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LA Dodgers launch a technology incubator

The Los Angeles Dodgers hope to win it all. And we're not just talking about baseball.

The Blue Crew has become the first professional sports team to fund a tech incubator, sprinkling $120,000 among 10 start-ups, hoping for a few financial home runs.

"We thought we had an opportunity here to get beyond just the business of baseball at Dodger Stadium," said team President and CEO Stan Kasten. He was interviewed inside the offices of the Los Angeles Dodgers Accelerator Program, located across town in Playa Vista, a neighborhood nicknamed Silicon Beach.

Last summer, the Dodgers partnered with advertising agency R/GA to launch the program. R/GA had done previous accelerator programs, though it had never worked with a pro sports team. When word went out, 570 start-ups applied. "We had applications from 31 countries," said Stephen Plumlee, chief operating officer for R/GA.

Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 4, 2015.
Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images
Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 4, 2015.

The final 10 winners range from beginners to companies on their second round of funding, from what Dodgers CFO Tucker Kain calls "early stage businesses that have ideas on a white board" to "category leaders." Many of the start-ups are not directly related to the business of baseball, but instead they deal with fitness or college recruiting. In exchange for funding the businesses, the Dodgers and R/GA receive a small equity ownership.

Winners include Swish Analytics, which sells sports research for $19.99 a month to help people make more informed sports bets or play in fantasy leagues. Co-founder Bobby Skoff said the Dodgers investment isn't just in money, but in access. "The Dodgers brand, obviously, is a global brand and carries a lot of weight," he said, "so if we need to meet with someone from XYZ team (for research), it's usually pretty easy to get them in here."

Swish has six employees, and Skoff said it's using the Dodgers money to help work on its next product: serving up research in real time during games. "So as the game is happening, 'What is the outcome of the next pitch of the game?' 'What is the expected winner of the game based on the play on an NFL field?' 'Who's the next likely person to score the touchdown?' and doing that at a really accurate level."

When asked about the controversy now rocking the unregulated fantasy sports industry, involving the possible appearance of the exploitation of proprietary information, Skoff replied, "No comment," though he pointed out that his company just provides information.

Another firm being funded in part by the Dodgers and R/GA is Appetize, an app that is similar to Square but meant for huge venues such as Dodger Stadium. Appetize creates a uniform mobile point-of-sale system. "So the Dodgers have been able to put us into the parking lots and the concession stands," said co-founder Kevin Anderson.

"We're a proven, ready-made laboratory," said Dodgers CEO Kasten. "We have 47,000 people a night."

There will be more than 47,000 this week as the Dodgers take on the Mets, and Appetize will be put to a big test.

"You'll see parking attendants actually going out into the line and transacting at the second, third and fourth car with one of our handheld mobile point-of-sale units," said Anderson. Appetize is also working with the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, LiveNation and Madison Square Garden.

All of the start-ups are working inside R/GA's office in Los Angeles. COO Plumlee has found the incubator community in Silicon Beach a surprise. "Everyone was very, very open, very collaborative, very willing to be helpful, and that's very different than places like New York or San Francisco."

The idea of funding an accelerator program also reflects the ownership of the Dodgers. That ownership, Guggenheim Baseball Management, is a consortium heavily populated and funded by people affiliated with investment firm Guggenheim Partners. Diversifying revenue is in their DNA, and $120,000 is a pittance to risk on start-ups for a baseball team with the highest payroll in the league.