SBJ/June 17-23, 2013/Opinion

RSE Ventures’ test lab; SBD Global on to Vol. II

I recently went to New York City to meet with two NFL team owners, discussing quite different topics.

First, I met with Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan over breakfast at The Plaza Hotel. We talked a great deal about what he’s learned in his 17 months of team ownership and about his leadership style. We started talking casually in the lobby, while he was sitting for photos, and I brought up the commencement address he delivered last month at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. He talked about the effort he put into writing the 16- to 18-minute speech, where he called on graduates to avoid the easy road. “Whenever I faced an easy way or a hard way, invariably, the hard way turned out to be the right way,” he told the students. He also laughed as he recalled pushing the concept of “cold calling” to the students, something he did consistently in his young career. “I said, ‘Take a chance and respect the power and effectiveness of making a cold call,’” adding, “I told them technology is eroding our social skills. … Somebody with a marketing degree, please rebrand the term ‘cold call’ to make it cool!” Look for more of my conversation with Khan in a coming issue.

> ENERGIZED AT RSE: After meeting with Khan, I went over to West 55th Street, where Stephen Ross’ RSE Ventures is situated in an open, airy 11th-floor space. While sitting with Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins; his RSE co-founder and CEO, Matt Higgins, and roughly 12 of the top executives of the various companies and entities RSE Ventures is investing in, a few words came to mind: builders, innovators and, by design, focused on disruptive technology.  Over the past year, Ross and Higgins have invested in a mix of technology, digital content, marketing and sales, ticketing, events, and PR companies. “We’re dreamers at heart,” Higgins told me, and that was evident by the youthful ambition that pervaded the office, like any startup.

Over lunch, unit leaders shared their stories and business strategies that make up RSE Ventures. There was Peter Murray’s sports and entertainment company, Insignia, which combines marketing and consulting with content creation and sales. Charlie Stillitano and Jon Sheiman are reinventing their soccer event expertise, with the first step being the Guinness International Champions Cup. Ross and Higgins also are out front with new technologies, such as Kelsey Falter’s Poptip, which offers social feedback and analysis; Andrew Daines’ predictive gaming business, PrePlay; and the online booking/appearance platform connecting public with professional athletes, Thuzio. There’s also ticketing, PR and even the well-traveled company FanVision, which despite its uneven history is on the verge of two new deals that have company officials bullish about its future.
 
It’s been a year since Ross and Higgins formed RSE Ventures, and Ross noted how his NFL team has served as a laboratory for many of the company’s platforms and innovations. “I never thought it would grow quite this fast, but it’s how I built my real estate company [Related Cos.],” he said. “As opposed to buying things, I’m always looking to connect the dots of what we currently have, and look for the synergies.” It’s part incubator, part test lab, and Ross and Higgins clearly don’t see themselves as passive investors. “Passive investment isn’t fun for us,” Higgins said. “These are sustainable businesses with growth.” Ross chimed in, “I’m not a VC company; I am a builder. I can take advantage of that and build things a lot quicker.”
 
Save for a few industry veterans, one is struck by the youthful vitality at RSE Ventures, where Higgins has placed a premium on ideation, even developing an area where young people sit around a table and are tasked with generating new ideas. In showing me around, he said office organization was key to his plan. “Culture matters, and how you organize an office reinforces your culture,” he said. “I wanted to create a sweeping, open environment that fosters creativity and forces cross-pollination. You can’t walk five steps here without bumping into a colleague in another company baking a new idea. And that’s the point: What matters most here is not what you’ve done before but what you are about to do.”
 
But it’s also about business, and Ross is pleased with year one. “It’s shocking to me how quickly it’s grown, where they are all self-sustaining operations,” he said. Ross got excited when talking about a round of new deals but insisted future success is all rooted in the company’s creativity. “We’re looking for people who want to be in a group that stresses innovation,” he said. “Too many companies erect barriers to innovations. Here, ideas and dreamers are welcome. In addition, I’ve always sought to attract the best people, and they never leave.” Pushed further on his vision for RSE Ventures, Ross added, “We are like a lifestyle brand: Best in class, with super growth in social, mobile, content and events — all supported by big data.”
 
Where it goes, how it develops and the future business viability all remain to be seen. Ross and Higgins are placing a number of different bets, all while building, and that’s obviously fun for them — and for their colleagues. Staff talked of leaving the office some afternoons to go to an early happy hour, which they do once a month, while praising the enthusiastic culture. “Here, it’s small, nimble and we have freedom,” one of the more veteran sports business staffers said to me as I walked out of the conference room. “It’s like a think tank that actually does something.”

> WHO WILL BE MAYOR?: Last week featured a big planning session around presenting Super Bowl XLVIII, including meetings with government and business leaders to discuss the Super Bowl Boulevard, which will run along Broadway from 34th to 44th streets and serve as a key public hub during the event. Even before the meetings in New York, Subway Global Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace mentioned that one of the most underreported stories about the event in New York/New Jersey is that New York City will have a new mayor. Right now, there are 11 candidates running for the post, and the election will be held Nov. 5.


Members of SBD Global’s edit team discuss that day’s news budget.
Photo by: TIFFIN WARNOCK / STAFF
“You are going to have a change in mayor, and the mayor won’t be [Michael] Bloomberg,” Pace said. “And the [Super Bowl] is happening about 30 days after a change in the administration and a new mayor being sworn in. I think, ‘Oh my God, please be aligned on all these events,’ because there could be a real challenge with a new administration, especially if they are not up to speed on everything.”

> ON TO YEAR TWO: Congratulations to
our SportsBusiness Daily Global, which last week completed a successful first year of publishing and moved on to Volume II. Kudos to Managing Editor Dave Morgan, who has put together a strong editorial team that tirelessly aggregates news and information from all over the world. We appreciate the positive feedback and support, and it’s been gratifying to see its readership base grow in every region of the world. In just one year, SBD Global has become appointment reading, a la SBD and SBJ.  Look for even better things from the news and information service in the days ahead.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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