Sports brokerage Fantex adds more players as season approaches

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Buck French is not the type of person to watch a Buffalo Bills preseason football game — or any preseason football game, for that matter.

But he couldn’t help but watch as Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel took the field in an exhibition game televised earlier this month. As CEO and co-founder of the sports brokerage firm Fantex, Mr. French had a vested interest — literally — in Mr. Manuel’s performance.

Much as fantasy football has changed the way casual football fans watch the game, the emergence of Fantex as a marketplace for tracking stocks in athletes has created yet another reason to tune in on Sundays.

Fantex, a San Francisco brand-building company founded late last year, has grown rapidly since April when it first sold 421,000 shares of a tracking stock that promised shareholders 10 percent of all future football-related earnings for San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

The firm paid its first cash dividend — 70 cents per share — Monday for all Vernon Davis shareholders and earlier this summer it completed its second successful initial public offering for Mr. Manuel.

Now, the company is taking reservations for the Mohamed Sanu tracking stock, which entitles shareholders to a portion of future earnings for the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver. Shares are available for $10 and the company will pay Mr. Sanu $1.56 million upon completion of the IPO, meaning officials estimate he will earn $15.6 million over the remainder of his career.

These developments have added another layer of intrigue to the upcoming NFL season, where fans already had rooting and financial interests in the outcome.

“People are crazy about football, football statistics and individual players because they want to win their fantasy league,” said Tom Smith, an assistant finance professor at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta. “This is just an additional way people are going to be interested.”

The prospectus for all three players cautions investors that the stocks are “highly speculative” and involve a “high degree of risk.” Unlike contracts in other sports, football contracts are not guaranteed beyond a player’s signing bonus. And since the game carries a tangible risk of injury, one play can quickly sour any of those investments.

Mr. French wasn’t watching the Bills game to see if Mr. Manuel managed to avoid injury or if he made a spectacular play that could boost his brand. He simply was interested.

“I’m a big believer in what will happen is going to happen,” he said. “You can’t sweat what you don’t control.”

He focuses, instead, on executing the business side of his operations, which markets those players so their brand grows in value. When Mr. Davis skipped some off-season workouts in an attempt to negotiate a more lucrative contract, Mr. French said the tight end sought his advice.

“We, on our side, just advised him on the brand part of it,” Mr. French said, declining to elaborate on what he told the 49er.

Mr. Davis ended his holdout — without a new contract — at the start of training camp.

Fantex knew it would be able to pay dividends to Mr. Davis’ shareholders relatively quickly because of the cash flow of his endorsement deals, Mr. French said. The 70-cent dividend is a pretty significant payment for an initial $10 investment, Mr. Smith said.

“It maybe points to the fact that they want to make sure their shareholders are happy sooner rather than later,” he said.

Mr. Smith has a Fantex account, though he does not own any stock. He is a curious spectator at this point, watching to see how this model could impact sports economics. He will be even more intrigued if Fantex can branch to other sports and add more athletes to its roster.

The goal, Mr. French said, is to recruit as many athletes as possible. If he has had any discussions with Pittsburgh athletes, he isn’t sharing other than to say he would “love” to work with an athlete in this sports-crazed town.

The company first focused on football because it is the most popular spectator sport in the country. But Mr. French has attended golf tournaments and talked with several baseball players about his company. Though football is the most popular sport, successful golfers and baseball players easily outearn their pigskin peers.

“Until now, it’s a curiosity,” Mr. Smith said. “If it goes to the next step, it will be utterly fascinating.”

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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