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How NFL star Luke Kuechly is growing his business off the field

The 2016 NFL season is underway, and one of the league’s biggest defensive stars wrapped up a new equity-based endorsement deal just before kickoff.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, signed a contract with nutrition brand Eat The Bear in July. The deal gives Kuechly (pronounced KEEK-lee) an ownership piece in the Charlotte, NC-based maker of protein powder and supplements. The company did not share the value of the contract, but it may be a bigger score for five-year-old Eat The Bear (or ETB Fit), in terms of exposure, than for Kuechly, who is one of the league’s best-liked stars and was recently ranked the No. 7 best player in the NFL.

Kuechly adds ETB Fit to an endorsement stable that includes Nike, Pepsi, and CPI Security, a local home-security provider that has used Kuechly in a series of clever TV spots.

On September 19, the first Eat the Bear advertisement with Kuechly debuted online. It hammers home a theme of sweat equity and training; it may remind you a little bit of Under Armour’s recent “Rule Yourself” ad campaign. You might notice in the ad that Kuechly’s Eat the Bear shirt has a giant Nike swoosh on it; that’s because Kuechly is Nike-sponsored, not because of any relationship between Eat the Bear and Nike. (Kuechly’s Nike sneakers also get significant screen time.) Here’s the ad spot:

Eat the Bear is a reference to the phrase, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you,” which was made popular by the movie The Big Lebowski. The products sell on ETB’s web site and online at Target and Costco.

Its CEO, Jude Colangelo, says Kuechly is “certainly the highest-profile” brand endorser ETB Fit has had, though it has sponsored athletes in more niche sports. “There’s a lot of congruence between ETB and our ethos and Luke. We’re a nutrition-based lifestyle business with the mission to provide clean and lean alternatives to consumers. And Luke, his genuineness, his commitment to his craft, his dedication, really fits our mantra of eating the bear, and overcoming obstacles.” ETB Fit considered a number of different athletes, but Colangelo says, “Luke kept emerging as the obvious choice.”

In a profile earlier this year, Sports Illustrated called Kuechly “the gentleman linebacker.” The description fits. He has a reputation for politeness and class, and has achieved accolade after accolade on the field. He was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. In 2014, he received the Butkus Award, which is given out by the nonprofit Butkus Foundation to a player who lives the “I Play Clean” mantra.

Being in the NFL, Kuechly tells Yahoo Finance, is “all about being clean. You’re putting stuff in your body to help you recover and stay at peak-performance… I try to stay clean on the field and off the field. When you’re looking into these endorsement deals, you have to trust the company and what they stand for. So this wasn’t just going to be a one-time thing.”

Indeed, rather than receive an annual fee to hawk a product, more and more small sports-related brands are moving to a model where they give athlete partners a stake in the company. Under Armour has famously done this with some of its biggest athletes.

But there can be risk for the player. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has faced widespread criticism for claiming that Reliant Recovery Water, a “nanobubble” water he invested in, can heal concussions. Earlier this month, RevolutionWear, which owns Swedish underwear brand Frigo, sued Derek Jeter, who owned a 15% stake in the company, accusing him of insufficiently promoting the brand as he promised.

Asked about that news, and the risk of such a relationship going sour, Kuechly says, “It’s something you have to think about, but with ETB being a Charlotte-based company, the access to them and access to me is not overly difficult.. And it’s something I use on a daily basis.”

Endorsement deals can also carry great risk for a brand. Adidas famously signed NBA player Derrick Rose to the most lucrative long-term sponsorship deal in its history in 2012, but he repeatedly got injured and missed most of the next two basketball seasons. Even a heroic, widely respected NFL quarterback like Peyton Manning is no longer a sure bet to remain immune from scandal.

Colangelo of ETB Fit says he’s in no rush to look for additional high-profile athletes to sign just yet. “It’s something I lose sleep over,” he says. “Right now my thinking is let’s perfect the strategy with Luke. My focus is Luke, and I don’t want to get too distracted.”

Kuechly appears to have a measured approach to the deals he signs and to managing his money. He will have a lot of it to manage, after signing a $62 million contract extension with the Panthers last year. “The lifestyle I grew up with is still the lifestyle I live now: things in moderation, be smart with what you have,” he says. “You’ve got to be smart with what you have; it’s not going to be there forever. A football career is a finite career.”

As for the Panthers’ season after the team fell short in the Super Bowl last year against the Broncos, Kuechly says, “I think our team is going to be focused again. What happened last year was awesome, but we can’t expect that to just be given to us again. We have to start from square one.”

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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