For an NFL player, there is a lot more to life than what goes on in between the sidelines on Sundays. Sure, competing in the world’s premier football league is a remarkable achievement. But being a professional athlete also provides numerous business-related opportunities for both current and retired players alike.
Yet for many, the chance to maximize their value and influence — whether it’s inking a marketing deal, investing in a startup, or even joining a company as an employee — can sometimes be a difficult process.
That’s where the NFL Players Association wants to help.
The NFLPA, the union for NFL players, today launched the OneTeam Collective, a new organization modeled after a business accelerator but with its own spin that brings together the power of the NFL with a first-class list of founding partners that includes Intel, Harvard Innovation Lab, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), LeadDog Marketing Group, Madrona Venture Group and the Sports Innovation Lab.
The idea is to create a pipeline that helps match more than 2,000 current players with up-and-coming companies of all shapes and sizes that want to partner with athletes for licensing, marketing and content rights, research and development, funding, mentorship, and much more. This makes it easier for NFL players, both current and retired, to exchange their clout for equity.
The OneTeam Collective will review applications on a rolling basis for ventures and product ideas at the intersection of sports and technology/business/science — companies working with fan engagement, data analytics, performance and training, mobile fitness, sports nutrition, consumer products, fantasy sports, gaming, wearable technology, new media, virtual reality, and much more.
Those who are accepted will have access to NFLPA members, as well as exclusive licensing rights and sports-related intellectual property. They’ll also be able to work with the founding partners and explore potential investments or simply build business relationships.
The OneTeam Collective is not like a typical startup accelerator that houses a specific number of cohorts and takes certain amounts of equity. It’s less about mentorship and more about providing access — both to companies and for its members.
Helping drive the creation of the OneTeam Collective was Ahmad Nassar, who is the organization’s board chairman and also the president of NFL Players, Inc., the licensing and marketing subsidiary of the NFLPA.
In an interview with GeekWire, Nassar said that he and his colleagues were trying to figure out the best way to connect the platform and influence of an NFL athlete with companies — not just the typical corporations often seen in the sports world like Nike, Gatorade, Microsoft, and others, but also lesser-known early-stage startups.
“Our business has traditionally catered more to bigger companies — that’s great, and they’ve been tremendous partners for years and years,” Nassar said. “But the hole of us has been these up-and-comers, the earlier stage companies that would be tremendously interested in working with and having access to intellectual property and funding.”
Nassar said that the NFLPA looked at similar programs around the sports world, from franchise owners that have launched their own venture funds to team-run accelerators and incubators. But ultimately it created something that hasn’t been done before.
The NFLPA realized its unique value was the marketing and content power of its athletes. It then decided to partner with venture capital firms like Madrona and institutions like Harvard to help provide expertise on the investment and educational side.
The quality of the founding partners is a crucial part of the OneTeam Collective. With the combination of the partners and the NFL players, the end result is a powerful group that provides benefits for all stakeholders involved.
“I’m amazed at the horsepower of our founding group,” Nassar said. “We are super lucky to be working with any one of them, let alone all of them. It’s an awesome group and the only way we continue doing this is to have them on board.”
Madrona Venture Group Managing Director Scott Jacobson said there were multiple reasons for why his firm decided to participate with the OneTeam Collective. Madrona has previously worked with pro athletes interested in entrepreneurship and investing, including many Seahawks players, a few of whom have interned at and invested in the firm’s portfolio companies.
“It’s been really enriching for us,” Jacobson said of working with the athletes.
For Madrona, becoming a founding member presents an opportunity to learn about new startups while also providing potential benefit to its portfolio companies. For example, the firm could invest in an early-stage company that is accepted into the OneTeam Collective, or a NFLPA member could become an advocate or investor in one of Madrona’s existing companies.
“It may be a source of interesting deal flow for us, and it may also be an asset for our companies,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson added that the new group is all about access and leverage.
“The NFLPA creates the access, and we collectively bring the leverage,” he noted.
One impetus for the group’s formation came from a behind-the-scenes technology tour the NFLPA organized for players during the Super Bowl last year in Silicon Valley that included stops at companies like Facebook, Twitter, Uber, EA, and others. The response was positive and the players wanted more.
“They didn’t want this to be just a field trip, but the start of something where they can learn more and that potentially facilitates what they do after their playing days,” Nassar said.
The OneTeam Collective has an Athlete Advisory Board that will help provide input on accepted companies and new prospects. The inaugural members include active and former players; Kelvin Beachum, Mark Herzlich, Dhani Jones, Isaiah Kacyvenski, Ryan Nece, and Russell Okung are on the board.
Kacyvenski, a former linebacker who spent eight seasons in the league including six years with the Seahawks, found off-the-field success after his playing days. He was an early employee of MC10, a wearable device and healthcare company; he graduated from Harvard Business School; and he has invested in 15 startups.
Kacyvenski said he wishes something like the OneTeam Collective was around when he was playing.
“Having an organized process in which you are able to validate ideas and understand what a company does — it hedges the risk in a major way,” he told GeekWire.
Kacyvenski said the group is ideal for players, much like himself, who aren’t superstars that have lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals at their doorstep and may need a little more support for their business decisions. The OneTeam Collective can help players utilize their platform and align that with their passions.
“This is a way in which you can engage players and understand how there is an interest level about being even more than what you see on Sunday,” Kacyvenski noted.
He also added that the OneTeam Collective will help “widen the funnel” for the type of companies that work with the league and its players. There is no cookie cutter format for how startups will receive investments or structure deals. But those accepted will certainly have access to a robust set of resources, whether it’s potential funding from firms like KPCB and companies like Intel; access to campus events at Harvard; sports marketing consultation from LeadDog; and support from the Sports Innovation Lab, a new organization that Kacyvenski helped launch last week.
“We want to build a thriving ecosystem,” Nassar said.
On the flip side, there is also benefit for the NFLPA and its members to create relationships with early-stage companies. The union said it could invest its own money — the NFLPA pulled in $134 million in 2015 — but it’s not just about money.
“We want to have the next Nike or Under Armour or EA or whomever be a company that we helped launch or helped really scale,” Nassar said. “We want to be able to have a recurring and deep relationship with them for decades, the way we have had with some of our existing partners.”
Dhani Jones, a former linebacker who spent 11 years in the NFL and is now a managing partner at Qey Capital, said that the OneTeam Collective will “help develop and promote concepts and products that were previously just left to survive on their own.”
“With this accelerator in place, and with players helping power it, companies can get off the ground and into people’s lives,” he said in a statement. “It’s a great feeling to be involved in something of this magnitude.”