Last year, when the NFL Players Association – through its athlete-driven accelerator, OneTeam Collective – initially met with jersey rental startup, Rep The Squad, the company was vetted in part, by Russell Okung. The left tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers played an integral role stumping for the NFLPA to pursue the partnership with the startup, attending meetings in L.A., Seattle and via conference calls, all while juggling his off-season training and practice schedule.
An investor in a number of tech-related startups, Okung is part of a growing legion of professional athletes that are bringing their vast talents and interests to Silicon Valley, embedding themselves with some of the industry’s most renowned investors. Fellow left tackle Kelvin Beachum of the New York Jets, and former players Ryan Mundy and Ryan Nece all joined Okung in evaluating the merits of Rep the Squad, huddling weekly to determine how the NFLPA could help the startup excel in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The result? A win for OneTeam Collective, further cementing that the accelerator’s Athlete Advisory Board – of which Okung, Beachum, Mundy and Nece are a part of – is plugged into the right places.
The process? Well, that is just one of a number of examples of NFL players being invested in startups or early-stage companies, and nurturing those relationships to help them develop into something greater. Okung has been a champion of this approach through his work with OneTeam Collective, but it’s a blueprint that athletes – in particular, NFL players – have been adept at following as the sports, technology, and investor worlds continue to draw closer together.
Whether it’s investment, endorsement, or in some cases, employment, athletes are becoming more involved in the process – and founders and CEOs alike are just as eager to incorporate them into their game plans.
And it doesn’t just have to be through relationships forged via OneTeam Collective. NFL players are making their presence known – and tech startups are taking notice – in a number of different ways. In September, quarterback Russell Wilson founded TraceMe, a digital app platform which gives fans a peek behind the curtain at the everyday lives of athletes and celebrities. The as-it’s-lived, yet controlled feel of TraceMe, put Wilson in front of some of the biggest investors and power players in the tech world.
He secured the services of Jason LeeKennan – formerly of zulily, Hulu and Walt Disney – to be the company’s CEO. Investors in the project included Madrona Venture Group (itself a founding partner of OneTeam Collective), and the personal investment company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bezos Expeditions.
It was yet another sign that tech companies are seeking out athletes for help in generating business, and the feeling is being reciprocated. StatMuse, one of the first four portfolio companies for OneTeam Collective, came to the NFLPA for help in securing the rights to use the voices of actual NFL players for its voice-recognition app which is like a “Siri for sports.”
All in all, NFL players have increasingly played a more prominent – and visible – role in helping launch some of the tech sectors biggest ventures. More often than not, with ambitions outside of the sports world. Beachum, for example, has invested in tech projects in robotics, drones and agricultural technology. As the diverse backgrounds and interests of NFL players continue to penetrate the once clandestine startup world, the future potential for more startup-athlete collaborations is limitless.
Going to CES 2018? You can explore the intersection of sports and technology at CES Sports Zone, located in Tech West, Sands, Level 2.