Arian Foster is the kind of guy you have to like -- a practice-squad grad and former philosophy major who likes poetry, a guy who tweeted before last season that he was officially a vegan. (That is, until, um, a few months later, when he clarified that, yes, he does still eat meat "from time to time." Hell, he's in Texas; the place isn't known for its Brussels sprouts.)
Even so, I don't want a financial piece of him, even if my investment might bring hefty dividends down the line. It's not that I don't want more money; I love money. It's that I don't want the athletes I like to become just one more revenue stream, in an increasingly money-mad sport. Damned if I'm going to become part of the problem by buying a minimum of $50 worth of Arian Foster Futures -- which is what a company called Fantex Holdings has just announced that I can do.
Foster's gain? Ten million dollars, in exchange for 20 percent of future earnings -- in other words, yet another form of gambling, even if it's legal. Far more insidiously, FosterShares represent yet another cringy step toward turning men who were once on a team into individual products -- or, to use Fantex's word, a "brand."
Fantex's scheme is no ordinary step; it's a step onto the slipperiest of slopes. Because while I wish I could say, "Let's just ignore the red flags that make this whole deal as suspect as a Bernie Madoff production," I can't. From here, the flags surrounding this little episode look like they're planted in a minefield.
Buyers of Foster shares aren't going to evoke the fuzzy-good feeling of the 35 guys who kicked in 75 grand to cover Rich Beem's travel expenses back in '99, when Beem took the Kemper in his first year on the PGA Tour, and the syndicate, paid back, amicably dissolved. This story won't have the happy ending of the six-pack of average Joes from upstate New York who bought into Funny Cide when the horse took the Derby.
No, the syndication of Arian Isa Foster is about the buck -- specifically, a Silicon Valley guy aptly named Buck French (why does that sound like a character in Dr. Strangelove?), who is clearly, simply out to make a buck for Fantex Holdings. Who is French? According to the business website Crunchbase.com, he's "a serial CEO and business management entrepreneur." Other companies on Buck's resume? OnLink Technologies, Securify, Zwingit and Bababoo (don't ask). Fantex's president? One John Rodin, formerly of Goldman Sachs. Right -- that Goldman Sachs, paragon of fiscal prudence.
To be specific, they're not selling shares in Arian's future; they're selling shares in Fantex, "a highly risky startup company which is losing money and which has precious little income with which to cover its substantial expenses," says Reuters. In other words, if the Foster thing isn't working out, they can take the Foster shares and convert them into another "brand" if they so choose. And my $50 is gone, while they use the money to bolster another listing corner of their brokerage service. Hey, Buck's mom didn't raise no dummy. (Although when Buck touts to potential investors that "Fantex is bringing sports and business together in a way never previously thought possible," he's a tad off the mark. See "protrade.com," mid-2000s, Silicon Valley. Or, more accurately, the former protrade.com.)
But let's forget the ethics of Buck's craving for more bucks. Let's start worrying about where this blurring of man and product ends, and whether it ultimately will turn the game into just another corner of our careening moneyculture.
It began with the fantasy leagues -- innocent enough, since most fantasists are also football fans with a team of their own. Then the NFL started using them as a marketing tool, creating its own fantasy leagues to heighten interest in the game, even while diminishing the game itself. This year, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan built a 7,000-square-foot "fantasy football lounge" in hallowed EverBank Field, where fans can watch other teams play on big-screen TVs and track their fantasy guys.
Hey, it's one thing to objectify entertainers by investing in their catalogue, even if it's a tad unwise; "Bowie Bonds," sold against future earnings on David Bowie's songs, proved less than a wise investment (they were downgraded to one step above junk). But entertainers don't play for your home team. Cantor-Fitzgerald tried a Hollywood Stock Exchange built on allowing you to bet on box-office success for actors and films -- in whom we have non-emotional investment.
But football players? They do play for a team -- unless, like Arian Foster, they are now seriously playing for themselves. Our Boy Buck hasn't yet raised those ten mil with which to gift our poetry-loving philosopher. And an injury on Sunday, spooking potential investors, might derail that payday, mightn't it? Any chance that this thought might lurk in the back of Foster's mind as he plays over the next few weeks?
And, while we're at it, why Foster? An injury-prone running back who will be 30 when his contract is up in three years, playing a precarious position? Not his on-field numbers, which are lagging this year. Not the promise of future post-career earnings; Arian isn't likely headed for media stardom.
No, my guess is that Buck's thinking is along the lines of "man as product." My guess is that it's Foster's fantasy numbers. According to The Street.com, 98 percent of Yahoo! fantasy leagues start Arian Foster. My guess is that Buck French isn't banking on a man, but on the hope that the public's love of Fantasy Foster will translate into investments to help get Fantex Holdings into the black. Branding the players and reaping your bucks, as the players and their game keep sliding down that slope.
Toward the green? Or toward the bottom?