There will come a time — no one is sure when — that Ray Lewis will retire from the National Football League. When he does leave the grueling training and game schedule, he'll turn to running an eclectic collection of companies trading on the strength of his name and brand.
The 15-year Baltimore Ravens veteran, one of the most fearsome linebackers ever to play the game, recently launched a real estate firm and a clothing line. He's developing an entertainment complex in Hunt Valley, featuring bowling lanes and a sushi bar, that could evolve into a national chain. He's taken a minority ownership stake in a digital media company whose mission is to help athletes market themselves online.
He also has delved into the music production business with Chosen One Productions, a label focused on Christian hip-hop and gospel music. And he's been a pitchman for Old Spice deodorant, featured in two popular commercials that together have been viewed more than a million times online at YouTube.
Some of his closest business advisors say Lewis has been busily planning his business ventures for life after the NFL for the past several years. At 35, Lewis appears to be diversifying his time, money and energy while he's still in the spotlight, sports marketing experts say.
"Now's the time for Ray," said Spiro Alafassos of the Baltimore-based sports marketing and digital content company The Spiro Group, which does not work with Lewis. "While you're on the field is the time to build these relationships and start these companies, because afterwards, it's a lot harder to open doors."
It's not unusual for professional athletes, particularly those with star power, to prepare for life after the game by jumping into various businesses, often capitalizing on their name recognition, in restaurants, sports teams or leisure and entertainment ventures.
Cal Ripken Jr., the famous Baltimore Orioles player, owns a minor league baseball team, the Aberdeen Ironbirds, and runs a youth baseball league and a sports complex design firm. Just days ago, he teamed with a New Jersey company to sell a beef jerky snack called Ripken Power Shred.
Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus has several enterprises, including golf course design and apparel, and wine and golf travel excursions. Magic Johnson, a former basketball star who played for the Los Angeles Lakers, runs a company that owns or operates movie theaters and restaurant chains, and seeks to invest in urban areas across the country.
Lewis, frequently sought after by other younger NFL players for advice, offered echoes of Johnson when asked about his vision for his business entities. He said that he approaches his ventures "with the bottom line being community" and that the more money he makes, the more he invests in the community. He runs the Ray Lewis Foundation, which provides financial help to disadvantaged youth.
"We can't led the hoods run the hoods, and we can't let the hoods stay hoods forever," Lewis said through a Ravens spokesman. "That's unfair to the people who live there."
In a separate interview, Lewis said he has taken a hands-on role with his off-the-field ventures by seeking to build business relationships and has formed "a great business team."
"Don't let your agents do it; don't let all these other people do it," Lewis said. "You build your own relationships. … When you start to look at yourself as a partner, you start to look at yourself as a corporation."
Marc Rosen, a business adviser and partner of Lewis' in the Hunt Valley project, said the NFL star calls his family of companies the RL52 Group. (Lewis wears the No. 52 on his football jersey.) Lewis has incorporated his main company in Maryland under the name Ray Lewis Group.
"There's a lot more," Rosen said of Lewis' business plans. "There's as much unannounced as there is announced. … He's associated himself with experts in each of the ventures he's working on. He's been serious about it for the last four or five years."
One of Lewis' earliest business ventures was the Full Moon Bar-B-Que restaurant in Canton, which opened in early 2005, with hopes of growing into a national chain. But the restaurant closed in 2009, after Lewis said last year that he wanted to focus on the bowling lane and entertainment complex he's building at the Hunt Valley Towne Centre.
The Hunt Valley project, announced last September, exhibits the same ambitious scope from Lewis. Called MVP Lanes, it will feature tiered bowling lanes, a 100-foot-wide video wall, a 150-seat restaurant and sushi bar, private event rooms, a quick-service restaurant, golf simulators, an arcade, a radio broadcast center, and a sports memorabilia and bowling pro shop.
Lewis has said that his plan for MVP Lanes is to open locations in various markets across the country. The opening for the Hunt Valley location is planned around the Super Bowl next year, according to Rosen, a co-owner.
In his real estate venture, Lewis has allied himself with Sol Kandel, a commercial real estate adviser and principal at USI Opportunities in Boca Raton, Fla. Kandel is the business advisor to Lewis' RL52 Realty. The firm has two offices in Boca Raton, where Lewis has a home.
Kandel said that Lewis' commercial real estate firm will be geared toward working with entrepreneurs and will provide investment opportunities in a range of real estate-related ventures. Lewis started the real estate firm in South Florida because it's one of the largest real estate markets in the country and he's familiar with the area, going back to his days playing football at the University of Miami, according to Kandel. He said they weren't deterred by the tough real estate market in a down economy.
"At this point, we think it's maybe one of the best times in the real estate cycle to jump into this kind of opportunity," Kandel said.
"What we're setting up here is an office that we expect to be a true meeting place for very successful professionals and entrepreneurs and leaders to come and see new business concepts and opportunities," Kandel said.
Lewis also has ties with Rockville-based Cormony Development, which has a deal with the city to develop a blighted waterfront stretch in South Baltimore into a $250 million office and sports complex. Cormony's managing director, Samuel Pokakoff, said in a recent interview that the project is "still on the table," though it was complicated recently by plans of putting a proposed slots parlor on the land.
Stretching his popularity onto the Internet, Lewis has taken steps to get involved in the business of digital marketing. It started with his desire to extend his brand online, through websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and mobile phone applications. He hired FusionSports Marketing Group of Texas, which designed for him an iPhone app that features instructional videos of Lewis' workout regimen.
Ashley DeWalt, the chief executive of FusionSports, said that Lewis was his second client when he launched his firm four years ago. But about 18 months ago, Lewis became more interested and serious about digital branding for athletes, becoming an investor in FusionSports, with a 15 percent equity stake, DeWalt said.
"His vision and my vision are pretty much the same," DeWalt said. "His playing days are coming to a close, but he always wants to have his pulse on athletes. He's real business-savvy."
Other projects that Lewis is involved with include a clothing line, RL52Style, which offers headware, hoodies and outerwear. The company's website says it plans to offer Lewis' clothing line through unspecified "high quality clothing stores" this fall. Some of the proceeds are going to Lewis' foundation, according to the official website.
His Chosen One Productions offers six songs, for 99 cents each, on a music website called ReverbNation.com. He collaborated with a hip-hop musician called Hollaway to produce the album this year called "Chosen," and the songs have been distributed online. His songs have been listened to more than 13,000 times and drawn more than 115,000 online fans, according to ReverbNation.com.
Whether Lewis' musical efforts are a hobby or a serious business pursuit remains to be seen. So far, only Ray Lewis has sung for Chosen One Productions, and it's unclear if he'll seek to attract other musicians.
His song lyrics can be personal and introspective, such as "A Tingle in the Brain," in which he contemplates good and evil, and implores God to guide him.
"Lord, all I ask for is, between me and you, can we spend a little time?" Lewis sings. "I've neglected you for so long, but now I've finally found my way back home."Click here to order Ray Lewis’s proCane Rookie Card.