Women's sports stars are looking beyond playing time to build business empires

Many of the fiercest competitors in women's sports are finding success beyond the playing field. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports_
Many of the fiercest competitors in women's sports are finding success beyond the playing field. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports_

Twelve-time Olympic swimming medalist Natalie Coughlin knew she "didn't have the personality" to go into coaching when her competitive career eventually came to an end. Although her career isn’t officially over yet — Coughlin raced as recently as last fall — her focus has shifted to areas outside the pool.

Among them, motherhood (her daughter Zennie was born in 2018) and the culinary arts — particularly, the business of wine. She picked up a love of food while traveling to compete — Coughlin distinctly remembers the ceviche-like dish Poisson Cru in French Polynesia — and was always a fan of wine, so when her winemaker friend of 15 years pitched her on starting a label, Coughlin's answer was an immediate yes.

“The idea of owning my own winery is it was something that was a pipe dream, but nothing I ever thought would actually happen,” says Coughlin, who co-founded Gaderian Wines in 2016 and published a cookbook ("Cook to Thrive") last year.

The 37-year-old mostly handles the branding and customer-relations side of the operation, and her business partner is the experienced winemaker. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the winery canceled in-person events and Coughlin hasn’t visited since shelter-in-place orders took effect, but they’re still able to take orders and ship bottles.

Coughlin is part of a growling list of female athletes becoming more visible than ever — branching into business, whether that’s through ownership, authorship or investment.

While having a small financial boost is a convenient byproduct of her business, Coughlin told Yahoo Sports, the main plus has been aiding the “psychological transition of switching careers.”

“I miss so many things in swimming, and the main parts are just that daily grind and that daily struggle of being with my teammates and joking around and just killing ourselves in the gym or in the pool for this lofty shared goal. Like that is such a wonderful, special experience that I think a lot of times athletes take for granted and they don't realize until it's over,” Coughlin said.

“Having outside hobbies and outside interests really laid the groundwork for the next career, and just knowing that it has to come to an end at some point — and if you're going to retire at age 34, 35 or 29 or whatever it is, that's still so young. So you have to have a plan beyond the pool.”

Streaming on Yahoo Sports
Streaming on Yahoo Sports

According to UC Berkeley professor of finance Stephen Etter, who’s spent the past two decades teaching the school’s soon-to-be professional athletes how to handle their money, Coughlin is part of a rising generation of athletes coming through programs led by strong coaches who influenced their lives outside of competition.

“The core element around why we have so many great women today in sports is an increase in the skill bases that result from competitive athletics, and they result from a family at Berkeley of coaches,” said Etter, whose former students include Missy Franklin, Marshawn Lynch and Jared Goff. “Like Teri McKeever [who coached Coughlin] in swimming, [Cal women’s basketball coach] Charmin Smith or [former Cal coach] Lindsay Gottlieb in women's basketball. These three coaches don't focus only on national championships. They focus on national championships, a degree from the institution so when your sporting life is done you have that degree, and developing women.”

Both coaches and athletes are benefiting from an increase in opportunity that stems from the implementation of Title IX, Etter added.

“By increasing the number of women involved in sports, these skills have been built over the last two decades and you see the surge of these unbelievable, great, qualified women because they're doing things that their counterparts, men, did historically forever and ever. And with Title IX and the opportunity for them — and quality coaches focused on those skill basis — that's why we see so many women being very successful.”

Etter added that a post-competitive career plan is particularly important for women given the reality of the pay gap in professional sports.

“I focus on that more with women than I do men because I work with a lot of NFL, NBA, PGA golfers — and the men earn so much money. We focus on ‘Are you going to have a foundation? Do you have the right investment plan? Do you want to work again?’ With women I am 100 percent focused on reality — I don't like it,” Etter said. “I understand it from television revenue-sharing standpoint, but I don't like it. As a result, we focus a tremendous amount on income-earning jobs versus nonprofits, and investing your own money after your professional sport.”

Venus Williams, left, from the U.S., celebrates after defeating her sister, Serena, in a match during the opening day of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Venus and Serena Williams have each branched out into interior design and clothing, respectively. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Venus and Serena Williams

Among the most prominent examples of stars putting their college degrees to work and investing their earnings are tennis’ Williams sisters, who have leveraged their following and business acumen into empires.

The younger of the two, Serena, studied fashion design before her pro career took off. She launched her eponymous independent clothing line in 2018, citing a desire for total control over the designs as a major factor (as opposed to having collections with pre-existing major brands).

As of last year, Serena had also invested a total of $6 million in 34 startups through Serena Ventures, according to Forbes. And despite not winning another title on the court in the 18 months or so after giving birth to her first child, Serena managed one of the more lucrative periods of her career. From June 2017 to June 2018, she earned $62,000 for performances on the court, but an additional $18.1 million in endorsements and business ventures in that time.

“I want to be a part of it,” Serena told Forbes of her hands-on business strategy. “I want to be in the infrastructure. I want to be the brand, instead of just being the face.”

“I want to create a brand that has longevity, kind of like my career,” she added.

Venus, who studied interior design, has had her own firm since 2002: V Starr.

“My father always taught us to be business-minded, so I looked early on at my interests and other types of work,” Williams also told Forbes last year. “Ambition and passion motivates me to keep up with rapidly moving matches and projects, whether working with a new client or facing a new opponent on the court. There’s also a sense of camaraderie in both worlds.”

Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach

US soccer stars Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach have also forayed into off-the-field ventures, primarily in media. Morgan, 30, authored children’s books, has waded into acting and has a media company in the works that is geared toward female athletes telling stories for young girls.

“We’ve been able to see that we can use our platform to speak up about important issues,” Morgan told Bloomberg. “We’re authentic to who we are and what we stand for, and we’re becoming more brave and comfortable in our own skin.”

After going through a dark period of her life in the immediate years after retiring from soccer, Wambach found a second career in writing and speaking.

Her latest book, “Wolfpack,” moved out of the typical athlete memoir mold and into the self-help realm. She now travels the country doing speaking events, sometimes multiple per week — Wambach earns about $50,000 per appearance, her agent told Yahoo Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens last June.

Wambach’s company Wolfpack Endeavor additionally brings leadership development programs to “high-potential women” in the corporate world through “individualized coaching and community-building.”

“It’s not a job per se,” Wambach said regarding her second act. “Finding a purpose feels a lot like this is what I’ve been meaning to do this whole time. I never sat down and figured this stuff out. Now I feel like I’m finding my lane and the thing I was put on this planet to do. It doesn’t make you worry about what the outcome is. Because when you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing all that other stuff is bonus and byproduct.”

Much like Coughlin, Wambach’s newfound passion helped her transition from the high of professional sports.

“And that's really tough for athletes because you're so singularly focused on the Olympic Games or whatever the pinnacle of your sport is,” Coughlin said. “It's really hard to look beyond, but it's also necessary and kind of eases that transition.”


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