Several established restaurant chains have brought on professional athletes as franchisees in recent years, but one upstart quick serve is taking the athlete partnership to the next level.

Liquid Nutrition, a Montreal-based health-food-and-beverage concept that plans to debut in the U.S. later this year, counts six professional athletes among its equity-owning business partners. The company also partnered as a charter member with the Professional Athlete Franchise Initiative (PAFI) this week to boost athlete participation in the franchise industry.

Glenn Young, president and CEO of Liquid Nutrition, says the company’s strategic partnership with athletes started when executives approached Steve Nash, a two-time MVP with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, about helping the company with its marketing efforts.

“What was supposed to be kind of a typical promo-slash-endorsement agreement turned into a discussion where Steve actually came to us and said, ‘Hey, is there an opportunity for me to partner in this company?’” Young says.

The company was private at the time, Young says, and agreed to sell Nash a 10 percent share in the business. The basketball star and native Canadian then decided to franchise with the company, and is now in the process of developing at least 20 units in British Columbia.

But Young says the company hungered for more participation from professional athletes, whom he says embody Liquid Nutrition’s ideals and help give the company significant marketing exposure.

“We decided at the time that we didn’t want to just be a one-athlete operation, we wanted to build a team,” Young says. “So we developed the Team Liquid concept and wanted representation from all four major North American leagues, and also some female representation.”

Along with Nash, Team Liquid now includes Matt Ryan of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons; Vincent Lecavalier of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning; Russell Martin of the MLB’s New York Yankees; professional snowboarder Torah Bright; and the LPGA’s No. 2 golfer, Suzann Pettersen.

Young says the brand, which is now publicly traded, negotiated company shares for each athlete, “so they essentially became partners in the business going forward.”

While Nash is the only Team Liquid member to date to also become a franchisee, Young says the company is negotiating with the other members to do the same. It is also hoping to leverage its new relationship with PAFI to franchise with other athletes.

“If we can get these athletes engaged in the business now, as they’re active and have a profile in their local marketplace, then essentially they’re building equity for the long term,” he says. “So when they do stop playing, they have a vested interest in a business, and something that’s very complementary to their life.”

Young says Liquid Nutrition has identified 35 markets in the U.S. and Canada that it hopes to build out—at least 10 units in each market—in the next five years. The first U.S. units are in development in Los Angeles, New York City, and Southern Florida. 

By Sam Oches

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Growth, News, Liquid Nutrition