By Chris Korman
The Baltimore Sun
4:36 PM AKST, January 2, 2013
Of this, there is not much debate: no one in sports has mastered the pregame speech like Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. And his gift for hyper intense gab — the way he builds to furious crescendo, cajoling those listening to rise up against an enemy that has always committed the ultimate sin of underestimating him and his brethren — will continue to make him money.
Whether or not he opts to take on a broadcast role — which can be time consuming — Lewis will spend part of his future getting paid to talk. He announced Wednesday his plan to retire whenever the Ravens' season ends and spoke vaguely of the next phase of his life. Lewis has said he plans to expand the work of his charitable foundation, but several business projects he launched during his playing days failed, and the multi-company empire he envisioned being built on his name and reputation has yet to materialize.
While experts say Lewis' name will always resonate in the Baltimore area and with true NFL fans, he'll need to evolve in other ways if he hopes to continue growing his brand, they said.
"He's got to come out from under the helmet and sort of establish his personality away from the field," said Dr. Stephen McDaniel, who studies sports and entertainment marketing at the University of Maryland. "I think he really has what it takes to continue to grow."
Lewis' motivational speeches are already legendary. He spoke to the Loyola men's lacrosse team in the midst of its championship run earlier this year. A speech he gave to the Stanford men's basketball team prior to an NIT game in March has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube; Stanford won the tournament. His eulogy for former Ravens owner Art Modell convinced ESPN to dedicate a segment to his speeches, which showed him giving a talk to members of the Elon football team while a vicious thunderstorm raged outside the locker room.
Now, he'll have more time to be a motivational mercenary for corporations and associations. Lewis could command a six-figure payout per engagement, especially fresh off retirement. Stars like former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and former Oakland Raider and current television analyst Howie Long earn between $50,000 and $100,000, according to their booking agency.
"When you see his intensity, his focus, his ability to build team spirit, I don't think there are five motivational speakers I'd put in front of Ray Lewis," said Matt Mirchin, Under Armour's senior vice president of sports marketing.
Lewis has had an endorsement deal with Baltimore-based Under Armour since the middle of last decade, and he spoke at a company gathering last year. When Lewis' deal with the company expired two years ago, Under Armour moved to sign him to a contract designed to outlast his playing career, Mirchin said.
"We'd like him to be an Under Armour athlete for life," he said. "He's been a great ambassador because he stands for what we stand for and his plans for giving back to Baltimore and making it a better place match our plans."
Lewis told Under Armour officials during a recent meeting that he hoped to stay and invest in Baltimore, but he did not want to discuss his plans in detail.
Mirchin believes Lewis will resonate as a pitchman for years to come, whether or not he opts to stay in the spotlight.
"The passion and leadership he's shown really sets him apart," Mirchin said. "When you talk to athletes from any sport — baseball or basketball or whatever — Ray Lewis is one of the few guys who is universally respected."
David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group and executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said Lewis must work to broaden his appeal. Lewis has countered his fierce on-field persona with charming commercials alongside actor Paul Rudd for EA Sports and in whimsical spots for Old Spice. That's not enough, Carter said.
"Despite being one of the NFL's greatest players, he hasn't established himself as a national figure beyond hardcore football fans," Carter said. "Being a defensive player and, to a lesser extent, one from a small market, has made it tougher for him to compete with the likes of other NFL superstars in terms of endorsements."
Carter said Lewis could continue re-shaping his image from the broadcasting booth and through speaking events that would put him in contact with a broader audience.
"Of course, he will need to stay out of trouble because, while his alleged involvement in a double murder was a long time ago, that baggage still exists in terms of his marketability," Carter said.
McDaniel believes Lewis is well-positioned to follow a path similar to the one Giants defensive end Michael Strahan took after retirement. His role on FOX's Sunday NFL pregame show gave him a new platform and opened up new endorsement deals and opportunities outside of sports. He's now a host of the morning talk show "Live! With Kelly and Michael."
"Strahan was a defensive player who didn't have a lot of commercials as a player," McDaniel said. "But he's an interesting personality who took these other opportunities and grew. Ray has an infectious personality, and people are going to see more of that now."
Lewis may not focus his post-football career on getting in front of the camera, though. He's long shown an interest in businesses outside of football.
He was involved in trying to develop a plot of land along Russell Street, owned a restaurant in Canton, planned to build a bowling alley in Hunt Valley and launched his own clothing line.
Those efforts have largely foundered. The lot near M&T Bank Stadium where a Ray Lewis-themed sports complex was supposed to sit will instead be home to Baltimore's casino. Full Moon Bar-B-Que closed in 2009. No bowling alley was ever built, and contractors who did preliminary work on the project complained of being stiffed for more than $1 million. RL52 Style, as the clothing line was called, never caught on and a website dedicated to the products no longer works.
Lewis has also tried his hand in real estate, opening RL52 Realty, a commercial real estate advisory firm, in South Florida in 2010. That, too, appears to have closed.
According to the website for The RL52 Group — the parent organization for Lewis' charitable foundation and some of his business interests — Lewis is currently involved in marketing nutritional supplements and merchant services. A separate website for RL52 Cycling advertises a series of training videos featuring Lewis.
Sports Illustrated has estimated that nearly 80 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or fall into financial distress within two years of retiring, in part because of poor investment choices and partnerships gone wrong.
Ravens president Dick Cass, speaking generally and not about Lewis in particular, said last fall that players often jump into business deals without having the proper expertise or guidance. "They try to do the right thing but don't know how," he said.
Jamal Lewis, a running back who spent seven years with the Ravens starting in 2000, said last year that he was forced to file for bankruptcy last year because of failed investments.
Unlike other players who last only a few years, Ray Lewis has earned $111 million over a 17-year career according to Spotrac, a website dedicated to tracking player contracts. One of the most trusted players in the league, he has advocated for young players to have a hands-on role in their business dealings.
Once the last whistle of his storied career sounds — be it this weekend or in February — Lewis will be able to focus on building RL52.
"His future business success will be predicated on his learning the ins and outs of business and how they apply to opportunities placed in front of him," Carter said, "as well as surrounding himself with capable business managers that actually have his best interests in mind."