In recent years, many active and retired professional athletes have publicly touted the benefits of marijuana in improving their performance and recoveries. In addition, numerous research studies have proven that cannabis can have positive effects for athletes – including everyone from high-performance professionals to occasional gym visitors.

For example, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are known to relieve pain and nausea symptoms and reduce inflammation and muscle spasms. For athletes, the key to successfully using marijuana for improved performance and recovery is to find the right cannabis strain, products, and consumption methods to get the results they’re looking for.

To fill that niche, a number of cannabis companies are developing products specifically for athletes. At the same time, more professional athletes are joining the cannabis industry as business owners, investors, consultants, advisors, spokespeople, influencers, and brand ambassadors.

Professional Athletes Join the Cannabis Industry

Well-known professional athletes from a variety of sports have entered the cannabis and hemp industries in recent years after discovering how effective THC and CBD are for recovery and pain management.

Recently, four-time NBA champion John Salley became the vice president of marketing for Leading Edge Pharmaceuticals and will soon launch his own premium cannabis business, Deuces 22. Former NFL star Rob Gronkowski is launching a line of CBD products with Abacus Health Products and CBDMedic. Retired NBA star Jamal Mashburn joined the board of cannabis health and wellness company Revolution Global as an advisor, and the e-commerce marijuana delivery platform, Dutchie, received capital from Thirty Five Ventures, an investment firm co-founded by NBA star Kevin Durant.

In cannabis-focused gyms, matching the right product to the athlete is an important focus. It’s done in Power Plant Fitness gyms, which were founded by former NFL player Ricky Williams and founder of the 420 Games, Jim Alpine. In addition, it’s an important part of Williams’ and Alpine’s Cannathlete program and Cannathlete product line.

Other athletes getting into the cannabis industry include NFL legend Joe Montana who invested in Caliva; Seibo Shen, a jiu-jitsu fighter who founded VapeXhale; Cliff Robinson of the NBA with his brand, Uncle Cliffy; the NBA’s Al Harrington with his company, Viola Extracts; former NFL Pro Bowl player Lofa Tatupu with his ZoneIn CBD startup; and former NFL player Kyle Turley who has a product line called Neuro XPF.

In addition, the number of professional athletes advocating cannabis and accepting brand ambassador roles and sponsorships from cannabis brands is growing. Six-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Amy Van Dyken has a partnership with the hemp lifestyle network Kannaway. Megan Rapinoe, Olympic gold medalist, two time Women’s World Cup champion, and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year is sponsored by CBD-sports recovery products company Mendi, and ultramarathoner Avery Collins is sponsored by The Farm Marijuana Dispensary.

Cannabis Companies Focus on Athletes

Established cannabis companies are also shifting some of their focus on the sports niche. Dixie Elixirs offers its own products for athletes, which come in a variety of forms, including balms, bath soaks, lotions, and more. These products are marketed as supportive for muscle soreness and joint pain. They’re also promoted as being more natural and less harmful to the body than over-the-counter products like NSAIDs (e.g., Ibuprofen, Advil, and Aleve) or ointments like Icy Hot and Tiger Balm.

Last year, High Performance Beverage Co. announced that it would enter the cannabis market with a line of high performance sports drinks with THC and CBD. The company partnered with CaliPharms to ensure its sports drinks would be tested properly to keep the products natural and organic.

This year, Tilray entered an agreement to provide CBD ingredients for wellness products backed by former pro golfer Greg Norman, and Canopy Growth acquired a 72% stake in BioSteel Sports Nutrition with a path to full ownership. BioSteel makes sports proteins and hydration mixes that are already used by professional athletes, so it’s safe to assume the acquisition paves the way for the company to produce CBD-infused sports drinks in the future.

The Future of Marijuana and Sports

As more professional and non-professional athletes come forward to share their stories of how cannabis helps improve their performance and recovery, the market for marijuana products formulated specifically for the sports industry will continue to grow. Research has already shown how marijuana can benefit athletes, particularly in terms of how it can help reduce the use of opioid pain relieving drugs like codeine and OxyContin among athletes.

Opioid abuse and addiction is a growing problem across professional sports programs. It has been said that former NFL players suffer from opioid addiction at a rate four times higher than the general population, and many other elite athletes whose bodies are pushed to the extreme or suffer from repeated head trauma find themselves relying on these dangerous drugs, too. As a result, it’s not surprising that athletes are finding alternatives that they believe are safer in marijuana products. In fact, if retired professional athletes’ estimates are correct, up to 90% of NFL players, 80% of NBA players, and 70% of NHL players use cannabis.

Interestingly, this is a part of the market where there is equal interest in both CBD and THC products. That means not only is there a significant opportunity for brands and businesses to establish market share dominance with marijuana products, but there are also big opportunities for hemp products. Athletes who are subjected to drug tests might need CBD products to stay compliant and continue to compete at a certain level.

This month, the U.S.A. Triathlon became the first national governing body of an American sport to sign a sponsorship deal with a CBD company, Pure Spectrum. However, for professional athletes subject to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s regulations and testing, cannabis (including CBD products that include THC) remains on the list of banned drugs.

Looking beyond specific marijuana products, there are also opportunities for more cannabis-related gyms, cannabis consultants to help athletes choose the best products to achieve their goals, and other ancillary products and services. The fitness market is on a steep growth trajectory right now, particularly health-related software and mobile apps, so there are even opportunities to merge marijuana, tech, and sports in innovative ways.

If athletes and cannabis advocates can change the perception of marijuana so more people in the sports industry see its benefits, this is a market that could explode quickly. Last month, professional golfer Robert Garrigus called on the PGA to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances  after he tested positive for THC telling Golf Channel, “Performance enhancing substances that give players an unfair advantage should remain prohibited but everything else should be a discussion.”

However, therein lies the problem – perception. It will take some time, money, and effort to change the public’s perception of cannabis as it relates to sports, health, and fitness. It can be done, and it most likely will be done in the near future. The question is: Who will lead the charge? Who will stake a claim in the cannabis sports market and own the leadership position?

Originally published 4/26/18. Updated 10/25/19.