One weekend in early 2013, thousands of people trekked to the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas, gathering to celebrate a company that promised to liberate them from the drudgery of their 9-to-5 lives. They cheered through countless inspirational speeches, pounding energy drinks and pumping their fists as higher-ranking members spoke about how they had turned their lives around with the help of AdvoCare, which is short for Advocates Who Care.
For three days, teams of AdvoCare members in matching T-shirts swarmed the concourse, taking photos with the company mascot (a generic superhero) and buying armloads of AdvoCare gear. There were raucous musical performances, as well as appearances by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and former President George W. Bush. On Sunday, the organizers held a church service featuring Christian singer Michael W. Smith. The event was called Success School, but it didn’t feel like an educational seminar, according to members who were there. It felt like a revival.
The weekend’s biggest applause was reserved for AdvoCare’s national spokesman: Drew Brees. When the quarterback emerged, the audience — composed largely of new members — screamed, roiling with the fervor of the recently converted. As electronic music thumped and images of spinning trophies flashed on a pair of giant screens, Brees, wearing a plaid suit jacket and an AdvoCare medal, strode toward the stage, high-fiving strangers. A regiment of his fellow endorsers, including Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, trailed him. Brees tossed a couple of tiny footballs into the crowd and beamed, covering his eyes as he scanned the crowd.
“You should all be excited,” he said. “Because of you, we’re gonna make AdvoCare a household name!”
The quarterback wasn’t wrong. Today, the company boasts an army of 640,000 salespeople, up from 97,000 in 2010. These independent distributors sell energy drinks, shakes and supplements directly to consumers. But AdvoCare is pitching more than nutritional products. It’s also offering people a pathway to financial freedom — the opportunity to “design their own lives” by selling those products and to earn even more money by recruiting others to join the fold. This business model, called multilevel marketing, helped the company generate $719 million in net revenue last year.
As AdvoCare has grown, it has signed dozens of high-profile athletes as endorsers, including NFL QBs Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith, MLB pitcher Doug Fister and CrossFit champion Rich Froning. But no spokesman matters more — to the company, its distributors or its prospective recruits — than Brees. In 2014, the Saints trained next to the AdvoCare Sports Performance Center in West Virginia; Brees lends his imprimatur to a line of DB9 nutrition bars and supplements. In one commercial (like several AdvoCare spots, the ad ran on ESPN), Brees appears on-screen in a suit, talking to the camera as pictures of families flash behind him. “I’ve seen product results, and so have thousands of people who trust AdvoCare,” he says in the ad. “And the financial benefits can be just as rewarding for those who want more and decide to build their own AdvoCare business.”
This pitch — the promise that if you sign up for AdvoCare, you can reap “rewarding” financial results — draws tens of thousands of new distributors every year. But an Outside the Lines/ESPN The Magazine investigation has found that few of those salespeople will ever achieve that vision. In reality, only a tiny fraction of AdvoCare members earn anything close to a modest income, even as they’re pressured by higher-ranking distributors to keep buying inventory. “They plant the seed that you’re gonna make money — life-changing money,” says Gabriel Chavez, who joined in 2010.
And while the company claims its primary objective is selling products, many of its distributors tell a different story. ESPN interviewed more than 30 current and former salespeople, the vast majority of whom said their focus, and the focus of their superiors, was on recruiting other distributors. These new members, many of whom are drawn to the business’ strong religious culture or convinced of its credibility by its ties to the sports world, infuse the company with new funds — money that ultimately flows up to the powerful people who walk the stage at Success School.
Chavez, who lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona, sat in the crowd when Brees spoke three years ago. He had been reluctant to fly to Texas for the event, which cost $119, but he says his superiors pushed him to make the trek. “They told me, ‘Put it on your credit card. If your family doesn’t support you, go anyways,'” he says. Friends and family members who raise questions about AdvoCare are labeled “dream killers” by other salespeople, according to several distributors.
By 2013, Chavez had spent three years trying to build an AdvoCare business. He had taken out a loan on his 401(k) and quit his government job, dropping $15,000 on products that he struggled to sell. He had hosted innumerable parties in his living room, handing out samples to reluctant attendees, and printed business cards with Brees’ face on them. He barely broke even — but he kept at it, convinced that someday he would be the one on AdvoCare’s stage.
“You’re always chasing the dream,” he says. “And it never comes.”