Not all athletes capture the headlines with glitzy endorsement deals. But to the right audience and with the right support, almost any athlete can market their name, image and likeness—and get paid for it.
A small company in Concord, N.H., is ready to prove that point.
PWRFWD is the creation of former UMass basketball player Luke Bonner, a 7’1” center who played professionally in the early 2010s. Hailing from a basketball family—his brother is retired NBA player Matt Bonner, and Orlando Magic director of player development Becky Bonner is his sister—Luke had a vision for a company that would bridge the space between athletes and consumers.
The idea is straightforward. PWRFWD helps athletes manage online businesses to sell merchandise directly to fans. The company advises athletes on designs for products they’d like to sell. Then, through PWRFWD’s New England-based production partners, those products are sold on-demand via a custom-made website for that athlete. PWRFWD also provides social and digital advertising. Revenue is split between the athlete and PWRFWD. There are no fees or costs to the athletes.
If you’re wondering how the economics work, Bonner has an answer.
“We have facilitated direct relationships with partners on the manufacturing and supply side,” Bonner explains. “This allows us to create most of the products in athletes’ stores on-demand. The split with the athlete occurs after the cost of the good.”
Bonner acknowledges that not all merchandise can be made-to-order. He has a strategy for that scenario. “In cases where an athlete is interested in selling something that can’t be made-to-order,” Bonner notes, “we work with them to source quality goods at fair prices; the athlete pre-buys inventory and fulfillment is either handled by us or the manufacturer directly.”
Agents aren’t needed in this arrangement; neither are shoe companies or apparel manufacturers.
“We see ourselves more as Airbnb and Etsy than Dick’s Sporting Goods,” says Bonner, 35.
PWRFWD’s architecture came to Bonner when he was “shocked” to discover how few NBA players have their own websites. Most have social media accounts, some of which are very popular, but those don’t provide a vehicle to commercially capitalize on their fame beyond traditional endorsements and paid posts.
“I thought it would be smart if someone built a platform to make it easy for athletes to have their own ecommerce storefronts,” Bonner says. He recalls “cranking out” a business plan outside of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference. “The key to this whole concept is scale,” Bonner reasons. “The economics don’t work as a services business; if we want to succeed, we need to help as many athletes as possible. That’s how we settled on building a marketplace.”
The company’s unique name is intended to capture this spirit. “We wanted something short so the emphasis would be on the athletes rather than us. It obviously has a basketball connotation . . . but more importantly, it’s action oriented. Every athlete has value, we are providing a tool to help them recognize it.”
Fall, a 7’5” rookie center on the Boston Celtics, seldom plays and averages just three points per game. Yet Bonner doesn’t see player stats as the relevant metric. Bonner says it is far more revealing that the former UCF star’s name, spelled correctly—misspellings (like Taco) and longtail variants notwithstanding—is Googled hundreds of thousands of times per month in the U.S. alone. Fall is, as Bonner says, “the ideal player” for this platform.
There is a marketability factor with Fall—who memorably battled Duke’s Zion Williamson in the second round of the 2019 men’s basketball tournament—that eclipses his basketball prowess. Just consider the fact that, despite appearing in only seven regular season games, the Senegal native was sixth in All-Star fan voting for Eastern Conference frontcourt players.
Fall’s PWRFWD ensures that he’ll profit from his fame. He sells two dozen different items of apparel, including t-shirts, hoodies and prints. Particularly for a player on a two-way contract, Fall could meaningfully boost his income through sales.
Bonner acknowledges some in the sports industry may find his company disruptive. Initially, he and his business partners hypothesized that agents would be among them. After all, if an athlete can retain PWRFWD to sell merchandise, why pay an agent a commission? Who needs a middleperson?
However, Bonner says that generally hasn’t been the case—at least so far.
“Most agents see the value of what we are providing,” Bonner maintains. “We are enhancing their clients’ brands, giving their clients creative control, and creating a passive revenue stream for them that complements traditional endorsements.”
To illustrate, Bonner mentions that Fall and Tivoli Audio partnered to create a limited-edition Andiamo Bluetooth speaker highlighting Fall’s passion for his native Senegal and anime. Those speakers can be purchased directly from Fall’s PWRFWD.
A shoe company might also object to a direct sales approach but, again, Bonner doesn’t see a meaningful rivalry. “The athletes are not selling branded apparel; they are selling their own apparel. It’s not like a Nike athlete is selling a Reebok shirt on PWRFWD. Tacko is selling a Tacko shirt.” Indeed, Bonner insists, “the athletes are the retailers, and our platform can serve as an additional value-add tool for their agents, representatives and brand partners.”
Bonner explains his motivations go beyond making money for athletes. “My goal is player empowerment…. One of the scariest things to navigate [as an athlete] is how I’m going to exist outside of sports? What am I going to do to provide? To earn income?”
He also emphasizes that the usual conversation about NIL with athletes centers around endorsement deals. Bonner says that is missing much of the picture—a picture that includes “the moment.”
He recalls when Kobe Bryant called his brother “the red mamba” on Twitter in 2013. Bonner says he and Matt, who played for the San Antonio Spurs at the time, then partnered with a t-shirt company to sell a line of ‘red mamba’ t-shirts. “They did very well,” Bonner recalls.
Bonner envisions “the moment” as being especially valuable for college athletes. “Everyone talks about NIL for college athletes pretty much exclusively in terms of endorsements, which is ridiculous,” he says. He predicts “the NCAA will attempt to control how much athletes can earn through endorsements by setting restrictive guardrails. With PWRFWD fair market value is whatever you can achieve.” Bonner also adopts a realistic valuation of college athletes, the vast majority of whom aren’t going to land endorsement deals in a world with NIL rights.
But he stresses that a player who becomes viral on social media for his or her play could then use that fame, however fleeting and local, to generate some income. “They can activate their audiences,” Bonner maintains, “but they still need to know how to.”
“Imagine,” he says, “a college athlete going home after the biggest moment of their lives and trying to navigate the intricacies of ecommerce—sourcing product, building a site, marketing, fulfillment and customer service—to try to put a little money in their pocket. What if instead, they could simply push a request to our team, and it’s taken care of? The athlete sees the lion’s share of the financial upside and knows the end product will be quality.”
For similar reasons, Bonner predicts that PWRFWD will open up doors to G League and other minor league players. Some have substantial social media followings, like Long Island Nets guard Jaylen Hands, who has 472K followers on Instagram. Hands gained acclaim while a five-star recruit and high school dunk champion and retained at least some degree of notoriety three years after his last prep game.
PWRFWD is mindful of the sometimes complex and unsettled legal issues with athletes licensing their intellectual property. The company’s general counsel, Kevin O’Keefe, emphasizes, “Our model is that athletes [using PWRFWD] retain ownership of their owned IP.” He illustrates this point through Stewart, whose nickname is Stewie. “That is hers. We don’t commandeer that…. As long as an athlete has a PWRFWD, we can help them activate and amplify their NIL and their own personal interests.”
As the sports industry readies for a world where many more athletes can profit from their NIL, PWRFWD is positioned to occupy a unique space.
(This story has been corrected to show that PWRFWD is based in Concord, N.H., and not Manchester.)