.J. Watt is interviewed prior to the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester City on August 11, 2023. (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

J.J. Watt is interviewed prior to the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester City on August 11, 2023. (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Professional athletes retire at a relatively young age, so even the richest, most successful ones need a “second career” once their playing days are over.

There are some common paths for retired stars — like joining the media, or starting their own business. In recent years, rising salaries and endorsement earnings have opened up a new opportunity: minority sports team ownership.

There are not many billionaire athletes. In fact, there are literally four: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tiger Woods. There are, however, a growing number of athletes who are retiring with hundreds of millions of dollars.

These less-rich-yet-still-extremely-rich athletes are never going be majority NBA owners like Jordan, nor are they going to casually write a $50 million check for 2.3% of the Dodgers like Magic did. But could they own a small stake in a pro team? Absolutely.

Take J.J. Watt. The future Hall of Famer earned $130 million in salary during his 12-year NFL career and tens of millions more in endorsements. He has way more money than 99.9% of people, yet way less money than the 0.1% who tend to own the world’s most valuable teams.

So when Watt became a minority owner, he didn’t buy one of the world’s most valuable teams. He bought one of the oldest.

“It checked every single box”

Watt first became a Premier League fan during his rookie year with the Texans. “I’d wake up early in the morning before walkthroughs or meetings, and the Premier League would be on NBC,” he told me in a phone interview. “So I’d be drinking my coffee, watching the games. That’s how I started to learn about it.”

Watt’s interest in soccer continued to grow, and that passion took on a whole new meaning in 2016 when he met his now-wife, Kealia, a pro soccer player for the NWSL’s Houston Dash. “That’s when I really started to love it,” says the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Five or so years later, with his NFL career nearing its end, Watt began thinking about the possibility of owning a soccer team. “I started doing my research, putting out feelers, taking meetings,” he says. “I was actually looking at another opportunity when someone said, ‘Hey, have you talked to Burnley yet?'”

That led to a meeting with Burnley chairman Alan Pace, an American businessman whose company ALK Capital had acquired the 141-year-old club in 2020 for about $271 million.

“I started going down my checklist, and it checked every single box,” says Watt. “I took a trip over there, visited with everybody, and just decided, ‘This is the place.’ I like the people, I like the vision, I like the plan.”

In May 2023, J.J. and Kealia announced their investment in Burnley, which had just clinched promotion to the Premier League after a dominant season in the second-tier Championship.

It’s been a struggle this season in England’s top flight, where Burnley currently sit in 19th place (out of 20) with just three wins in 26 matches. “We’re not where we want to be,” says Watt, “but I’m still loving every second of it.”

J.J. and Kealia Watt watch a Burnley match at Turf Moor. (Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

J.J. and Kealia Watt watch a Burnley match at Turf Moor. (Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

A hands-on approach

Watt isn’t the only former NFL star with a stake in an English football club. Tom Brady co-owns Birmingham City, which currently plays in the Championship.

Other athletes-turned-minority owners include: LeBron James (Liverpool, Red Sox, Penguins); Dwyane Wade (Jazz); Patrick Mahomes (Royals, Sporting KC, KC Current); Serena Williams (Dolphins, Angel City FC); Kevin Durant (Philadelphia Union); and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Brewers).

Being a minority owner means different things to different people. Some, like Watt, want to be involved in the day-to-day, while others take a more passive approach.

“There are many different types of athlete minority owners,” says Watt. “There’s some where you have a 0.00001% stake and there’s a press release, and that’s kind of the end of it. Then there are others, like me, who want to be more hands-on.”

“I wanted to find something where we could actually make an impact,” he says. “I was just on a 45-minute call to discuss brand strategy. I’ll be in England soon for board meetings. I talk to our manager [Vincent Kompany] a couple times a month. I love everything about it.”

Watt tries to provide value where he can, whether that’s promoting the team on social media or fostering a player-friendly culture within the club. “Just knowing what it’s like to be an athlete, knowing what an organization can do to support its players and motivate them. I lived that as a player, and now I’m on the other side of it.”

From “Broke” to sophisticated

In 2012, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Broke,” examined the many roads to bankruptcy that athletes take once their playing careers are over. That narrative has changed a bit over the last decade as athletes have become more sophisticated with their money.

Today’s sports superstars aren’t just endorsing products or slapping their names on sports bars; they’re investing in tech startups, buying up real estate, and even participating in private equity deals.

Leading the private equity charge is Patricof Co, an investment and advisory platform that identifies co-investment opportunities for its roster of 240 athletes.

Through Patricof Co, Watt and other big name athletes like Wade, Travis Kelce, Blake Griffin and Venus Williams have acquired farmland, invested in high school sports powerhouse IMG Academy, and even cashed in on the $800 million sale of Cholula Hot Sauce.

“We source private equity investments that we think are the right kinds of deals for these guys to be in,” says founder Mark Patricof. “We try to match their interests and find the best ways to allocate the 20 or so percent of their net worth that they should be putting into private deals.”

“I think athletes are starting to understand that they have incredibly powerful brands, and that equity and ownership is something they can do with that,” says Watt. Plenty of companies, it turns out, want to be associated with pro athletes. And sports teams are no different.

Watt on the CBS Sports set prior to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Watt on the CBS Sports set prior to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Scratching an itch

Sports team valuations have done nothing but grow for decades, so buying a stake in one isn’t just a fun way to diversify a portfolio — it’s a sound long-term investment with plenty of upside. And in Watt’s case, ownership has proven to be even more than that.

“I had a conversation at dinner the other night with a couple former athletes and they were asking, ‘How’s retirement? Is it hard?’ And I said, honestly for me, having Burnley to scratch that competitive and adrenaline itch … has helped immensely.”

“When we watch these matches every single week, I’m watching as closely as you can possibly watch,” says Watt. “I’m living and dying with every kick of the ball. Like, it is not some passive thing where I’m checking the score after the game.”

“Having CBS and “The Pat McAfee Show” to scratch the NFL itch, plus having my brother and being able to watch him … If I didn’t have these things going on, retirement would be unbelievably difficult.”

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