Trevor Steven, commercial director Playonpro, explains how the new website and app is giving opportunities to retired professional sportsmen and women. 

When professional sports careers come to an end, players are left with a major void in their life. Camaraderie, structure and competition disappear in an instant; a sense of purpose is lost. The transition into retirement is a difficult one to make and for every Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher – players able to stay in the limelight – there are hundreds more who can’t rebuild their lives after sport. The stories of those who sink into depression are all too common.

Former Everton and England winger Trevor Steven was one of the lucky ones. His media career started before he hung up his boots and he immediately stepped into TV punditry when he finally decided to call time on playing. But he watched a number of former teammates struggle after retirement and so, with the help of friend and former England captain Viv Anderson, Steven is building a support network for sportsmen and women.

In September 2017, the pair launched the playonpro app – a social network to keep sportspeople connected. Using their own impressive personal networks as a starting point, Steven and Anderson have welcomed more than 300 ‘ambassadors’ on to the platform since, with numbers growing every day.

“Isolation happens very quickly after you retire,” Steven, playonpro’s commercial director, explains to Sport Industry Insider. “You stop one day and for a week or two you’re fine because you’re exhausted from your career. But then the phone doesn’t ring and you wonder what you are going to do.

“Strangely, given how many people are around you when you’re playing, you don’t realise how few people you really know until you stop playing. I spoke to Emile Heskey last year and he said he was looking at his phone and realised he only had about half a dozen footballers’ phone numbers.

“That’s why we built the app. If you are on the app you can contact hundreds of people who have been through, or are going through, the same things as you. What comes after professional sport can be anything or it can be nothing. We’re trying to make sure that it is never nothing.”

There are a number of high-profile names already on board – including the likes of Gary Lineker, Steve McManaman and Darren Gough – with the platform providing social interaction as well as paid work. If a player is organising a golf day and needs some participants, they can find them by posting on the app. If a player can’t make a public appearance, they can find a replacement on the app.

“We are building a community of sportsmen and women who are looking out for each other, providing opportunities for each other,” Steven says. “We want to keep the focus on these players, keep them involved in events, tournaments.

“Last year David James was double booked and asked if someone could do a FA Cup Q&A in Manchester. Colin Hendry stepped in. It’s about networking and helping each other out. Another example is Joleon Lescott; he’s just come on board and is launching a clothing brand so he can reach out and get support from some of the other ambassadors. It’s a stronger together approach.”

There is no subscription fee for the players to use the app so playonpro’s business model is focused on liaising with corporate entities and trying to organise events, as well as working to leverage a combined social media reach of well over 100 million.

“There’s a great attraction for corporate involvement and sponsorship as association with these names is very appealing,” Steven explains. “How do we use that, exhibit that, monetise that? It could be golf days, corporate events, private dinners; it could be anything. The customer is king – we can create bespoke events. We’ve got the stable of people and they are keen to get involved in various projects so we can be creative.

“One area we are looking at at the moment is football supporters clubs around the globe. The Premier League is broadcast around the world but so many of those fans who watch games religiously will never see a Premier League footballer. But they’d like to. To see a player, to talk to them, hear anecdotes, get the autograph and pictures. The Premier League is seen through a box but we can make it real. Then our reach and our scope becomes global.”

Mervyn Davies, former chairman of Standard Chartered, sits on playonpro’s board and is also working on bringing in new investment and sponsorship.

“Lord Davies is a football nut and he is very supportive,” Steven says. “He obviously offers great business insight and he’ll come to our meetings with the bigger clients. He has been there from the start and is talking to the financial world as well, building that corporate awareness.

“We have a great proposition for companies looking to move into Southeast Asia and into China; football and sport is a great unifier which can be leveraged to successfully enter these markets.

“I think it won’t be long before we get some big brands associated with football on board. Those big brands are our focus because we see ourselves as having a global reach.”

That reach is exemplified by playonpro’s roots in Dubai. Although it is a British company, Steven is based in the UAE full-time and sees it as a vital hub for the business.

“Dubai and the Middle East is exciting to us because of the flow of our ambassadors through here naturally. A lot of them come to Dubai at least once a year and some multiple times. There’s a capacity to use those guys when they are over here. Not just for them to come over on a break but to use them for a corporate days, Q&As. They can earn a fee, have some fun, and meet some fans.

“The current players are reluctant to do that – they want to come for a holiday and to not be bothered. But those who have stopped playing are usually very happy to get involved because it’s nice to be wanted – particularly after you retire.”

The next phase in playonpro’s development is set to launch later this year. A new platform that links fans with their heroes is currently in the works and Steven believes it will provide valuable opportunities for sponsors to engage with a loyal audience.

“We’re aiming for the new platform to be ready for the new Premier League season,” he says. “Content creation will be at the heart of the platform; we want to bring the players to the fans. We will do matchday stuff, live discussions. It brings the fans in, which will in turn bring the sponsors in.

“Our ambassadors have a very loyal following because many will have followed them through their careers. They’ll never stop loving that player. Yes, they have to learn to love a new face at their club but the players who impress them most are the ones they grow up with. The fan is always there and that’s why this social media platform will be a great proposition.”

So what is the long-term goal of playonpro?

“We definitely want to encourage more current players to come in because it will make that transition into retirement smoother.  We can’t touch them for content because they are owned by their clubs but they can come in and talk to mentors and friends so they don’t lose touch.

“Beyond that, we want to build a licence model that can be sold across the world. Every country has its own particular sports and stars and so there are a number of potential markets. We’re already talking about taking the app to Australia and I’d love to see PlayoPnpo in France, Germany, Brazil, the United States.

“Of course there is a business side to everything we do as we want the product to be successful and sustainable. But the end goal remains the reason we started: to ensure as many professional sports people as possible no longer feel lost.”