The NFLPA Is Getting into the Tech Startup Business

The union is partnering with Amazon to connect former and current players with tech startups, offering investment and entrepreneurial opportunities
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Nestled among Seattle’s skyscrapers, Amazon headquarters would seem to be light years away from the Seahawks’ place of business. CenturyLink Field is surrounded by freeways and industry. A mile north, 2121 Blanchard Street overlooks giant glass biospheres. But seated among the venture capitalists fashionably attired in expensive suits and tech whizzes dressed down in geek chic at Amazon HQ on a Tuesday last month were a handful of investors who had made their first millions on the field.

This meeting, dubbed “Smart Play: Connecting Startups and Sports,” was a joint event run by the NFLPA and Amazon Launchpad, an online marketplace for select startups. And the meeting was all about getting reps. Standing on the line of scrimmage and betting on business ventures have a lot in common. Both are high-risk—one to your body, the other to your bank balance. Both promise huge rewards—a multimillion dollar contract and chance to win a Super Bowl, or an even bigger bank balance and the chance to change the world. And getting good at either requires a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of hard work.

“Like anything else, the more you do it, the more reps you get at it, the more efficient you can get it done,” says Marques Colston, who spent a decade playing receiver for the Saints, picking up a Super Bowl ring in 2010, before retiring in 2015. Colston has invested in sports and health technology startups, including Lexaria, a biotech company specializing in cannabinoid products, and Sport Testing, a company that develops athletic assessment technologies.

Eddie George, Doug Baldwin, Ryan McNeil, Ryan Mundy and Marques Colston at the Amazon Launchpad event in October.

Eddie George, Doug Baldwin, Ryan McNeil, Ryan Mundy and Marques Colston at the Amazon Launchpad event in October.

“When I got started [in the NFL] I didn’t invest in anything,” says Ryan Mundy, a six-year veteran defensive back and member of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII championship team. After injury ended Mundy’s career in preseason in 2015, he began exploring life outside of football. He spent time researching financial tech, artificial intelligence, drones, virtual reality and augmented reality, then founded an early stage investment firm called Techlete Ventures. “I made sure that before I wrote a check I knew what I was getting into.”

About a month ago Mundy joined Colston on the athlete advisory board of the OneTeam Collective, the NFLPA’s startup accelerator. Launched in December last year, the OneTeam Collective was designed partly to expand the NFLPA’s investment portfolio, catching brands early, and being able to be a part of their success. Over the last year, the OneTeam Collective announced investments in both WHOOP, a fitness-tracking wearable, and StatMuse, a Siri-like app that uses the voice of real players.

The NFLPA hopes to take a leadership position in the sports tech world, too, and representatives from other players associations joined the meeting in Seattle. Also in attendance were luminaries like Scott Jacobson, a former Amazon exec who now leads Madrona Venture Group, Aashish Tripathi, head of business at Amazon Launchpad, and Mark Valdez, a partner at Playground, a venture fund and startup incubator.

“We frankly, candidly, have a lot to learn,” says Ahmad Nassar, president of the NFLPA’s licensing and marketing subsidiary, NFL Players Inc. “This is a huge shift from sports.” Nassar credits organizations such as Amazon Launchpad for helping guide the NFLPA in this space. At the event in Seattle, NFLPA representatives and players had the chance to meet companies that Amazon Launchpad had already performed due diligence on.

Former Seahawks linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski is the only person to sit on both the OneTeam Collective’s executive and athlete advisory boards. Kacyvenski attended Harvard as an undergrad on a full academic scholarship in 1996, was drafted by Seattle in the fourth round in 2000, and followed up his NFL career with a Harvard MBA in 2011. Now his company, the Sports Innovation Lab, helps evaluate sports tech for clients like the NFLPA.

According to Kacyvenski, the key question to answer when looking at a company for the OneTeam Collective is “What’s that fit look like?” Just having huge business potential might not be enough if there isn’t an obvious connection between NFL players and the company’s core business.

There also needs to be a significant upside, too. A product that only appeals to elite athletes might be exciting, but if it cannot scale out to a wider consumer base it may never sell enough to justify an investment.

“For me, it’s a matter of finding companies I can be passionate about,” Colston says. “Anywhere that technology intersects with sport is really interesting to me because I think in a lot of ways what you see there is kind of the groundwork to how technology’s going to affect everyday life.”

At the Seattle symposium, nine companies had a chance to pitch directly to the players and other investors: Six minutes to sell themselves and another six to be grilled with probing questions. The list of startups included ShapeScale, a company that records a 3D image of your body using an infrared scanner, and uses that to predict muscle and fact composition; Mission Athletic Apparel, which makes a fabric that cools down when it gets wet; Chomps, a line of meat snacks; and Core Wellness, a connected meditation device. Some of the companies hadn’t yet brought their products to market, while others already had millions in sales. The investment they were hoping for wasn’t purely financial.

“One of the misnomers is that every one of these companies is just looking for money, money, money,” Nassar says, “[but] some of these companies are actually very selective about whose money they may take. The question becomes ‘Well, what else besides money can you provide?’ “

An NFL player signing on as an investor can boost the public profile of a fledgling company. However, Ryan McNeil counsels that a player’s own knowledge is also a crucial element. McNeil, an 11-year NFL defensive back who retired in 2003, is an investor turned entrepreneur. His newest company, SportsID, is still in development but plans to offer applications involving the use of data in sports. McNeil says athletes can add insights about their sports and may have a unique understanding of how startups can assemble personnel into a successful team, from their years of playing on one. “[You] need at least to have one athlete on your team as an advisor or member,” he says. “We can see the unseen. You can pour a lot of time, a lot of effort, resources being spent unnecessarily.”

Athletes can bring the fire, too. In this world, like in the NFL, “it takes grit, focus, and determination,” said Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, an investor in helmet startup VICIS, during a panel session, “but you’ve also got to be a little crazy.”

To play football, to stand on the line of scrimmage and face down giants waiting to maul you, requires a certain amount of what Colston called “irrational confidence.” Making the biggest investing plays can sometimes require that same virtue.

“There are odds that exist,” Colston said in Seattle, “but they don’t apply to you.”

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