This Company Helps You Find The Next Thing After Your Dream Job Ends

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By Ben Raziel

Some companies succeed by finding a special niche. And other companies succeed by finding a very special niche — like NextPlayU, that helps professional athletes evolve into business leaders.

We’ve all read stories of multimillion dollar-per-year athletes who are broke 5 years after leaving the big leagues.

And for many years there was no company around to help athletes answer the question: What do I do now that my dream job is over?

Standing atop the podium in Tokyo, Jamie Neushul looked up at the stars and stripes being slowly lifted to the rafters, the national anthem playing from the speakers. There were no spectators in the crowd, no parents staring on with teary eyes; the pandemic had prevented all but athletes and coaches from making the trip to Japan. But the victory was no less significant. The U.S. women’s national water polo team was the world’s best.

For Neushul, the 2020 Olympic Games marked not just the apogee of her career, but also the beginning of the end of it. Shortly after returning home, Neushul, who played collegiately at Stanford and won gold with Team USA at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, retired from competitive water polo. The realization that water polo had reached its end brought a mix of fear, anticipation and excitement, Neushul said.

“Winning a gold medal in Tokyo was the pinnacle of my athletic career and the culmination of years of work, stretching all the way back to high school,” said Neushul. “After that moment, I knew I was ready to move on from water polo, but I wasn’t sure how.”

Neushul’s apprehension about life after sport is a refrain echoed by many athletes at the conclusion of their collegiate or professional careers. When the clock runs out, many struggle to find their next play.

Ryan Nece was no stranger to this feeling. A former UCLA standout, Nece went on to play seven seasons as a linebacker in the National Football League. In 2003, he won the Super Bowl as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But by his early 30’s, Nece’s athletic career had come to an end. Nece had centered his life around athletics from a young age—his father is Ronnie Lott, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame who is often considered among the greatest defensive players in the game’s history. But now, football was over.

Inspired by his father’s successful evolution from gridiron defender to venture capitalist, Nece in 2015 founded Next Play Capital, a V.C. firm focused on the intersection of sports and technology that has nearly a half-billion dollars under management. But Nece wanted to do more to help collegiate and professional athletes successfully evolve into fulfilling careers.

“We’ve heard story after story, triumph after triumph, champion after champion, of what men and women have accomplished on the playing fields across the globe,” said Nece. “These men and women are celebrated as heroes for their efforts. When you think about what happens to many of them is that, at a very young age, they’re no longer that athlete and they have to figure out what’s next. Oftentimes, that is a difficult challenge.”

Many athletes, Nece said, fail to prepare for life after sport. “The day you become a starter is the day they start trying to find your replacement,” he said.

The executives at NextPlayU found that widening their target market to include not only professional athletes but also college-level athletes increased their customer pool and overall impact.

In 2022, Nece teamed up with Oren Gabriel, Jason Price and Meg Popovic to found NextPlayU, a program designed to help athletes navigate the transition from high-level athletics to the workforce. NextPlayU is seeking to provide solutions to the challenges athletes face in finding their footing after retirement.

“The scale of this problem is significant,” said Gabriel, NextPlayU’s CEO. “A lot of people focus on high-profile, professional athletes who make a lot of money and then land on hard times. But what most don’t realize is that two-thirds of college athletes graduate and do not have a good job—and there are 520,000 NCAA athletes.”

There are several reasons why college athletes may lag behind their classmates in job acquisition. Many athletes, Gabriel said, find after retiring that they lack the professional skills needed to succeed in the workplace. During college, athletes often orient their lives around practice and competition, missing out on internships, networking events and pre-professional opportunities that lead many non-student-athletes to full-time employment.

When their careers come to an end, these athletes are suddenly faced with securing employment in a highly competitive marketplace without the requisite experience and connections. This situation, Gabriel said, can lead to financial and personal hardship for many former athletes.

NextPlayU is hoping to change this dynamic by offering a free, six-week program that guides athletes through their transition and equips them with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, according to Gabriel. NextPlayU’s course includes training sessions, networking opportunities, and personality assessments. Participants are broken into cohorts of their peers that meet twice a week, and into smaller groups—called “huddles”—that meet once a week.

“The first two weeks of the program are focused on identity, so the athletes can understand themselves and what they want to do,” said Gabriel. “From there, we do practice interviews, we do resumes, we do LinkedIn, we do networking basics. We expose the athletes to a variety of industries and do a lot of sales-specific training.”

Once athletes have completed this program, NextPlayU connects them with employment opportunities at major companies, which Gabriel said helps partner companies reach diverse, non-traditional candidates.

Many athletes who come through NextPlayU’s program realize that the skills they honed on the field are transferable into the boardroom. Al Harris, a former professional basketball player who taught in the program and coordinates recruiting at a company that may look to NextPlayU for talent, said that athletes often prove to be dynamic hires.

“I am so excited about the athlete talent that is coming out of the NextPlayU program because I have seen firsthand how athletes can impact an organization’s culture and bottom line. The work ethic, leadership, and teamwork skills that athletes bring to the workplace are unmatched,” said Harris.

Josiah Filler, an executive at a fast-growing tech company, has seen firsthand how NextPlayU has helped his firm recruit effective employees.

“As Chief Revenue Officer of an 80-plus-person, rapidly growing SaaS sales team, I am constantly looking for new sales talent pools. I have found throughout my career that athletes consistently outperform in the workplace and bring a unique sense of drive and determination that is very hard to find,” said Filler. “NextPlayU’s talent pipeline of motivated, competitive sellers will be highly sought after by revenue executives like myself, and their risk-free business model is a no-brainer.”

For many of these athletes, NextPlayU has been critical in helping them find employment—and sure footing—in their post-athletic lives. Neushul, for example, credited NextPlayU with helping her plot her next steps.

“The NextPlayU program helped me to navigate the mental and emotional challenges that come with transitioning out of sport and gave me the skills and training to succeed in my new role at a fast-growing tech startup,” said Neushul. “The curriculum helped me to figure out what I wanted to do next and the fellow athletes in my cohort provided me with new teammates and a community to support me in this next chapter of my career.”

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