Kansas City is a sports town, and it’s also chock-full of businesses that make the sports world tick.
Some of those companies are recognized instantly for their expertise and excellence in the sports world. Architectural firms such as Populous, HOK and HNTB build facilities, and companies like Garmin and Bushnell provide products.
But there are many names that are not at the forefront, though some of their creations are highly recognizable, such as the Hy-Vee Fan Zone at Arrowhead Stadium. Other companies aren’t well-known locally, but their work appears on the national and international sports stage including the revamped Bowl Championship Series for NCAA Division I football and the Olympics.
Then there are managers and agents who help professional athletes with money management and business opportunities.
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Despite their behind-the-scenes roles, many companies are flourishing by supporting various aspects of the sports world.
“Sports has become so much of our entertainment and is so pervasive,” according to Jordan Bass, sport management program director and assistant professor in the health, sport and exercise program at the University of Kansas. “You can’t avoid the sporting world so you have more organizations taking advantage.”
Here is a look at a several companies that have staked out a niche in the business of sports.
Premier Sports Management
Overland Park is home to Premier Sports Management, a 26-year-old sports marketing, events and brand management firm led by chief executive Gary Heise.
“We do a lot of things that an advertising agency does,” said Heise, who oversees a dozen employees. “One of our main buckets are sports organizations such as leagues, teams, associations. We develop and execute marketing platforms and manage special events for them. Second, we work with corporate brands that utilize sports as part of their marketing mix such as sponsorships.”
The company develops strategies, helps evaluate sponsorship opportunities for these clients, and negotiates the deals.
Premier’s third market is its newest: Awards and events.
One of its creations is the Senior Class Awards—a collegiate award that honors a senior athlete of the year who stays in school for their four years of eligibility.
Premier’s stable of clients includes the NFL, NBA, NCAA, Sprint, Lowe’s and Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The firm also does business with the Chiefs and Royals. Premier was involved in the two teams’ current partnership with the University of Kansas Hospital.
In 2015, Premier led the branding effort for the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Series — a business opportunity that stemmed from a long relationship Heise has had with Bill Hancock, the BCS’s first executive director.
The sporting world was nothing new to Heise, who has a background in college athletics at Kansas State University. When he moved to Kansas City, Heise joined the Chiefs as the team’s public relations director. After several years with the team, Heise left in 1990 and started Premier.
“The sports business was growing immensely at that time and so more opportunities beyond working for a team,” Heise said. “I did not start with a 20-year master plan. The sports business was changing dramatically, and I thought it was worth pursuing.”
Premier continues to grow.
Heise and his team are now working on another signature event called the Legends of Sports Golf Challenge. It is a Ryder Cup-style tourney with teams comprised of Hall of Fame figures from the professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey alumni associations. The search is on for title sponsor and host location for the 2018 event.
Chris Smith is also no stranger to the world of sports.
A former football player at the University of Hawaii and Missouri State University, Smith has taken his passion for sports and rolled it into a business. He is the founder and chief executive of Lenexa-based Athlete Network, an online network for athletes to connect with each other and professional opportunities.
Using software developed by Smith and his team, athletes at any level create a profile on the site listing their athletic and professional interests. Members can then connect.
Athlete Network has two revenue streams. “Employers pay us to match them with our athletes and then we work with associations that license our technology,” Smith said.
Smith said competitive athletes make for good employees. Athlete Network provides the platform for making those connections.
“Companies are struggling to hire really qualified people,” Smith said. “Athletes are coachable and competitive…. Creating a page on the network provides companies the opportunity to speak to that athlete. The value that creates is efficiency. When an athlete reaches out to an employer in the network or another athlete, 80 percent of the time those connections are accepted.”
After his college career, Smith parlayed his competitive nature into a job with pharmaceutical company.
“As I went through the management program they asked, ‘Why do you excel?’ and I would say, ‘I worked hard and it came through my athletics,’ ” Smith said. Those conversations got Smith thinking as an entrepreneur.
Smith put together a business plan, set goals and found investors. He spent several years testing the software, brought on former football player Dirk Ochs as a partner, and launched Athlete Network in January 2015.
Today, Athlete Network has 18 full-time employees, several fulltime contractors, and 200,000 athlete members from across country and around the world. The network also has more than 300 corporate and educational partners including Baker University, Benedictine College, Kansas State University, and Wake Forest University as well as KPMG, Northwestern Mutual Enterprise and Johnson & Johnson.
One of Athlete Network’s most recent client acquisitions is the United States Olympic Committee’s Athlete and Career Education program. The company built a special platform for it.
Crossroads Financial Management
Doug Elstun helps athletes make the transition from on-field to off-field endeavors.
On a recent afternoon Elstun — of Crossroads Financial Management — met at an area restaurant with his client David West, of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The reason for the meeting was West’s possible investment in a product to help provide sufficient water in an impoverished African country.
Crossroads, based in Lenexa, provides investment management for individuals, like West, as well as corporations and endowments.
“With any of our clients we will get involved in anything financial they want us to do — from budgeting to car loans,” said Elstun. “With athletes, we have to take it a step further and make sure their entire financial picture fits…. We want to make sure their minds are clear when they hit the playing field or court. When an athlete hits the field and their personal or financial life is a mess, they don’t play as well.”
In addition to West, Elstun works with 14 current or retired athletes. Among them are former Chiefs and Pro Football Hall of Famer Will Shields and fellow NFL player Darren Sproles of the Philadelphia Eagles, who’s from Olathe. Elstun’s NBA players include former KU basketball star Brandon Rush of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Paul George of the Indiana Pacers and DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors.
Elstun is a former athlete himself, having played basketball back in high school at Shawnee Mission West. But Elstun had another interest back then — an affection for the stock market. Elstun played collegiate basketball with both the University of North Carolina and the Kansas Jayhawks, where his father, Gene, played in the 1950s.
Fresh out of KU in 1991 with an economics degree, Elstun landed an investment job with Bill Larmer, which led to the creation of Crossroads Financial Management.
Elstun made great connections during his years in collegiate sports; he’s utilized them since the beginning.
“I had a list of about 200 names including folks like Danny Manning and some of the guys I had played with at Kansas and Carolina…. We’ve worked with Danny, Steve Nash…. Our athletic clients are taking our company places as they all grow.”
Elstun is always keeping his eyes open for new athlete clients. One of the firm’s most recent clients is Evan Boehm, a Lee’s Summit West and University of Missouri graduate drafted by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Since opening in Johnson County 24 years ago, Dimensional Innovations has specialized in creating the latest in sports fan experiences. The company has its 70,000-square-foot facility in northern Overland Park employing 193 people. It also has small offices in Atlanta and Virginia.
DI, as it’s called, employs a cross-section of creative people that work in six categories: branding, design, technology, build, launch and innovation.
“We try to make the fan experience better with our partners in the collegiate and professional sports world,” said Justin Wood, principal of the company’s sports practice.
Wood said a major part of the company’s business comes from teams, leagues and conferences as well as other segments of the entertainment industry.
“We have a growing presence in the corporate storytelling marketplace, healthcare and museums,” Wood said.
DI may be part of a fan experience project or develop the entire project, often using interactive technology. Sports projects in the area include the Hy-Vee Hot Zone at Arrowhead and parts of the Royals Hall of Fame and the social media zone at Kauffman Stadium.
DI also has active relationships with KU, K-State, and the University of Missouri. The firm is completing work on a project at Daytona International Speedway that will be ready in December. DI has done the locker room for the Charlotte Hornets, the Cleveland Indians Kids Clubhouse, the Big Ten Experience at the conference’s headquarters, and the Minnesota Vikings’ Viking Voyage.
Its pending projects include work with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Blackhawks and the Atlanta Falcons’ stadium.
Pro Athlete Inc.
One of DI’s newest clients is another sports-related business, Pro Athlete Inc. The e-commerce company, located just south of Kansas City International Airport, has several sites that sell baseball bats and gloves.
“We sell to youth ballplayers all the way up to the professional level,” said owner Scott Hedrick.
Pro Athlete sells products under four different domains — justbats.com, justgloves.com, batwarehouse.com and ballglovewarehouse.com.
“Just Bats and Just Gloves are our main sites,” Hedrick said. “The others are where we test new stuff at before we bring it over to the big sites. If there is a new feature, we might roll it out on these sites.”
Pro Athlete has 50 employees. Its 50,000 square-foot facility houses tens of thousands of bats and gloves.
“We don’t manufacture anything, (but) in our warehouse we have every bat and every glove that’s made,” he said. “We are the largest online dealer of bats. We sell Louisville sluggers, Rawlings.”
A high school baseball player, Hedrick landed in the sports industry through his parents, Wes and Judi Hedrick. The couple started Pro Athlete Sporting Goods, a retail store, in 1987. Their son worked there during summers and joined full-time after graduation.
In the late 1990s, Pro Athlete went online with the products in the store with Scott Hedrick leading the charge.
Today, the company is online-only, selling just gloves and bats.
Pro Athlete is able to compete with retail stores for a number of reasons, Hedrick said.
“We are open 24-7 and respond promptly…. We have every bat and every glove in stock so we are almost never out of it,” he said.
Hedrick uses his close proximity to the airport as a marketing tool for the company.
“We painted the logo on the roof so planes can see it when the fly over,” he said.