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Volume 23 No. 17
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Opendorse offers unique social platform

Six years ago, former University of Nebraska football players Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic were building their social media agency Hurrdat when they first encountered the essential dilemma of athlete marketing.


On behalf of brand clients, they’d write a sponsored post and email it to their former teammate, Chicago Bears star Prince Amukamara. As a spokesman, he was supposed to approve it and manually post it from his own accounts.

But in his busy life in the NFL, Amukamara either wouldn’t see the email or wasn’t confident he was doing it right, and it never published.

Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence (left) and President Adi Kunalic
Photo: opendorse
Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence (left) and President Adi Kunalic
Photo: opendorse
Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence (left) and President Adi Kunalic
Photo: opendorse

“Everything he shared, we’d measure it and it was six times more engaging than anything a business account shared on social,” Lawrence said. “What he said matters. This was a very effective way of engaging an audience, but it was incredibly inefficient. Actually getting him to share content was damn near impossible.”

So Lawrence and Kunalic built Opendorse, a software platform that’s now the backbone of a Hurrdat spinoff named for the product. They sold Hurrdat to focus on Opendorse full time in 2013.

Today, more than 3,000 athletes are on the Opendorse platform. Hundreds of brands and properties have used the tool to secure athletes for social spokesperson roles that might not have been otherwise worth the effort.

NFL Players Inc., which signed one of Opendorse’s first partnerships in 2013, worked with 1,300 players on commercial deals in the last year — five times more than 15 years ago, said President Ahmad Nassar. Opendorse is a big reason for that growth, Nassar said, because the software makes the cost-benefit analysis of putting deals together pencil out, even if the deals are small.

“Our partnership with Opendorse has led to hundreds of deals that we wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Nassar said. “And perhaps just as importantly, it led to those deals for an incredible breadth of players, many of whom otherwise might not have had deals.”

Opendorse has two major revenue-generating plays, one for brands and one for leagues, conferences and teams (athletes join for free).

Brands pay a fee per campaign and get access to Opendorse and its participating athletes. They create their messages and send it by text to athletes, who can either approve with a single tap or edit it before posting.

Company Watch: Opendorse

WHAT THEY DO: Develop and sell software that helps brands and sports properties share content via athletes’ social media accounts.

Inside Opendorse:

VENTURE FUNDING: $6.2 million since launch; investors include Serra Ventures, Flyover Capital, Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara, LeadDog Marketing Group CEO Dan Mannix, Invest Nebraska and others.

TOTAL SIZE OF PLATFORM: 3,029 athletes are on the platform; 270 brands have used the software in campaigns involving athletes; 45 sports properties now share non-sponsored content via their affiliated athletes.

KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Signed its first major partnership with NFL Players Inc. in 2013, followed by a renewal in January. The umbrella deal with the NFLPA’s commercial arm has led to more than 850 NFL players using the platform.

Properties, however, buy an ongoing subscription to the platform, where they can share content with their own athletes, who then use it to amplify a central message or engage their own fans.

The test drive was with the Nebraska athletic department in 2015. The numbers showed that, collectively, well-known former Cornhuskers had a digital audience more than 50 times bigger than the university’s own accounts.

“These athletes could be a major distribution opportunity to help Nebraska tell this story,” Lawrence said. “And all of them would love to have access to content they created at Nebraska — ‘Throwback Thursday’ images, or highlights from their career, anything to keep that large audience engaged.”

Nebraska signed up. So did Clemson, the Big Ten Network, PGA Tour and, most recently, LPGA Tour.

After watching to see the PGA Tour’s experience with it for a year, the LPGA signed up in January and now has 75 tour pros on Opendorse. Tina Barnes-Budd, LPGA senior director of social media marketing and communications, said sponsors love it because it’s an easy way to expand impressions, the tour likes it because it’s such an efficient tool, and the athletes are getting camera-ready, high-quality posts for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts.

“At first [the athletes] were kind of leery about it, but we’re just handing them content on a silver platter,” Barnes-Budd said.

The brand fees were the company’s lifeblood in the early going, but that’s changing. Revenue from properties’ recurring software licenses — the holy grail of tech startup valuation growth and stability — has grown threefold in the last year. By the end of 2018, it will be the majority of Opendorse’s revenue.

The company is not yet profitable. It has raised $6.2 million in total venture funding since its launch, Lawrence said, including a $3.5 million round closed last November led by Serra Ventures and Flyover Capital. Amukamara himself joined that round, and former Nebraska athletes contributed one-third of the total round, the company said.

Lawrence and Kunalic think demand for their product is still in the early phases of growth. Athletes’ schedules and social media obligations are only getting more complicated, they believe, and the world is discovering the power of an athlete’s voice.

J.J. Watt, working largely on social media, raised $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in three weeks. Colin Kaepernick used social media to spread his controversial protests against police brutality. And entire media companies have developed around athletes speaking first person.

“When we stared Opendorse, we had to explain to brands that what athletes say on social has an impact,” Lawrence said. “Today, with The Players’ Tribune and Uninterrupted, and Unscriptd, the emphasis that all these media outlets and properties are putting on the athletes’ voice, it’s very much in line with the story we’ve been sharing since 2013.”