In the past, there were at least three ways pro athletes would make money: their contracts, product endorsements and investments in businesses ranging from real estate to fast food franchises.
Now they're diversifying into tech. The latest example is NFL star Russell Wilson, known for his constant stream of comments, photos, videos and motivational pep talks on social media, is hoping to cash in with his own celebrity app.
The Seattle Seahawks quarterback is hoping his fans will download a new free mobile app called TraceMe that's launching Friday for Apple's iPhone and iPad. The Super Bowl winner, who counts more than 9 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, plans to provide daily commentary, along with peeks into other parts of his life like training sessions and cooking lessons from his personal chef.
The way it works is pretty simple: After downloading, opening and signing up for the app, you swipe to different sections ranging from video to running commentary and even a place where you can ask Wilson questions. Think of it as a one-sided social network. He posts, and he hopes you'll eat it up.
TraceMe is free, for now. TraceMe CEO Jason LeeKeenan declined to say how the app is going to make money, but it's a safe bet it will be through ads, merchandise sales and eventually a paywall.
TraceMe has raised $9 million so far from investors including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai. Wilson, who founded the app, acts as its executive chair. The company won't say how much he invested personally.
Whether Wilson can capitalize on TraceMe is an open question. While it's pretty typical to see sports stars in ads, and their likenesses used for video games, soft drink cans, clothes and posters, they've been increasingly branching into tech too.
But so far, the results have been mixed.
Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is a co-founder of social media startup Slyce and an app called CoachUp through which young athletes can pay for individualized coaching. NBA legend Kobe Bryant is backing a $100 million venture capital fund, which is investing in tech, media and data. Meanwhile, former NFL All-Pro Patrick Willis is reportedly trying to recoup millions after investing in an ill-fated Silicon Valley cloud storage startup.
Football players in particular, like Wilson, are working to cash in on their brand while they can because their careers could be cut short by the sport's violent nature, said Adam Earnheardt, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio who specializes in social media. The NFL players' union and the league say the average player's career is between 3.3 and 6 years.
"There's something to be said if [Wilson] can parlay his built-in fan base into a successful operation," Earnheardt said. "It's definitely different than say, owning a car dealership."
The uber-cheery Wilson, known for posting positive messages, biblical passages and visits with sick kids at hospitals on social media (they used to come with the hashtag #NoTime2Sleep), said he wants even more interaction. And no, he's not abandoning his 4.2 million Twitter followers, 3.3 million Instagram fans or 2.2 million Facebook friends.
"I wanted to have a deeper connection with my superfans, it's that simple," he told me via email.
Wilson, who signed a four-year $87 million megadeal with the Seahawks two years ago, has other off-field business projects including Wheels Up, a private jet company. Last year, Forbes ranked him as the 18th highest-paid athlete in the world.
TraceMe's LeeKeenan said the app is inspired by video-streaming services and social networks like Snapchat and The Players Tribune, a free digital site started by baseball great Derek Jeter that features first-person stories by athletes (which Wilson invested in, though again he wouldn't say how much).
There's also a feature called Legends, where Wilson interviews football great Jim Brown and basketball great Bill Russell. He discusses not only sports with the hall of famers but also their longtime civil rights activism, timely given America's current social climate.
Eventually, LeeKeenan plans to add more celebrities to the app than just Wilson, like the player's pop star wife, Ciara.
"Current social media is great for getting the word out, but it doesn't let me go deep enough," Wilson said. "I want to have meaningful conversations and connect one on one with my biggest supporters."
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