Growing up for many of us consisted at an early age being asked what we wanted to be when we grow up.  For some it was to be a police officer, fire fighter, or doctor.  For others it was to be professional athlete, rock star, or movie star.  Either way it was this question that was truly our first introduction into entrepreneurship.

I find that professional sports and entrepreneurship have a close connection in how your own talents, willingness to perfect your craft, and training can lead to earning the pay and lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.  As a former NCAA baseball player and before an injury that ended my professional career, I was exposed to the business side of sports and how it can truly elevate your ability to transition from athlete to business person.

There are countless stories of former and current pro athletes that are making a big splash in the entrepreneurial world and these seven have done it at an efficient and lucrative level, ultimately helping set the mark for other professional athletes to follow today.

Micheal Jordan

Widely considered as the greatest professional basketball player of all time, MJ is now one of the greatest examples of how an athlete can become a pro entrepreneur and win big.  With an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion dollars, “Air Jordan” or “His Airness” has become the 2nd richest African-America Business Owner and was the first NBA Player to become a billionaire.

Through his abilities as an athlete and more importantly as an endorser of products like the “Air Jordan” with Nike and Gatorade, Jordan became the most recognizable face for basketball and propelled its popularity through the 1980s and 1990s.

Now the 2nd largest share holder with the Charlotte Bobcats, MJ also owns  Jordan Brand Clothing , Michael Jordan Motorsports, and several restaurant chains.  He has endorsements with Hanes and Gatorade along with Nike where is Jordan Brand is one of the most popular in the company’s history.  He also appeared in the hit movie Space Jam and at the height of his playing popularity and was instrumental in helping Space Jam become a box office success.

According to Wikipedia, at the end of its run, it grossed approximately $90.4 million in the United States and an estimated $230–$250 million internationally, making it the highest grossing basketball film of all time and the third highest-grossing sports film, behind Rocky IV and The Blind Side.

Tony Hawk

One of the most charismatic and pioneering athletes in his industry, Tony Hawk is perhaps the most recognizable name in the world of skateboarding.  When the sport was beginning to gain popularity it was Tony that helped propel it to new heights through his skill set and risk taking stunts.  Since then he has gone on to become the owner of his very own skateboarding company called Birdhouse that sales gear and apparel along with endorsing up and coming elite skateboarders.

In 2002 Tony launched an extreme sports tour in Las Vegas called the Boom Boom Huck Jam and makes several appearance to this day.  He has 31 film credits to his name with big titles like the Jack Ass series and the New Guy leading the way.

Recognized as one of the most influential skateboarders of all time by FoxWeekly Tony has gone on to launch the Tony Hawk Foundation in 2014 to help build skate parks in underprivileged communities.  With an estimated net worth of $120 million dollars Tony is an extreme sports legend that single handily commercialized the sport and making the athletes of today a household name.

George Foreman

George was one of the most feared punchers in the boxing world by the time he entered the professional ranks as an Olympic Gold Medalist in 1968.  His fame reached new heights in 1974 during the famous “Rumble In The Jungle” when he was knocked out by defending his Heavyweight Championship against Muhammad Ali.

That fight went on to become recognized by many historians as the greatest sporting event of the 20th century.  Foreman went on to fight in 81 professional bouts compiling a win/loss record of 76-5 and was the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history at age 45 when he knocked 26 year old Michael Moore in the 10th Round in 1994.  Since then George has made an amazing transition from the boxing arena to the business boardroom.  He was an analyst on HBO Boxing for twelve years and and launched the George Foreman Grill instantly making him a household name.  in 1999 he sold the naming rights of the grill for $138 million dollars and remained the spokesperson for the product.

He has gone on the write books, cookbooks, and endorse other products.  With an estimated net worth of $250 million dollars I would safely say that Foreman packs a heavyweight punch in the business arena as well.

Wayne Gretzky

Known as the “Great One” and arguably the most popular hockey player to ever play the sport, Gretzky is only the second person to have the waiting period waved to join the National Hockey Hall Of Fame.  He helped revolutionize the sport of hockey with his athleticism and skills while also helping to commercialize the sport and garner mainstream media attention.

With an estimated net worth of $200 million dollars Gretzky owns Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant and is a partner in the sports equipment maker company called First Team Sports.  He is one of the highest paid endorsers in North America with companies such as Coke, Dominos, Upper Deck and 989 Sports as those he’s worked with.  Early in his career Gretzky began purchasing Minor League Hockey teams where he then remodeled them and turned around their records prior to selling them for a profit.

He partnered with a successful business owner as purchased the rare Honus Wagner baseball card for $451 thousand dollars later selling it for a then record of 2.8 million dollars.  He has launched several non-profits including his Wayne Gretzky Foundation that helps underprivileged children enjoy the hockey experience on and off the ice.

Other investments include positions as minority owner and Head Coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, Executive Director of 2002’s Gold Medal-winning Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team, owner of the popular Toronto bar and restaurant Wayne Gretzky’s, winemaker with the celebrated Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery, and philanthropist with his own Wayne Gretzky Foundation and countless other charitable endeavors. (http://www.gretzky.com/)

Cal Ripken Jr.

Cal Ripken was one of the most popular and consistent baseball players of all time.  Known as the “Iron Man” he broke Lou Gehrig’s record of most consecutive games played with 2131 in 1995.  Since that time Ripken has become an ambassador for the game of baseball and a true example of how to win on and off the field.  Upon retiring he has become a television analyst for TBS Sports covering baseball, is on the board of directors for Zenix Media, and launched a multiplayer online sports company called Cal Ripken’s REAL Baseball.

He owns numerous minor league baseball teams and launched The Ripken Experience which is a group of sports complexes that are now in Maryland, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  With an estimated net worth of $75 million, Cal’s earnings don’t jump off the paper like those of the others; however, playing during a time when contracts weren’t guaranteed and all of his earnings coming primarily from the sport of baseball I believe that Ripken is truly the “Iron Man” on and off the baseball diamond.

Tiger Woods

With an estimated net worth of $700 million Tiger Woods is perhaps one of the most marketable athletes of all time.  He revolutionized the sport of golf and made it “cool” to be a golfer or even aspire to be one.  At the height of his career and popularity Tiger signed some of the richest endorsements deals ever recorded with Nike, General Mills, General Motors, Titleist, American Express, Accenture, and Gatorade.  He single handily helped Nike create a Golf Division of their company with an estimated $600 million dollars in sales during its peak and was a driving force behind Buick’s surge of the Rendezvous vehicle on the marketplace.

His Tiger Woods Video Game Series for Electronic Arts is one of the most popular sports gaming series with millions of copies sold world wide.  He also helped Tag Heur develop the very first luxury watch for professional golfers and became an ambassador for Gillette. He became the very first professional athlete to earn over $1 billion dollars before taxes in 2009 and also has holdings in numerous golf courses around the country.

Tiger was so good at golf he literally was studied by scientists who later coined the “Tiger Effect” after him because he caused others to play worse around him when paired on the golf course.

Serena Williams

Serena is perhaps the most powerful and dominant women’s professional tennis player of all time.  Her tenacity on the court has led to being one of the winningest players in the modern open-era.  Her tenacity off the court and in the business realm has garnered much fame and respect among her peers and other business leaders alike.

With endorsement deals by Nike, Wilson, Gatorade, Delta Air Lines, Audemars Piguet, Aston Martin, Pepsi, Beats by Dre, Mission Athletecare, Berlei bras, OPI Products, OnePiece, IGM, Mini and Chase Bank , Serena is one of the highest paid endorsed athletes in the world.  Serena has also become a figure in the fashion world by launching her nail collection with HairTech in 201o, becoming the first  black female athlete to be featured on the cover of Vogue Magazine for 2015 April edition, and having her HSN Signature Statement Collection featured for a second time at the prestigious New York Fashion Week Show.

Serena has also appeared in films, commercials, and has done voice over work for Nickelodeon and Disney.  She, along with her sister Venus are minority shareholders of the Miami Dolphins and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  She has become a global ambassador for the sport of tennis and is one of the most recognizable names in the sporting industry and with an estimated net worth of $150 million dollars it is easy to see how she has become a champion in the business world as well.

What you see stand out among these athletes is that they not only revolutionized their respective sports but they were able to transition that into the business arena.  While athletes are among the highest paid people on the planet many fall victim to bankruptcy due to uneducated spending, bad investments, and poor personal choices.

What I find most telling is that these athletes have laid a foundation for others in their respective sports to follow and truly pioneering an entrepreneurial transition for those leaving the sporting world.  It also goes to show you that while entrepreneurship is tough and not for the faint at heart, it is a driving force behind the economy we live in and a truly responsible profession that can open doors, change lives, and improve livelihoods if done the right way and given the dedication it deserves to the hard work required to be successful.

Athletes today enjoy bigger salaries, more guaranteed contracts, and more endorsement opportunities thanks in large part to these athletes on my list.  More importantly they have helped develop the  blueprint to follow on how to be business men and women while building a brand on and off the professional sporting fields.  Entrepreneurship isn’t a lifestyle change its a lifelong journey and these athletes have shown just how lucrative that journey can be.