NEW YORK (Reuters Blogs) -- Now that the ban on general solicitation is over, all manner of weird companies are emerging from the nether regions of the Internet, trying to persuade people to part with their money in return for a nominal stake in some unlikely investment. One of the glossiest of these new companies is Fantex, which just filed a prospectus for its first athlete-IPO.Fantex couldn't have hoped for better press: The New York Times covered the story in its Venture Capital section, under the headline If You Like a Star Athlete, Now You Can Buy a Share. ESPN, meanwhile, went with Fantex to Offer Arian Foster Stock while USA Today opted for Want to Invest in NFL's Arian Foster? Here's a Chance. Which just says to me that none of the journalists actually read and understood Fantex's S-1. The idea here is not a new one; indeed, Michael Lewis wrote about it in depth as long ago as April 2007.
When financial historians look back and ask why it took Wall Street so long to create the first public stock market that trades in professional athletes, they will see ours as an age of creative ferment. They'll see a new, extremely well-financed company in Silicon Valley that, for the moment, sells itself as a fantasy sports site but aims to become, as its co-founder Mike Kerns puts it, "the first real stock market in athletes." And they'll find, in the bowels of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an application from a cryptic entity called A.S.A. Sports Exchange containing a description of a design for just such a market: The athlete would sell 20% of all future on-field or on-court earnings to a trust, which would, in turn, sell securities to the public.Kerns' cryptic entity ended up being called Protrade, and going exactly nowhere. But Fantex is basically exactly the same thing, just a little bit more complicated and less attractive to investors. With Protrade, you'd buy shares in a trust, which would own 20% of any athlete's earnings. With Fantex, by contrast, you buy shares in Fantex -- a highly risky startup company that is losing money and which has precious little income with which to cover its substantial expenses. The vast majority of the shares in Fantex -- 100 million, to be precise -- are closely held by its founders and backers. But another one million are being sold to chumps at $10 apiece, to raise the $10 million that Fantex is going to pay Arian Foster, who currently plays football for the Houston Texans. The chumps are buying something called a "tracking stock," the performance of which is supposed to mirror the economic fortunes of the 27-year-old athlete. And maybe it will. Or, maybe it won't. The directors of Fantex are under no obligation to pass Foster's earnings on to shareholders in the form of dividends -- even assuming that the contract with Foster does indeed do what it's meant to do, and result in Fantex receiving 20% of Foster's earnings, more or less in perpetuity. The press surrounding Fantex makes it seem as though the biggest risk here is that Foster ends up with a dud of a career -- and that is indeed one of the many risks with this investment. But that's also exactly what Fantex wants you to think: that your stock will go down if Foster does badly, and will go up if he does well. In reality, however, there are even more non-Foster risks to this stock than there are Foster risks. Your stock, for instance, can only be traded on an exchange owned and operated by Fantex. The directors of Fantex can, at their sole discretion and at any time, convert all your Foster shares into common Fantex shares, at any ratio which they determine to be fair. Or, more realistically, they can just go bust: after all, as the prospectus notes, they have no experience in this business. And if they go bust, then the holders of the tracking stock will end up owning about 1% of a bankrupt company, no matter how successful Foster is. As the prospectus says:
While we intend for our Fantex Series Arian Foster to track the performance of the brand, we cannot provide any guarantee that the series will in fact track the performance of such brand. The board of directors has discretion to reattribute assets, liabilities, revenues, expenses and cash flows without the approval of shareholders of a particular tracking series, which discretion will be exercised in accordance with its fiduciary duties under Delaware law and only where its decisions are in the best interests of the company and the stockholders as a whole.In other words, when the directors decide "to reattribute assets, liabilities, revenues, expenses and cash flows," their duty is to Fantex, the holding company, and not to the chumps with the Foster shares, who between them account for less than 1% of Fantex's equity. In general, as the prospectus also says, "any of our tracking series will be subject to the risk associated with an investment in Fantex as a whole." This investment, then, is basically the worst of all possible worlds: if Foster fails, it fails, and if Fantex fails, it also fails. Even if they both do quite well, you'll only be able to profit on your investment insofar as a completely separate business -- the Fantex stock exchange -- actually works. Fantex isn't looking to raise a huge amount of money here: $10 million should be achievable, given the vast sums bet on fantasy leagues every season. You only need 5,000 chumps investing $2,000 each and you're there. So Foster is likely to get his cash. But after that, I can't see this thing going well. Football players are notoriously bad at organizing their finances; is Foster really likely to manage to timely file his mandated quarterly report, which "shall detail all Brand Income earned during such quarter, detail the calculation of the Brand Amount for such quarter with respect to such Brand Income, and provide such additional information and certifications required to be included in the Quarterly Report, including such matters as specified in Exhibit E", within 10 days of the end of every calendar quarter, for the rest of his career? Sometime quite soon, Foster is going to receive a $10 million check from Fantex; if he's typical of most 27-year-old star football players, he's likely to spend most if not all of that money pretty quickly. But for what will probably be the rest of his life, he's going to be burdened by what is essentially a private 20% income tax, over and above everything he owes to the government, and to his creditors. There might be people out there who like the idea of buying and selling stock in Arian Foster -- speculating on the fortunes of someone else. But if they stop to think about what they're doing, they'll probably realize that it's pretty distasteful. What they're trading is the present value of Foster's future earnings: They're saying that in many years' time, long after Foster has left the gridiron for good, they will be sitting there, with their hands out, every quarter, demanding from him 20% of everything he earns. Here's how the Fantex Web site puts it:
IT DOESN'T HAVE TO END AT RETIREMENT. This is a stock linked to the value and performance of an athlete's brand, not the person. When the athlete retires, their brand may or may not continue to generate income into the future (e.g. endorsements, appearances, broadcasting, etc.). As long as the brand continues to generate income as defined in the brand contract, Fantex, Inc. is entitled to continue to receive payments pursuant to its brand agreement.This kind of language is deliberately dehumanizing: The athlete is referred to not as a person but as a "brand" throughout. The racial overtones are unavoidable: Fantex's About page features four grinning middle-aged white men, while the man they're taking 20% from is young and black. This isn't slavery, this isn't ownership. But the rich, white businessmen are buying something for their $10 million, while Foster is legally binding himself to writing substantial checks to those businessmen, and/or their successors, every three months, for what is quite likely to be the rest of his life. Before you put any money into Fantex, then, ask yourself two questions. First, do you want to make a really stupid investment? Second, do you really want to buy shares in a company that treats young black men as property to be acquired and then privately taxed? Because that's exactly what you're going to be doing. -- Written by Felix Salmon in New York. Read more of Felix's blogs at Reuters.