A deal between a star NFL linebacker and a nutrition start-up shows the future of athlete endorsements

Luke kuechlyThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesLinebacker Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50

Endorsement deals used to be simple.

An athlete shows up, says how much he or she likes the product to the cameras, then the athlete gets paid.

Nowadays, however, athletes are more and more frequently diving into the deep end with the businesses they endorse.

Case-in-point, a newly-minted deal between Carolina Panthers All-Pro Linebacker Luke Kuechly and a small, but growing, sports nutrition start-up Eat The Bear (ETB).

Kuechly is just the third equity investor in the firm, according to CEO Jude Colangeo. The company took a private placement from two investors in September 2015. Kuechly will also take a seat on ETB’s Board of Directors, giving the football star a huge sway over the business side of the firm.

Eat the Bear isn’t a large company by any stretch. Colangelo says that the fitness supplement company is projected to do $4 million in sales this year of it’s “clean and lean” protein powders and supplements, but Kuechly’s investment automatically raises the profile of the Charlotte-based firm.

Part of the draw of taking a stake in something like ETB, according to Kuechly, is that it’s a play for the long-term, even when football is over.

“You think about your NFL career as a finite thing,” Kuechly told Business Insider.

“I don’t know how many years you play into your thirties, but from thirty until whenever you’ve got to have something to do and opportunities like this give you the chance to see stuff on the other side. Football is there and then the business world is something else that I’ve thought about and looked at and the opportunity with [ETB] to get some experience to go out and do that is important.”

Luke kuechly eat the bearEat The BearEat The Bear CEO Jude Colangelo and Carolina Panthers Linebacker, and ETB investor, Luke Kuechly

Investing for the future is a growing trend for athletes looking to shore up their post-playing careers. NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have both gotten involved in Silicon Valley, while a number of athletes have set their sights on various start-ups to begin to build a portfolio for when they retire.

Even a giant like Under Armour has begun to give equity stakes to their celebrity endorsers such as Steph Curry.

While not entirely new, the Kuechly deal on Monday, however, is indicative of the next step in these endorsements: getting involved as the face of the brand, taking a stake in the brand, and working inside the business itself.

Kuechly said he recognises that he can actually contribute not just to the notoriety of ETB, but also the direction of the business moving forward. The idea being that Kuechly isn’t just there to be a smiling face on the front of the brand, but rather try and make an impact on the business, develop the product and contribute to the company’s long-term success.

“It will be an open dialogue, if I’m thinking of some things that could be beneficial — whether it be something I’ve used previously or something I see while playing, I’ll let them know about it,” said Kuechly.

Colangelo, a former commodities futures trader at Merrill Lynch and UBS, said Kuechly’s relationship should be a close one since both ETB and Kuechly are based in Charlotte. Colangelo even joked that Kuechly is “coming for his office” eventually.

“I can lend my experiences from the [Panthers], from the NFL, and try to help the company grow,” Kuechly said. “If I can lend my experiences from the inside of the NFL to the product and hopefully we can move this in the right direction.”

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