There are plenty of start-ups out there that are directly applicable to the NFL’s business: Within a few blocks of Union Square alone, the league could have invested in innovative ticket platform SeatGeek or fantasy football analytics provider numberFire. Would the NFL have been welcomed to join an early funding round of Foursquare, if the company’s founders and earliest investors appreciated what integration into the NFL’s heavily location-based business would have done for the company’s early traction? Perhaps the NFL would have taken a seemingly counter-intuitive early meeting with BirchBox, a high-flying beauty-products subscription service, and recognized its potential for creating a new male-focused commerce channel directly with the NFL’s millions of fans?
Fortunately for the league, the early-stage ecosystem — particularly in New York — is a vibrant, friendly network. New companies are being incubated constantly; incumbent investors are vetting them all the time and likely to be very interested in bringing along a co-investor with as much market-moving power as the NFL. Yes, there is an atmosphere of competition among start-ups and investors, but nothing that the NFL isn’t already used to.
My humble advice (and as a start-up founder, “humbled” is the operative word) would be to dive right in to the start-up ecosystem, particularly in New York, where the NFL is based — fill every day through the end of the year with coffees and intros and demos and discussions, all of which are plentiful. Get league digital media honchos Brian Rolapp and Jeff Berman into TechStars as mentors. Sponsor an event at General Assembly and do something fun at SXSW. Tap talent around the league to help — one name that stands out is Gideon Yu, hired this spring as the 49ers’ Chief Strategy Officer, but from a background at the highest levels of VC (oh, and he was CFO at a couple of small start-ups, Facebook and YouTube).
Undoubtedly, team owners and high-profile season-ticket holders have made plenty of angel investments and have important connections in local markets. (With so many stakeholders, there is also the chance for conflicts of interest, which the league will have to navigate.) Market intel is more efficiently surfaced with each passing month; the best companies bubble up quickly, and as explained above, the NFL is in a fantastic position to join in early-stage syndicates. I’m sure the league is already far down this path of setting up a process to dive in, just as MLBAM and the NBA have worked with start-ups in recent years. (On the sports-media side, ESPN has acquired start-ups and made investments, most notably in Active.com networks; NBC/Comcast owns a piece of SB Nation, among others, through Comcast’s VC group ; Fox Sports , Yahoo Sports and Google’s nascent YouTube Sports initiative will likely also jump in to the early-stage investment game by the end of 2012, if only because the benefits are so clearly evident.)
The point is that there is an incredible opportunity here, both for the NFL and for the start-up community — that includes entrepreneurs and investors, both. Like a Devin Hester punt return, this is an exciting time for the league to zig.
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