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Volume 25 No. 216
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Steelers Make Mark On Esports With Pittsburgh Knights Franchise

Steelers staff help advise the Knights on merchandising, apparel, sponsorship sales and marketing
Photo: PITTSBURGH KNIGHTS

Of all the traditional sports clubs that have made a big splash in esports, the Steelers do not come to mind. But even if the six-time Super Bowl champions have not made a major financial commitment, there's a 12-person esports operation working alongside Steelers staff at headquarters. The Pittsburgh Knights, a team founded by Pittsburgh residents James O’Connor and Rob Lee Ly-Stewart, get daily advice and assistance from Steelers staff on matters including merchandising, apparel, sponsorship sales and marketing. Not to mention the office space and introductions to a network of businesses and individuals close to the team and the Rooney family. All this stems from the Steelers’ decision last fall to acquire a minority stake in the Knights. Terms are not public, but it was a modest bet compared to some of the eight-figure asset takeovers or franchise slot purchases made by other pro sports clubs or their owners. The Knights, majority owned by O’Connor and Lee Ly-Stewart, field teams in eight games, but lack a presence in the global hit “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” or Overwatch and League of Legends, the two franchised leagues that drive the most asset value. But the Steelers’ interest in esports is bigger than the size of the deal suggests. The Steelers saw the Knights relationship as a way to help build an esports scene in Pittsburgh and unlock new data about possible future fans, VP/Football & Business Administration Omar Khan said. “We’ve been diving in, trying to understand the esports atmosphere, and it’s intriguing to us,” Khan said. “Where this industry’s going to go, nobody knows, but we feel there’s an opportunity there to connect with fans, specifically internationally, who maybe aren’t necessarily Steelers fans right now."

BLACK-AND-GOD TOUCH: Most of the Knights’ business operations have benefited from the Steelers’ touch. O’Connor received a call last fall from an insurance broker friendly with the team, offering his assistance on workers’ compensation and other insurance needs. O’Connor regularly meets with Bob Denove, the former managing partner of Deloitte’s Pittsburgh office, to go over financial projections and strategy. Another Steelers tip for the Knights, who have copied the citywide black-and-gold color scheme: “You don’t want to put yellow close to the neck -- it doesn’t sell well,” O’Connor said. Steelers employees are helping the Knights build an e-commerce site, and have introduced O’Connor and his team to their global fulfillment partner, ABDI, along with contacts at New Era and Icer Brands. They also are working to sell Knights gear at Heinz Field and develop local gaming events. It is an open-ended relationship, designed to limit the Steelers’ risk while also utilizing their resources to build the Knights, founded in '17. 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Khan declined to discuss the Steelers’ expectations for the Knights investment or possible future funding rounds. But, he said, the Steelers like the city-based franchise model being developed by Activision Blizzard, in both the OWL and the in-development Call of Duty World League. A spokesperson said the Pittsburgh brand also helped make the case to Steelers President Art Rooney II, who liked the idea of developing a team for his home city. “We have definitely been intrigued by the esports space, and we continue to learn what direction the space is going to go, and what opportunities arise from it,” Khan said. “In my opinion we’re still in the early innings." O’Connor also said the Steelers’ long-term intentions are still to be determined, but for now, they’re happy to work together. “That’s a question that’s not fully been answered yet, but ‘how do we help?’ is the way it’s been described to me,” O’Connor said. “They want to build and support the company with their expertise."

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.