By Hannah McClellan
The idea for NextPlay, a student-athlete career development startup based in Durham, was conceived at a wedding. In March 2018, Durham native Kyle Mumma received a call from Kevin Lehman, the executive director of football administration and football chief of staff at Duke University, who was attending the wedding of a former player.
Mumma graduated from Duke in 2013 with a sociology degree and worked for Lehman as Duke’s football operations coordinator. They often spoke about the challenges that collegiate athletes faced when it was time to leave the sport. But as this particular phone conversation turned again to the subject, Mumma decided to do something about it. They kept in touch during Mumma’s time at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and continued their discussions on how to help student-athletes better utilize their schooling after college.
Mumma, who managed Coach David Cutcliffe’s recruiting operations and generated weekly newsletters to donors, recruits and program benefactors during his time with the football program, said he wanted to fully utilize the sport’s benefit to its athletes.
“I reflected back to my time with Duke football in particular, ” Mumma said. “We used to make all these promises to kids about how they were going to be able to leverage this Duke education to meet all these wonderful alumni, and we were going to set them up for the rest of their lives.”
The reality, he said, is that the results were much more short term.
Mumma and Lehman brainstormed a tentative career development program for the football players at Duke to help make some of those recruiting promises come true.
Mumma, who is NextPlay’s CEO and founder, helped launch the first iteration of his idea in June 2018 through the Duke Football Future Initiative. This initial version was a three-day conference focused on student-athlete success after graduation and featured sessions with professors from Duke’s business school, a panel discussion with former Duke football players and a networking dinner.
Seeing the interest in that program, “a side project with friends on staff,” Mumma said, is when “the lightbulb went off that there might be a business here.” A few months later, he hired a few staff members, secured some initial funding and officially founded NextPlay.
NextPlay’s focus is similar to that of its trial run, centered on four main areas: knowledge, skills, networking and confidence. It works with students to discover their “personal mission statements” to help them learn about different career paths and how to navigate them. It also connects students with alumni virtually and at networking events, and hosts classes taught by business professors and alumni focused on career management skills, such as writing a cover letter or planning an informational interview. NextPlay’s overall goal is to ensure students “feel comfortable that they can be something beyond just an athlete.”
He declined to give revenue figures, but Mumma said 2019 was a good year for NextPlay. It started programs at three new schools: Davidson College, Furman University and Campbell University, in addition to maintaining the initiative at Duke.
The specific programs vary from school to school, but at their core, they aim “not necessarily to get athletes jobs,” Mumma said, but, “to prepare them to take ownership of their own paths.”
“In total, we had over 200 athletes attend at least one session in 2019,” Mumma said. “To this point, we’ve had about 25 to 30 alumni participate in their school’s program in some way (sitting on a panel, hosting a company visit, offering mentorship, etc.)” And, he added, “we’ve had hundreds of alums inquire about getting involved with their school’s work.”
NextPlay is a team of four with Trent Williams, vice president of operations, Mia Wise, vice president of services, and Grayson Wise, a developer and designer in addition to Mumma. Operating with such a small staff can take its toll, Mumma admitted.
“Starting a company is a daily roller coaster. It feels like you have really high highs and really low lows on a daily basis,” he said. “I’ve had dozens of occasions where I’ve questioned if I made the right decision – I turned down a job offer from [professional services firm] Deloitte to do this out of business school. So, there have been many occasions where I thought I was an idiot, and there have also been many occasions where I felt like I was meant to do this.”
But it’s the response from student-athletes, alumni and school administrators alike that validates the need for the services NextPlay provides, Mumma said. The involvement of athlete alumni is key, not only for creating a customizable approach for students, but also as a selling point to athletics departments. As it stands, Mumma said, alumni of athletics programs are often less connected and give back less to their alma maters than other alumni. But “that’s something we think these programs can fix,” he said.
“There’s more we can do than I originally realized,” he said.
The company’s current big aim is to complete a software solution that will allow alumni and students to more easily connect. It will also house content created specifically for the needs and interests of student-athletes at each specific school. If a college has a veterinary program, for example, the company will work directly with administrators to offer that space to athletes. And it will teach athletes, “how to talk about the fact that you were an all-conference pitcher” on a resume.
NextPlay is courting investors and hopes to grow the company so that it can expand its programs across the country. “Our goal is to build something that works at any school,” Mumma said.
Sports offer “remarkable potential to do good in the world, particularly for a lot of minority and underprivileged populations,” Mumma said. “If we’re not doing something to make sure athletes are able to leverage that experience into the next step of their lives, then it’s a horrible mistreatment of these kids.”
It’s hard work, but it is also rewarding to keep those promises he made as a recruiter. Especially when he can make a career doing it.
“It’s all well and good to make a positive impact,” he said. “If you can make a really positive impact and also make a business impact, then you’ve really got something.”