How golfer Annika Sorenstam is blazing a profitable path for retired female athletes

March 24, 2015, 4:04 PM UTC
Morgan & Friends Golf Outing
BOCA RATON, FL - JANUARY 05: Annika Sorenstam of Sweden hits a tee shot during the Morgan & Friends event at St Andrews Country Club on January 5, 2015 in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Halleran — Getty Images

No matter how great the athlete may be on the court or on the field, success after sports is never guaranteed.

Annika Sorenstam, one of the most successful golfers alive, started to set herself up for her “second life” well before she left the pro circuit in 2008. While she brought in some $20 million in lifetime earnings during her 14 years on the LPGA Tour (and was the first woman to earn more than $2 million in a single season), Sorenstam says she always planned to keep her business going after her competitive career came to end. Now the Swedish athlete lives in Orlando and runs a golf academy, a course design firm, a clothing line with Cutter & Buck, a financial advisory group, and a charitable foundation. Oh, and she also still holds sponsorship deals with Lexus, Callaway, Rolex, Oakley and others.

Sorenstam spoke with Fortune about her business approach, the struggles of female athletes in retirement, and how she handles work-life balance. At a time when many athletes continue to go broke despite their massive salaries, Sorenstam is a rare example of how to do it right. (For more pro athletes who have succeeded in business, see our Pro-Files series with Sports Illustrated.)

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Fortune: You left golf at the end of 2008. Did you have any plan in place for what to do next?

Annika Sorenstam: I made the decision in January 2008 to step away at the end of the year, so I had a year to prepare. It was a slow transition, but I wanted to be ready. My last tournament was in December 2008 in Dubai, and I got married in Jan 2009. My foundation was already set up in 2007, and Annika Academy was already set up, so after I got married, it was like, “What’s my business now? Oh, okay, the academy, design…” and things had just slowly fallen into place. I think I never really looked back at the decision to stop playing, or worried about missing it, I just was really focused on the Annika brand.

What is the Annika brand? What does it stand for?

I’m still so new in the business. I mean, give me another six years. But my professionalism is what comes to my mind. With anything I do, it’s my name and I’m behind it. When you come to the academy, it’s me. I work with the girls, I work with my designers on the clothing, I do the wine tastings myself, and if you play an Annika course, it’s my ideas that I have related to the designers and worked with them on.

Club 59 is my overall company, and that includes the academy we opened in 2008, a high-end golf school in Orlando. The name comes from my lowest round. [Note: Sorenstam remains the only female golfer to score a 59 in competition.] My goal with the academy is to offer an inspirational experience. It’s authentic. You play golf with me personally, or my personal coaches.

So many golfers start a golf school, and have a clothing line, and do a wine label. How is what you do different?

Yes, these things are not new. Golf schools have been around for years. But usually they are professional instructors, not professional golfers doing it. You are really playing with me. Golfers have had their names on wine and clothing before, that’s not new either. I’d hope that the idea that I’m a female makes it unique. But really I’d like to say there’s a red thread that runs through everything I do, that pulls it all together, and it’s me, it’s passion.

It does take such a long time, though—you really respect brands that stay alive for decades. And who in their right mind would start a business in 2008? I did. And we survived.

What’s your general business philosophy?

My tagline is, “Share my passion.” So when it comes to wine, am I an expert? No, but it’s a passion of mine. So when we do the tastings, I’m learning a lot as I go, but I work with professionals, so I tell them what I like and they help me get there.

With clothing, too, I’m not an expert, but I work with Cutter & Buck and I share with them the things that a player needs. Simple things like, “I travel a lot, so can we make it wrinkle-resistant?” or, “Hey, you need a pocket there. We can’t have a zipper there.” It’s my design, so there’s a reason why there’s a zipper there, and there’s a reason why it’s short in this area, or it’s a European style.

Were you influenced by any other golfers as you sought to build your name in business?

Yes, starting with Arnold Palmer, one of the first ones to really take it to a different level after competing. And Jack Nicklaus, and Greg Norman. [Norman] was a little bit more relevant for me, being an international player. And I really looked up to him and thought, “Can I do what he did, even a little bit?”

Unfortunately, there weren’t really any women that I knew or could look at. Billie Jean King has been successful, but mostly with a foundation. Chris Evert has her tennis school. And of course Maria Sharapova is successful now, but wasn’t doing that six years ago. Michelle Kwan, a little bit. There are lots of great female athletes, but not a lot who take a step into the business world. I think a lot of women don’t want to. Maybe they get married and have children and that’s when they leave.

Do you think you were at a disadvantage because you’re a female athlete? Like you’re battling obscurity as soon as you leave the sport.

Well, we did research, and it was interesting: they stopped people on the street and asked about male athletes who started businesses after they stopped playing, and people could easily name 10—John Elway, Magic Johnson, you know. There were a lot of successful men, but when they asked people to name five female athletes to start businesses, well, not many women came to mind. We commissioned that study because I wanted to know. And the results were tough.

Golf has been somewhat in decline lately.

It has been, yes. The statistics the last few years say that 5 million [players] leave the game and 4 million pick it up new, so we’re losing about 1 million people a year. But if you look at the last two years, it is slowly increasing again. When it comes to youth, I’m part of a few groups and committees that try and grow the game of golf. Kids now, they have so many options, that is what’s hard. There’s so many sports to choose from, and school is demanding. So it goes in cycles. You do hear talk about how golf needs to be cool to get kids to pick up the game, and sometimes kids don’t always think golf is cool. So there’s an accessibility issue. But I’m optimistic. I see the game growing. I do things through my Annika Foundation to encourage young girls, especially, to pick up the game.

If you’re succeeding in business, do you become a target for pitches, and offers, and risky ventures? How do you sort those out?

It’s hard. Early on, it’s tough to say no, but you just say, “Hey, it doesn’t fit my mission.” I mean, I feel flattered that people want me to be involved, but if it’s not your own idea and you haven’t used it, it doesn’t make sense. I want it to be authentic and I want to be able to tell you, “use this device, because I use it.” I don’t put my name on everything, because I don’t want to dilute it.

What are some of the businesses you’ve considered, or might do next?

We’ve talked about a restaurant. I can tell you this, we get proposals on a weekly basis. “Can Annika be associated with this…” And a lot of it is very complimentary, but it doesn’t fit the brand. Or frankly I just don’t have the time. I’m married and we have two little kids, my plate is full.

How do you balance it all?

You know, I’m not an expert, but I certainly have some experience. A lot of times women take on too much. That is not to say men don’t. And it leads many women to say, “Well I’ll just take care of the household, then”—and that, too, is hard, and is oftentimes the most difficult role there is.

My husband has been extremely supportive. He works with me and runs most of the brands, so together we make business decisions. Not a lot of men feel they can handle a woman who makes more money. He doesn’t mind that I’m the center, or that our business is called Annika. He’s proud of that.

If I didn’t have that support at home it would be extremely hard. And if I didn’t have the pressure at home, I could go to photo shoots, and take any meeting, and I wouldn’t have to be looking at the clock and worrying about getting home. But that is my life, and I won’t sacrifice.

What’s the best advice you ever got? The advice you’d pass on to other women in business.

I feel like I’ve been lucky to be associated with successful people always. But I would say, try to smell all the roses along the way. I haven’t always done that, and it’s something I try to do more now. The older you get, the more it seems like time flies even faster. So when good things happen, try to smell the roses. You work so hard to achieve something. When you do, slow down the moment. It’s always grind, grind, grind, and that’s okay, but if you never reflect, then why are you doing all that hard work? Enjoy that lovely journey. Amy Alcott, an LPGA hall of famer, told me that.

And then my parents have been an influence throughout my life. When I was very young, I was out hitting balls and it starred to rain, so I called my dad and he picked me up. When we drove away, there were some other kids still hitting balls on the range, and my dad turned to me and said, “I just want you to know, there’s no shortcut to success.” And it just hit me, it hit me so hard, I felt like, “Why am I going home just because I was going to get wet?” I think about that in all I do. There are no shortcuts to anything. Just get a rain suit, that’s all.

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