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Why professional athletes can make good CEOs

Last updated on: January 31, 2008 14:47 IST

Earvin Magic Johnson projects the same sort of easy confidence when he talks about his business leadership role as he showed when he held court as a Los Angeles Laker.

"I'm still runnin' point," he said in an interview with Forbes.com at his Magic Theater in Harlem, New York.

Johnson, an NBA legend, has spent the better part of the decade or so since he retired from the game making his mark on the business world. As chief executive officer of Magic Johnson Enterprises, the Hall-of-Famer and Olympic Gold medallist now captains an organization, which serves underprivileged and ethnically diverse communities in the U.S.

To carry out its mission, MJE has partnered with various corporate organizations, from Burger King to and most recently Aetna. Johnson says that, while some people might see him as a proven leader, it's Aetna CEO Ronald Williams who is the true businessman, the brains, in this tag-team effort to bring health care to the underprivileged.

With his philanthropic and profitable ventures, Johnson is in a class of professional athletes that have found almost the same success in retirement as they had when they were putting fans in the stands.

Set aside charity for a moment, and forget the localized athlete-owned restaurants or car dealerships. Instead, consider the career endeavors that require the same leadership it takes to rally teammates before the big game. The leadership that earned Michael Jordan those rings. Or the commitment that got Cal Ripken Jr. to show up for work 2,632 straight times without calling in sick. How many of us could say that?

For professional athletes breaking into business, their hope is to translate the same skills they called on to succeed in their prime into running anything from a lemonade stand to a venture capital firm.

Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, said the transition works well for most athletes. He sees it first hand with football players.

The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania has a program offered exclusively to current and former NFL players, teaching them entrepreneurship and financial investment strategies. Shropshire said it's possible the business school will offer this program to other professional sports organizations in the near future.

"Many of these guys are already leaders," Shropshire said. "It's how do you translate that respect and get people to follow you like when you hit the hardest on the field? How do you carry that over to business?"

He used former NFL safety Ronnie Lott as the prime example. Lott, who co-founded a successful venture capital firm four years after his football retirement, has participated in the Wharton program as an instructor. Players look to Lott for guidance.

Outside of football, golfer Greg Norman and skateboarder Tony Hawk have created empires in their respective sports. Norman's businesses include clothes and wine, while Hawk has a film and TV production company.

The list continues. But in all cases, no matter the game, they're all still "running point."

Matthew Kirdahy, Forbes