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Volume 21 No. 6

Franchises

The Dodgers’ Tucker Kain (second from left) and Stan Kasten meet with clients Davyeon Ross and Bruce Ianni of ShotTracker.
Courtesy of: LA DODGERS
The Los Angeles Dodgers and R/GA Ventures have retooled their business incubator program into a globally oriented and year-round entity with much larger ambitions.

The Los Angeles Dodgers Accelerator, founded in 2015, has mentored 15 startup and growth-stage companies on a seasonal model between August and November, quickly becoming one of the most successful incubator programs in the sports industry. The newly renamed and restructured Global Sports Venture Studio will now operate continuously, working primarily out of both Los Angeles and New York with plans to expand soon to London.

Like the original Dodgers Accelerator program, Global Sports Venture Studio will mentor and help develop emerging sports technology companies. But the effort will now focus more specifically on connecting those companies with potential partners and clients, and creating more collaborative projects.

The Global Sports Venture Studio structure, formally debuting this week, has been in development for nearly a year.

“This is really the next iteration of our sports tech engagement at the Dodgers,” said Tucker Kain, Dodgers chief financial officer and managing director of Guggenheim Baseball Management. “This new structure is going to allow for more of a rolling schedule and a deeper, more dynamic and more nimble level of engagement with startups instead of being constricted by a calendar.”

The first phase of the Dodgers Accelerator program worked with 10 companies, with five more selected for the second phase. Club and R/GA Ventures executives expect to work with eight to 10 companies per year in the new Global Sports Venture Studio structure. But along with the deeper level of operational involvement, investment levels in the startups will vary broadly and not stay tied to the prior Dodgers Accelerator format of a $120,000 investment in exchange for up to 6 percent equity.

“One of the key elements of this program is that each of us have a lot of resources that we all bring into this,” said Stephen Plumlee, R/GA Ventures managing partner.

The Global Sports Venture Studio will have a full-time staff of more than 10 people devoted to the effort, about twice the prior level in the Dodgers Accelerator. That core team will be supplemented by up to 75 creative, design and technology staffers from R/GA, along with increased hands-on support from Elysian Park Ventures, the investment arm also operated by club owner Guggenheim.

Several of the alumni companies from the Dodgers Accelerator program have become household names in the industry and gone on to receive larger rounds of funding. Among them are data and analytics software provider Kinduct, point-of-sale platform Appetize, automated sports video production outfit Keemotion, and real-time basketball analytics provider ShotTracker.


Seattle’s reign as MLS’s top-drawing team ended last year when Atlanta United broke records.
GETTY IMAGES
In the buildup to Atlanta United’s inaugural season in MLS, the Seattle Sounders had a frequent guest to their office: Atlanta United President Darren Eales.

“We love helping other teams, and teams helping us when we came into the league gave us a real advantage,” said Sounders Chief Operating Officer Bart Wiley.

But as the season started and Atlanta began to smash not only expansion club business records but league records as well, Wiley jokingly said the tone changed: “We answered a lot of questions for Darren, but it got to the point where we said you know what, Darren, we’re not answering any more — we need to come and ask about some of the things you’ve been doing.”

By year-end, Atlanta not only had ended Seattle’s eight-year reign as the top-drawing MLS club, it also broke the club’s average and total attendance records. Atlanta also topped the Sounders in merchandise revenue, something only done by recent expansion teams in Orlando and New York City.

“It’s the first time in nine years we won’t lead the league in attendance, and while it’s fantastic for the league, we don’t want to be second,” Wiley said. “It lights a further fire under us.”

The moment comes at an important time for the Sounders. Amid their run as one of MLS’s most successful clubs both on and off the field, the Sounders are undergoing several changes to boost their business and accomplish a 10-year vision laid out this past summer.

Perhaps the biggest effort for the club is selling a combination of its jersey, training facility and match-day pitch rights. In August, the Sounders hired Endeavour to assist with the process. The club’s current deal with Microsoft’s Xbox for jersey and pitch rights ends following the upcoming season, while its training facility does not have a title sponsor.

Sources estimate this package could be worth more than $10 million annually, making it one of the most valuable sponsorship rights packages across the league. Recent valuations of jersey sponsorships for potential MLS expansion clubs have broached $5 million annually, while the average MLS jersey deal is around $3 million.

Wiley said the club is working closely with Endeavor and is pleased with the progress, albeit it is not close to a deal. It is also talking with Microsoft about a potential renewal.

In other business moves, the Sounders recently implemented CRM and business management software from Kore, and made several hires to build out their business strategy and analytics department. It signed a partnership making SeatGeek its primary and secondary ticketing platform in September. Wiley said the team believes its investments will pay off next year in terms of new ticket sales.

It also will look to bridge that gap created by Atlanta by selling upper-bowl season tickets in two additional sections of CenturyLink Field. While CenturyLink has a capacity of 67,000, the Sounders have limited seating to roughly 41,000 lower-bowl seats for most games, a sellout number it has reached an MLS record 165 consecutive times. Part of the team’s 10-year plan is to sell out the entire stadium consistently. Seattle averaged 43,666 fans last season, up 2.4 percent from 2016 when it averaged 42,636. Atlanta averaged 48,200 in its debut season.

The Sounders also are negotiating new television and radio deals, and discussing plans to potentially move into digital streaming of the team’s games. Its current rights holders are Q13 Fox and Root Sports on television, and CBS Radio’s KIRO Radio 97.3 FM and El Rey 1360 AM.

After the team clinched its second consecutive spot in the MLS Cup Final this past season, the Sounders held an all-staff meeting to celebrate the moment. But Wiley said the message was clear: “We said this is exciting and you should enjoy this, but we need to leverage this opportunity to grow our business and what levers we can pull to do that.”