Emmitt Smith on Entrepreneurship and the Business of Football

Football great Emmitt Smith knew two things from a very early age—that he would play football and that he would need a plan for life after the game.

The world-famous NFL Hall of Fame running back and serial entrepreneur was a guest speaker at this year’s first annual Scalable Impact Live. Emmitt sat down for an intimate chat with Roland Frasier to talk about his entrepreneurial journey and everything he’s done since retiring from football. The man has been busy, to say the least.

Listen in as he shares some secrets to his success and what drives him as an entrepreneur and a human being.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit Was With Him As a Kid

Emmitt became an entrepreneur at a young age without even realizing what he was doing, whether it was taking a lawnmower around the neighborhood cutting grass or working for a TV network in high school or detailing cars in college. “I did whatever I needed to do to subsidize,” he says, “to get the money I needed for clothes or gas.” 

He remembers one incident in particular when he was at his Pop Warner football coach’s 3600-square foot house. It was his first time ever at a white person’s house, his first time seeing a home office. He saw papers laying on a slanted board, and his coach started explaining what he did for a living. He started teaching him how to read blueprints and floor plans.

“He said football wouldn’t last forever, and I’d need a plan after it was over,” Emmitt says. “I was 11 years old.” 

He put that advice in the back of his head, because football and getting to college were at the forefront. He started getting college letters early on. He got so many he was sick and tired of looking at them. “Boxes and boxes and boxes of letters. It was ridiculous.” When his friend told him he could get a scholarship, and his parents wouldn’t have to pay for college, football became his first business. 

On The Business of Football

Things have changed very recently in the world of college sports. Athletes are finally getting the opportunity to pocket some of the money that once went entirely to their schools. Emmitt remembers in 1987 getting a Pell Grant for $7000 and he only saw $700 of it. They also told him he couldn’t work and be on scholarship at the same time. He’d look up in the stands and see all these people in #22 jerseys and think, “Where’s my cut? They’re making millions of dollars off of me.”

He remembers being in class trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He was reading textbooks but not getting anything from them that would help in the real world. When he left school to become a professional athlete, the world opened up to him. 

He started asking Cowboys owner Jerry Jones questions. He said, “I know how much you’re paying me. How much are you making?” He told Jerry he wanted to sit down in his office and listen to him negotiate contracts. Jerry said sure. “He knew I was on a mission physically in the world of sports, but he could tell I was thinking much broader. It helped me out learning his tactics when I was negotiating my contract.” 

It wasn’t long before marketing and endorsements entered the picture. Michael Jordan paved the way for all athletes to understand what endorsements could be like and how to package yourself. Then he met guys like Roger Staubach, a childhood hero of his, and started to understand what he was doing beyond the game. 

Entrepreneurship After Football

By the time Emmitt hung up his jersey for the final time, he already knew what he wanted to do. Roger had asked him to come talk to him when he retired. Emmitt wanted to get into the real estate business as a developer. He wanted to build big things, like retail shopping centers. Roger asked him if he’d ever thought about the broker side of the business, but Emmitt saw the developers making all the capital. 

He called Magic Johnson and said, “I’m about to cut a deal with Roger. What should I know? What should I ask for?” Magic told him everything. Emmitt says, any time you’re going down a path someone you know has already gone down, reach out to them for insight before you jump full in, before you get too deep, or make a mistake in your negotiations. That’s what he did with Magic. 

One of the first deals they did was a big shopping center in Arizona just before the recession hit. It was poor timing, but it was a good experience. Emmitt learned how to put a deal together and how to get out of a deal. He went to CCIM and got his certification. He told Michael Irvin that the two of them should put their money together and buy some land in Dallas. He knew it would be valuable someday. He has an eye for what could be. He has vision. “I can see the potential of things,” he says, “whether it’s land or people. What I’ve done in my life is try to maximize my gifts.”

As he saw all the new roads and bridges happening around Dallas/Fort Worth, he looked around and asked, “How many African Americans are in this space?” He couldn’t find any—not at a high level anyway—so he started his own construction company.

Emmitt Smith on business lunch

Authenticating Sports Memorabilia

Over the course of his career, and in the years following, Emmitt signed a lot of sports memorabilia. But he became concerned when he started seeing fake signatures on items. Someone was ripping his fans off, and it bugged the crap out of him. He tried to find ways to protect these consumers, but nothing worked very well. 

In 2002, this guy came to the Dallas Cowboys with this new technology, a tracking system. Emmitt said to him, “If you’re tracking it, you can authenticate it, right?” The answer was yes, but if the consumer didn’t have a reader to scan it, then they were out of luck. The process of verifying and authenticating was spot on, but the timing of getting devices in the hands of the consumer was off. Emmitt and his team perfected the art of putting tags on and inside the items and got 7 patents. Then 2010 rolled around. Emmitt had his first Android phone. The phone could read the tags. Now iPhones can too.

Emmitt’s company, PROVA Group, is a resource for sports memorabilia collectors who want to verify items before they buy them using the PROVA tag. The sports memorabilia industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s been proven that 70% of it is fake. He’s looking to partner with the NFL to get players to take better care of their merchandise. 

Emmitt’s father told him long ago, “Son, keep everything you have, because you never know your place in history.” He took that advice, and he kept every single one of the 164 footballs he used to score rushing touchdowns (the NFL record) over the course of his career. He kept most of his jerseys and helmets as well. 

Speaking of good advice, his mama always told him, “no matter how high you go, never forget where you came from.” He’s never forgotten that. “Your attitude determines your altitude,” he says. “I try to stay positive and upbeat every day. I enjoy and love what I do. I love who I am. I love being grounded. I like to keep it real with myself. I could easily get caught up in a whirlwind of stardom, fame, and fortune. But then I’d miss out on opportunities to connect with people and who they are. I always think about people and how things will impact their lives.” 



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