Buckets of sweat poured off my head at the TruFusion hot yoga class in Las Vegas, where I stood at the back of the room heated like a sauna and “modified” my moves, meaning barely did them at all, whenever the instructor, a former Rockette, looked the other way. Why was I there? Because if it’s good enough for A-Rod and J-Lo, it’s good enough for me.
In other words, I was on assignment.
Alex Rodriguez, 42, the New York Yankees legend, World Series champion and 14-time All-Star who had a 22-year career in baseball and retired at the end of 2016, had purchased a majority stake in the Las Vegas-based TruFusion in June 2017. That’s after he visited the studio on one of his many trips to Vegas to accompany his powerhouse girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, who had performed her “All I Have” show at Planet Hollywood all year.
J-Lo often comes to work out at TruFusion, along with Cirque du Soleil acrobats and flamenco dancers on the strip, not to mention boxers and UFC mixed-martial-arts fighters—Floyd Mayweather was there before his fight last August, the TruFusion folks told me.
A-Rod went, worked out, had a couple of discussions with the founders of TruFusion, and within a week and a half signed a deal to be both part owner of the brand and also license TruFusion gyms in south Florida, his home base. Then he had a photographer snap pictures while he sweated with all the ladies in the class (TruFusion is especially attracting millennial women as members), and tweeted that J-Lo pretty much kicked his butt in the workout every time.
To Jonathan Fornaci, president and COO of TruFusion, it was a dream come true, as franchise sales took off. “It’s been incredible,” Fornaci said when reached toward the end of November. TruFusion had sold 60 units in its first two years of franchising. Then A-Rod signed on. “In four months and a few weeks, we sold 42, which is crazy, and we’ll add 20 or 30 additional” before the year closed.
J-Lo signed a contract to appear in Minneapolis before the Super Bowl in February, and there was talk of A-Rod and J-Lo hosting a pop-up TruFusion class for the masses before that event, the brainchild of TruFusion marketing chief Steve Rockman to take advantage of the duo’s star power.
But A-Rod’s contribution goes beyond attracting the paparazzi. “Having him as a board member, having him as a partner is incredible,” Fornaci said. “We just got off a call today with the second largest real estate owner in the entire United States, and we’re putting together a deal where we can slot our franchisees right into the real estate.”
A-Rod was instrumental in TruFusion’s closing a deal in China, he added. Ditto for the 20,000-square-foot club being planned in Soho, where A-Rod met with permit people from New York City, “just so they know this is Alex’s personal location, and he would appreciate their help getting it expedited.”
Fornaci was the CEO for Rita’s Italian Ice, so he’s been around the block in franchising, including seeing plenty of celebrities buy into brands and give them lip service but not much else.
“I can tell you that the level of sophistication that Alex brings to us, and willingness to open up his Rolodex, I’ve just never experienced that before. And he is so driven to the point of—‘OK listen, we need to get this done. What’s the hang-up? If I need to make a phone call…’” A-Rod will say, and then he’ll make it.
To Fornaci, all that sweat equity is par for A-Rod’s course. “When he played baseball he was the first guy on the field, he was never walking. His personality is, ‘I’m running in, I’m running out.’ That’s exactly how he did it in baseball, and in business, it’s the exact same thing.”
My A-Rod moment
My turn to have a personal A-Rod moment came in late August, just a few days after I emailed Adam Sedlack, president of UFC Gym. A-Rod became a UFC Gym franchisee in the summer, and since I had featured UFC Gym’s Frankie Edgar on the cover of Franchise Times in October 2016, and been invited to my first UFC fight the previous July to watch Edgar, I shot off an email first thing on a Thursday morning.
Could I get an interview and photo shoot with A-Rod, I asked, thinking I’d be met with radio silence. Eight minutes later, Sedlack responded: “Yes. Can you give me a ring,” and a few emails with A-Rod’s assistant and a few days later, and we were on for a phone interview on a Friday afternoon.
I had a half hour, and I put the run-up to the interview to good use—no I couldn’t do lunch that day, or attend that meeting, because I was taking a call from Alex Rodriguez, yes, that Alex Rodriguez, that afternoon, I said loudly whenever possible. When his assistant called and connected us, he was as no-nonsense as Fornaci had said.
In fact, he was having lunch during the interview, which explained the pauses and noises after each question. “I’m just eating at the same time, so I’m chewing,” he explained about 10 minutes in. No, talking to celebrities isn’t necessarily as glamorous as it sounds. But the things he talked about were far from prosaic, and pretty surprising, especially the role that being afraid played in shaping his business career.
“I simply started out of fear,” A-Rod said, when asked how he began, at age 20 and a budding superstar for the Seattle Mariners, investing in a modest duplex. Today he owns hundreds of apartment buildings and has an entire management team that runs A-Rod Corp., the holding company for his business ventures.
“I’ve always had this dream that I wanted to be a major league baseball player and I wanted to be a CEO, ever since I was very young. I remember when I was probably in my rookie year I started to think about life after baseball. I saw so many people in various sports get injured on a Monday, and go from the penthouse to the outhouse in hours or days.
I did not want that to happen to me.
“I started making small investments, at a very early age,” and figured “if I can buy one asset per year, and pay it down over the next 15 years, then when I was 40 I would be OK.
“No one taught me” to do that, he added. “My gut told me that I had to prepare for life after baseball, of course never thinking that I was going to play for 23 years.”
According to Forbes, Rodriguez signed the two biggest contracts in baseball history, $252 million with the Texas Rangers in 2000 and $275 million with the New York Yankees in 2007 (Giancarlo Stanton later surpassed those with a $325 million deal.) His endorsements were fat and rich until they dried up for a time after he served a 162-game suspension in 2014 for his involvement in baseball’s Biogenesis doping scandal.
Forbes put his net worth at $480 million in 2017, and stories in the celebrity press like to detail his penchant for fancy cars and high-end art. He bought a Gulfstream IV jet in 2007, according to the New York Post. In 2010, he bought a $7.4 million piece of land in Miami for his future home. Using his own construction company, “he then spent millions more building a 20,000-square-foot modern, minimalistic home, and then after living in it for a year, he sold it for $30 million,” Business Insider said.
Nothing prepared him for the super-heated press he’d get from dating
Jennifer Lopez. He told Jimmy Kimmel, “You think you’re cool, but damn, you are out with Jennifer and they mistake you for the security guard.” At the Met Gala in May 2017, where the couple made their debut, he said, all the photographers were shouting for Jennifer but saying to Rodriguez to get out of the way.
But along with the toys, the expensive divorce in 2008 from the mother of his two daughters, and the jet-set lifestyle, he built a solid business, too, most recently adding TruFusion and UFC Gym to the portfolio.
He remembers his mother, putting the dollars from her two jobs in the only bank she trusted—under the mattress.
“My mother, as you know, she worked two jobs growing up, and she made a big impact on me. I saw how hard she worked, her commitment. We always had to move because the landlord said she was raising the rent. My father left when I was around 10 or 11, and thank goodness for me the Boys and Girls Club taught me how to play baseball,” he said.
‘He’ll pick your brain’
A-Rod’s involvement with UFC Gym, where he signed as a franchisee last summer, goes back several years when he got to know Mark Mastrov, the founder of 24-Hour Fitness, among many other holdings, and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings. “We were introduced, and he had recently sold 24-Hour Fitness, so he was looking for some things to do. He had identified Mexico as a long-time great market that 24 never expanded to,” A-Rod said.
So Mastrov and Rodriguez built Alex Rodriguez Energy clubs. A few years ago, Mastrov became chairman of UFC Gym, the chain of health clubs, many of which are owned by ultimate fighters and with a rabid fan base worldwide.
“Don’t forget that UFC has an enormous following in Miami,” Rodriguez says. “It’s one of the most exciting growing brands on the planet. It’s moving at a great velocity, and then you combine that with a great management team led by Mark Mastrov.”
Mastrov returns the compliment, calling Rodriguez “very unusual” in his hands-on business acumen. “He’s one of only maybe a handful of athletes I’ve come across who is so well-spoken and experienced in a lot of business opportunities. It’s very rare. I think he’s always had an interest in business. I think his whole life he’s focused on meeting people, like Warren Buffett, he’ll pick your brain,” Mastrov said. “He’s very interested. He’s always asking questions.”
A-Rod plans to open 12 UFC Gyms in Miami. He has letters of intent on four sites right now. “The UFC has a great brand. Then you add an Alex Rodriguez, especially in the Miami area, he lives in the community. He walks around to restaurants like a normal person. He breaks through the clutter even a level above what the UFC does,” says Mastrov. “His brand elevates your brand.”
As for A-Rod’s investment in TruFusion, Mastrov says he’s fine with it. “You’d love to have him just solely work with your brand,” but TruFusion is solid, too. “He loves the workout.
If he’s passionate about it then you take your hat off to it.”
When asked if he was surprised seeing photos of A-Rod down on the mat, working out with all the young women in the hot yoga class at TruFusion, Mastrov laughs. “He’s in there.
He’s looking pretty good. It’s good to be a young, good-looking guy in those classes.”
Then talk turns to the Kings, which Mastrov owns. Mastrov says he’s learning a lot as an NBA owner. “You get to see behind the scenes how to build and develop the team, how we draft. You learn a lot, just to build the whole thing.”
With A-Rod as his business partner, he gleans other insights, too, into the minds of professional athletes. “Alex Rodriguez helps me better understand how to relate to the players and the owners. He has nothing but tremendous respect for the Steinbrenner family,” which owns the Yankees, “and you get some insight.”
Like what? “You keep your distance from the younger guys because they’re just trying to have success. And the older, more mature players are happy to talk with you. You’ve kind of got to give everybody their rope,” Mastrov says.
Tough love & teamwork
Athletes are on A-Rod’s mind these days, too, in particular former professional baseball players who are now broke. He’s filming a cable TV show called “Back in the Game,” featuring athletes who have run out of money and need help. “They can get back on their feet,” A-Rod says.
At a Google Zeitgeist talk, he described how common the phenomenon is. “I get emails unfortunately once a month, twice a month of really sad stories of former teammates and colleagues that go broke and need help,” he said. “If you look at our careers, unlike most people you make most of your income from age 20 to 30. It’s hard to manage money when you’re 24. We’re doing a lot of silly things when we’re 24. Trust me.”
He’s made it his mission to try to help others beat that rap. “Eighty percent of our players were going bankrupt and divorced after five years of retiring,” but they don’t have to with a little bit of A-Rod wisdom.
“I’ve always said that athletes have a great potential to be really, really good in business. They have all the attributes that you need. Usually they have unbelievable work ethic, perseverance, grit, they’re scrappy, they understand tough love and teamwork,” and they just need someone to teach them the business side of things.
As for A-Rod, when asked to reflect on his biggest lessons in business, he replies, “Number 1 is go slow and go steady. Really, really understand what you’re getting into. Do not be afraid to ask questions. One of my favorite questions is, explain it to me like Ella, my fourth grader. If I understand it at that level then I feel comfortable moving on to the next set of questions.”
And his second lesson? “The power of partnership. I always think of, if I want to get into the football business I would like to get into it with Tom Brady. If I want to invest with someone, I want to invest with Warren Buffett. Partner up yourself with the smartest people in place, and then you can put your capital behind theirs and then structure a deal that’s win-win.”
Or for UFC Gym, TruFusion and Alex Rodriguez, make that win-win-win.