Playing to win: Redblack Nate Behar sees million-dollar potential in new marketing app

Nate Behar
Nate Behar

Like any receiver, Nate Behar knows the value of a good connection – be it with your quarterback or a sponsor who wants you to represent their brand.

So when the veteran Ottawa Redblacks slotback started getting requests a few years ago from friends looking to tap into his CFL and NFL contacts to find influencers and companies willing to explore sponsorship deals, he sensed an opportunity.

“I was like, ‘OK, let’s wait a second here,’” the 27-year-old Carleton University alumnus says. “I started to do some looking around and realized there were a million marketing platforms out there … but there wasn’t anything for athletes – especially the athlete community that needs it.”

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Behar, a former Carleton Ravens standout who played two seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos before signing with the Redblacks in 2019, instinctively did what any elite athlete would do when faced with a challenge – he put his head down and went to work.

The result is FireWork, a new mobile app that Behar describes as a “matchmaking” forum to bring athletes and brands together. 

CFLers, Olympians on platform

Behar and his eight-person team started testing the app early last year before taking it live on the Apple Store and Google Play in late 2021. Hundreds of athletes have since joined the platform, including fellow Redblacks Sherrod Baltimore, Brendan Gillanders and R.J. Harris, as well as Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Nic Demski and Brianne Jenner, a forward on the Canadian women’s hockey team who was named MVP of this year’s Olympic tournament in Beijing.

As a starter in a league where the average salary is under $100,000 – or less than one-fifth of what Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James takes home for a single game – Behar says he wants to help the legions of athletes who aren’t earning eight-figure annual incomes maximize their earnings in careers that often last fewer than five years.  

FireWork aims to help athletes land sponsorship and endorsement opportunities ranging from social media campaigns to speaking engagements “and everything else in between,” Behar says. 

The app uses a “freemium” model, meaning athletes only start to pay for FireWork’s services once they’ve signed a deal with a sponsor. 

FireWork takes five per cent of their earnings, “which is still 15 (percentage points) better than what an agent would (charge),” Behar notes. Sponsors, meanwhile, are charged a 9.5 per cent fee per transaction.

“We’re not trying to make fortunes off our athletes by any stretch,” Behar says. The total value of the deals flowing through the app now tops $30,000 a month, and the startup’s revenues have been rising more than 40 per cent month-over-month since its launch. 

To further serve athletes who don’t often get to bask in the spotlight, Behar recently signed a two-year partnership with AthletesCAN, the association of Canada’s national team athletes. 

Under the deal, FireWork helps connect Olympic competitors and other top-tier athletes with corporate partners. The company also works with AthletesCAN to help athletes develop skills for effectively pricing, pitching and negotiating sponsorship agreements. 

Branding workshops

In addition, FireWork plans to deliver two workshops a year on topics such as self-funding, personal branding and marketing and athlete commercial rights.

FireWork’s crew includes lead web developer Wilson Birch, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Carleton while playing wide receiver for the Ravens alongside Behar, and product manager Josh Lehman, who also co-founded smart-device installation and repair service Auxe. Yann Ngadeu, whose day job is building software for Shopify, adds bench strength as the firm’s back-end engineer.

The bootstrapped venture is still a side gig for its founder as he focuses on the Redblacks’ 2022 CFL season that kicks off Friday night in Winnipeg against the defending Grey Cup champion Bombers. But he says FireWork is already gaining momentum despite tough competition from other marketing apps and he thinks it won’t be long before the starting is scoring seven-figure revenues.

“Now it’s just putting some money behind it to make the revenue ignition go boom, as they say.”

“There’s no reason it won’t,” says Behar, who set career highs in the Redblacks’ truncated 2021 season with 34 catches for 439 yards. “We’re very confident that we’re going to get there. It’s just a matter of time.”

So far, he and his co-founders have financed FireWork mostly out of their own pockets with some assistance from family and friends. Behar says he’s hoping to raise between $500,000 and $750,000 through a convertible safe note to give the startup a bit of runway.

“Now it’s just putting some money behind it to make the revenue ignition go boom, as they say,” he explains.

The 2017 first-round CFL draft pick acknowledges he’s faced a steep learning curve as an entrepreneur. But he says the competitive fire that fuelled his ascent on the gridiron has also served him well in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of tech.

“It’s been the crash-course MBA they all say it is, running a business,” Behar says with a laugh.

“It’s just another way to play football in a lot of ways. It’s another way to scratch that exact same (itch) that all of us pro athletes have. You just have this thing that claws at your conscience – that you need to be better and do better and fight and win and all these different things. This is just another arena.”

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