Why star athletes are making real estate their next play

A look at the sports figures jumping into real estate investment — and the companies eager to serve them

From left: Grant Hill, Julius Thomas and Lisa Leslie (Photo-illustration by Steven Dilakian/The Real Deal; photos via Getty Images)
From left: Grant Hill, Julius Thomas and Lisa Leslie (Photo-illustration by Steven Dilakian/The Real Deal; photos via Getty Images)

Roger Staubach made $160,000 in 1979, the final year the Super Bowl champion quarterback played for the Dallas Cowboys. 

While that salary made for a nice living then, Staubach made his fortune in commercial real estate. He started the Staubach Company in 1977, while still playing, and grew it to 50 offices across North America before selling it for $613 million in 2008 to JLL, where he stayed on for another decade as executive chair. 

The career of a professional athlete, while lucrative, is often short. Across the major North American sports leagues, the average player lasts just three to five years, and the majority retire before they turn 30.

While some retirees might find opportunities in broadcasting or turn to coaching, many invest their earnings in real estate for stability and to build wealth. The trick is in navigating the change.

“Everyone in life is after mastery in some area, and every professional athlete did that,” said Julius Thomas, a former tight end who retired in 2018 after a seven-year NFL career. “Losing your skill set — that’s probably the most vulnerable point in a former athlete’s transition.”

Thomas, a Pro Bowler who played for the Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, did not initially plan on going into real estate. Now 34 years old, he retired with an estimated $30.4 million in career earnings, according to Spotrac, a website that tracks pro athletes’ contracts. He entered the doctoral program in psychology at Nova Southeastern University, hoping to help players with CTE, a disease associated with head trauma and long-lasting symptoms that studies suggest has affected hundreds of former NFL players.

Thomas’ aunt, a social worker, told him about the many veterans she works with who have housing vouchers but languish on waiting lists for years. He thought he would take a crack at solving the problem.

“Then you have to start understanding how to make the books work,” he said. When it came to housing veterans, the math didn’t pan out, but it led Thomas and his partner to buy their first triplex.

They now own and operate a growing portfolio of multifamily properties across Broward County, Florida, records show. Thomas says he’s looking for development opportunities as well. 

“We want to be able to create generational wealth for our children,” he said. “If you don’t bring in income after you retire, you’re going to be all out.”

Thomas is not alone in this mindset. A growing number of current and retired players are building real estate careers that outlast their athletic ones, and sometimes exceed earnings from their playing days, too. 

A new game

The secondary careers athletes pursue in real estate are as varied as the industry itself. 

Basketball Hall of Famer Grant Hill has developed $200 million in commercial real estate with his company Hill Ventures, and now has a seat on Empire State Realty Trust’s board of directors. Retired Formula One driver Eddie Irvine builds luxury spec homes in South Florida, and former Los Angeles Laker Devean George is now a residential developer in North Minneapolis, where he grew up.   

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Some brokerages have looked to former athletes to expand their client base. NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer recently joined the Campins Company to start his real estate career and launch the brokerage’s sports and entertainment division. Last March, WNBA legend Lisa Leslie became one of four co-founders of Aston Rose, a Los Angeles- and Miami-based brokerage backed by Side that specializes in athletes and other celebrities. It’s led by Tomi Rose, a luxury agent who is married to former NBA star Mark Strickland.

“Losing your skill set — that’s probably the most vulnerable point in a former athlete’s transition.”

Julius Thomas, former NFL tight end and multifamily investor

“Nobody knows the niche market like we do,” Rose told The Real Deal last year. “We’ve lived the lifestyle and understand what it’s like to be a professional athlete.” 

Elvis Dumervil, a linebacker who played for the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, retired from the game in 2018. Anticipating the transition, Dumervil bought his first investment property in Fort Lauderdale in 2014. Two years later he founded Prestige Estates, which now owns and operates a portfolio of multifamily buildings in North Miami, North Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. 

“Now we’re close to 1,000 units,” said Dumervil, who also recently received approval for a 585-unit development in North Miami and has proposed another 250-unit development in Miami-Dade County. “Football was my dream. [It] has given me the platform and the resources to do what I do now.”

Developing a playbook

Many brokerages, including Compass, Douglas Elliman, Brown Harris Stevens and One Sotheby’s International Realty, now have sports and entertainment divisions, geared toward addressing the specific needs of players and performers who buy, sell and manage real estate.

Miami-based Ben Moss of Compass estimates half of his transactions are with athletes or other celebrities.

Kofi Nartey, a Los Angeles-based broker whose Side-backed agency specializes in selling multimillion-dollar homes to athletes and celebrities, says brokers working with pro athletes need to know how to protect them. That means working around their complicated schedules, ensuring contractors don’t bilk them when they need to be out of town and keeping their personal information confidential.

For seven years, the NFL has brought in Nartey to provide real estate education for current and former players and their spouses. 

Moss, who works with the Dolphins to provide similar education for players, says teams are encouraged to provide this kind of secondary career coaching as a draw for talent. 

Agents say professional athletes are frequently approached with investment opportunities, some more trustworthy than others. The players, often young, inexperienced investors, don’t know how to assess deals or investment partners. 

Nartey coaches athlete investors to lean on their star power to seek out mentorship and deal access.

“Use that celebrity status,” he said. “People are always going to take that call.”