Columbus sports agent Ronnie Steward seeks to help players expand business opportunities

Earl Hopkins
The Columbus Dispatch

In the seven years he has worked in the sports management business, entrepreneur Ronnie Steward has noticed a trend of missed opportunities, leaving many athletes without the resources needed to expand their brands outside of their sports. 

Following experience as a sports representation executive at New York City-based Roc Nation Sports and as the business manager of NBA player Trey Burke, Steward decided to launch his own endeavor – Focus Sports Ventures.

"Times are changing in terms of how you represent the athlete, and it's more than just contract representation, and it's more than just direct management," he said. "Now, guys are looking to get into media, merchandise, operating and executing events, (and) venture capital, as well."

Market need

Steward, 31, said more professional athletes are driven to expand their networks looking for financial opportunities. But unfortunately, he said, they are often hampered by sports representation companies that operate in their own interests as opposed to the client's.

Of the many examples, Steward said some advisers push clients toward specific deals so they can make larger commissions instead of focusing on whether the deal is a proper fit for the athlete or matches their vision for their business or career.

Steward's Focus Sports Ventures, which launched Jan. 1, will work with rising and established athletes to ensure they garner opportunities under the company's six verticals – management, merchandise, media, events, investments and venture capital.

The company already is adding clients: in addition to Burke, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Malik Harrison, a Walnut Ridge High School graduate and former Ohio State player, and Columbus Crew SC winger Derrick Etienne Jr. also have signed on.

"I knew I wanted to provide a platform with trusted services and network for the young athletes emerging from Columbus who were entering this new world of uncharted territories with millions of dollars in the balance," Steward said.

Ronnie Steward is the founder of Focus Sports Ventures, an agency that represents professional athletes. Photographed Friday, February 12, 2021.

Of Columbus, for Columbus

Given the size of the sports industry, Steward said he is focused on building the business in Columbus first. Having grown up in the South Linden neighborhood, he had dreams of creating a meaningful business in his hometown and giving athletes with ties to the capital city the resources they need. 

Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, said the firm's mission fits right into the city's fabric, one centered on innovation and collaboration.

But to continue breaking barriers in the sports industry, Logan said it requires young and ambitious professionals such as Steward to take risks.

"All of these great barriers are coming down because of people that are taking a chance," Logan said. "The fact that he's from here, wants to come back, has great roots and wants to do that for other people, it's extraordinary." 

With having high-profile agents such as Rich Paul at Klutch Sports and Juan Perez of Roc Nation Sports as mentors, Steward said their experiences gave him a better sense of how to build his company, especially as a Black entrepreneur. 

Breaking barriers

Along with serving Columbus athletes, Steward aims to inspire Black children to take on sports management roles. As a former basketball player at the University of Akron, he said it's important for kids to know they don't have to wear a jersey to have influence in the industry.

"Kids that come from where we come from a lot of times think that they have to be the athlete or be in the front, and if they're not, then there's no way for them to be involved in the sport," Steward said. "For me, it's huge because I've walked that line."

Burke, who graduated from Northland High School and played collegiately at Michigan, has known Steward since the fifth grade and said he is one of the most diligent and honest people he has known. The current Dallas Mavericks guard added that it's no surprise that Steward made a successful transition from basketball to the business world.

Burke said he is confident Steward's newest venture will inspire children in the inner city and surrounding suburban communities to explore entrepreneurship and break the stereotypes surrounding what Black success looks like.

"I feel like platforms like (Steward's) are very important because it gives young kids who look like us hope and more opportunity than what we were told — rap, go to the league, or sell dope/drugs," Burke wrote in an email. "That’s reality. It may sound like the same story, but our youth needs direction. I see the vision and believe in his vision because it’s driven by God and it’s something that’s bigger than Ronnie himself."

As he looks to hire a few employees this year, Steward believes Focus Sports Ventures could expand beyond Columbus. His ultimate goal is for the company and its athletes to have partial ownership of sports franchises and stadiums, which will further separate it from other sports representation companies.

ehopkins@dispatch.com

@Earl_Hopkins1