Former U.S. Marine Corps. sergeant Alex Stone wants to help young veterans catch the eyes of college athletic recruiters. And he’s left his job at Under Armour to make it happen.
Stone spent five years at Under Armour as a development and product line manager before leaving last month to focus on his startup Athletes of Valor, which aims to connect recent military veterans who played a varsity sport in high school with college coaches and recruiters. The web site is in beta and launches in full around Veterans Day in November.
Stone, who played hockey and football at Swampscott High School in Swampscott, Ma., enlisted in the Marines after graduation. Once he finished his four years of service, “I struggled to find purpose and also struggled to find employment,” he says. “One of the only regrets that I have in life is that I never went back and played sports and earned my degree. I want to make sure that everyone similar to me has that opportunity to go back and play, and they understand how to do it.”
Most young veterans have no idea that they still have their NCAA eligibility, Stone says—and he expects educating them on this fact will be Athletes of Valor’s biggest challenge.
But the bigger challenge could be convincing college coaches to take a chance on athletes that haven’t played their sport in years. “The coaches I’ve talked to,” Stone says, “they want these players. They have stories about having a veteran in their locker room before, and how great an experience it was, not only from an athletic standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. And they say the biggest challenge is that they don’t know how to find them. Athletes, and service men and women, they don’t fully understand how to market themselves to coaches when they’re 22 to 26 years old. So what we’re doing is connecting those dots.”
Marketing the platform will help, and sparking the interest of coaches ahead of time will help. For those efforts, Stone has the support and financial backing of Jordan Fliegel, an entrepreneur who has invested an undisclosed amount in Athletes of Valor, along with Boston VC firm Accomplice. Fliegel is Athletes of Valor’s chairman, while Stone is CEO.
Fliegel has some key experience in creating a marketplace-style listing platform. In 2011 he founded the company CoachUp, a platform that sets up private coaches with a listing page so young athletes (or more often, the parents of young athletes) can find them and book lessons. The company raised $10 million in funding, grew quickly, and managed to get Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry on board as a brand ambassador and equity stakeholder. Think of CoachUp as a Yelp for private coaches—and Athletes of Valor is basically looking to do the same for young military-veteran athletes.
“The main thing with CoachUp was I really wanted to help kids, through sports, be the best they could be,” says Fliegel. “And here, again, I was really moved by the mission. I wanted to help veterans. It just doesn’t make sense to me… So many veterans are transitioning out of service, they really should go to college, they should be part of a sports team, we could use sports as a vehicle to help them transition from sports to career.”
Fliegel left his day-to-day role at CoachUp in January (but is still on the board) and is focusing on his role at Athletes of Valor and on other tech investments. A former professional basketball player in Israel, Fliegel has connections in the sports world that he can bring to help Athletes of Valor. A handful of military veterans went on to play professional sports, some of them with great success—David Robinson of the NBA comes to mind, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Athletes of Valor would be wise to find such a figure as a representative of the platform.
Stone’s past at Under Armour won’t hurt either; it’s easy to imagine that Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, who went to a military academy high school and has been more actively investing his wealth recently, might take an interest in Athletes of Valor. Another advisor on board is Jeremy Levine, a fantasy sports entrepreneur who founded StarStreet and sold it to DraftKings in 2014, then created the pick-up-and-play daily fantasy app Draft.
Athletes of Valor’s grand vision of the future is to have one veteran on every college sports team. “I thought it was an incredible mission, a great idea, and something that should exist,” Fliegel says. He expects that the platform can catch on in large part due to the positive nature of the concept. Who wouldn’t want to help American military veterans? “We’ve been very fortunate to have great people not just from sports, but also from the military and public office, who have reached out to us and said they’d love to help,” he says. Stone tells Yahoo Finance that some 50 college coaches are already involved and testing out the web site.
One of Kevin Plank’s favorite business mantras is something that will fuel the company, Stone says: Find a way. “Kevin says that all the time,” Stone says. “The reality is, there are men and women out there today that want to go back and play sports, and right now they don’t have a streamlined option to do that. The reason why I started this business was: We need to find a way.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.