Six weeks into the football season, Fantex, the online trading platform that lets investors buy and sell shares in professional athletes, has just two actively traded players, both from the NFL.
But CEO Buck French said “thousands” of investor accounts have been opened since the platform was launched last fall, and Fantex is now pursuing players in baseball and golf, as well as Hollywood entertainers. Three additional NFL players have signed provisional deals to have their shares traded.
“Things are going great,” he told Fusion. “We’re excited to be working with the individuals we’re working with.”
The San Francisco-based company, which offers athletes an up-front payment to allow investors to trade shares that track how much the athlete earns, ran into bad luck just a few weeks into the 2013 NFL season when Arian Foster, a three-time Pro-Bowl running back and Fantex’s first client, announced he would undergo season-ending back surgery.
Fantex had agreed in principal to pay the Houston Texans star $10 million in exchange for 20 percent of his future football-related earnings, but the IPO was postponed indefinitely. French said Fantex has now “mutually agreed with Arian's team to monitor how he progresses in the  season.” Foster’s reps declined to comment.
This season has not been much kinder. San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, the two actively traded Fantex players, have seen their share prices stumble from their $10 IPO prices. Davis recently suffered a back injury, and Manuel has been benched in favor of journeyman backup Kyle Orton. Fantex paid its first, and so far only, dividend — $0.70 a share, on a float of 421,000 shares — in August, to Davis investors. French said the company “absolutely intends” to pay out more dividends in the future.
With the NFL season underway, it is more difficult to pursue players, French acknowledged. In addition to athletes, French said the company is now gauging interest among movie, TV, and music stars, using their access to talent agencies that manage both athletes and actors. While the focus remains on its U.S. platform, French said they have not ruled out pursuing athletes and entertainers overseas.
For a signee, the appeal of the deals is that while Fantex's money is guaranteed, their careers are not — the average stint in the NFL, for instance, is just three years. For $1.56 million, 25-year-old Cincinnati Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu has agreed to turn over to Fantex 10 percent of all future “brand income,” which covers everything from endorsement deals to income expected under his current contract. Fantex anticipates closing Sanu’s IPO Oct. 28. Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery has also agreed to terms with Fantex, though no IPO date has been set.
Still, some argue Fantex remains a risky proposition. In an athlete's case, even after they retire, he or she will continue to owe Fantex money for the rest of their lives. In addition to professional contracts and endorsement deals, Fantex also gets a cut of anything players make from any sports-related job they take once their playing careers end, including broadcasting gigs. While Fantex is incentivized to help promote players' brands, if their careers flame out early it’s possible there will be “no discernible effect on endorsement earnings,” NYU Stern professor Aswath Damodaran wrote.
For shareholders, the payoff from owning stock in a player is the potential for a dividend; the value of the shares increases as the athlete performs and his public profile increases.
But investors do not have direct access to the athlete’s revenue stream — the shares merely reflect how much investors believe players are worth at any given moment.
Users of the site said they’re shaking off the recent lackluster performances.
Alex Senn, the founder of a Rhode Island-based brand management service and a partner at Orenda Capital, a tech-focused hedge fund, has already spent $1,000 on Fantex and has set aside an additional $5,000 from his fund. He says he’s not too concerned about his shares’ recent underperformance.
“I understand that as with any investment there can be ups and downs, so I keep an eye on my players and see how they do,” he told Fusion via e-mail. “It adds a unique factor having a real person behind the brand.”
Laura Lippay, a San Francisco-based brand consultant, said she is playing things a bit more conservative, at least for now. She owns one share of Vernon Davis.
“I'm just riding the ride I'm already on,” she told Fusion by email. “But, just like I get excited about tech companies and buy stock in them, I’d get excited (maybe even more so) around athletes that I know or that I follow and I think are promising. So if Fantex extends out to sports I watch more closely I'll be very excited to play this stock game more deliberately.”
French declined to say exactly how many active users are on Fantex. In the three months since his stock went on the market, Manuel’s average trading volume has not exceeded 80 shares; for Davis, it has not surpassed 20. Their all-time volume highs are 184 and 2,452, respectively. One obstacle to increasing awareness of the platform is that securities regulations limit how much marketing Fantex can do. Senn said he learned about the service from a friend, and Lippay said she knows one of its employees.
“The vast majority of subscribers come via word of mouth or people reading [news articles], or my being on CNBC, things of that nature,” French said.
Some commentators have questioned the nature of Fantex’s very premise. Yahoo’s Jeff Macke has said Fantex is towing “a fine line” around owning another person.
"Fantex raises some unique moral and ethical questions," he wrote. "High on the list is the idea of buying a portion of a human being's income for life."
But Lippay and Senn said they have no qualms about their investments.
“I feel as though it is more the brand I'm buying into and not simply a person,” Senn said. “Just as with any good company you buy, you have to look at the CEO, only in this case the CEO is the athlete behind the brand.”
Lippay said she can understand the sentiment, but does not see her investments through that lens.
“I never felt like I had any sway over what Vernon Davis does, how he performs, whether I can keep him out of trouble or the hospital, etc,” she said. “Just rolling the dice and sitting back.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.