The Sixers Want to Make Sports and Innovation Converge
The sports industry isn’t known for swift change and progress, so when the Sixers announced plans for an ambitious business innovation lab earlier this year, it was clear they’d be one of the first sports teams to back budding entrepreneurs and raw ideas.
Today, the 76ers announced that Monster Roster, a service that uses a patent-pending algorithm for fantasy sports lineup recommendations, will be the lab’s first occupant. Dylan Elder, the college student behind the company, will get office space at the Camden waterfront lab as well as access to industry experts, branding, marketing and legal services. As he takes time off school, he’ll receive free meals and free housing from the six-month program, luxuries that some entrepreneurs skimp on down in the startup trenches. The Sixers say they have no set equity structure and are open to investing in the lab’s companies.
The value of a sports team like the 76ers aligning itself with innovation in this way is becoming even more apparent. Sports figures and teams have long supported causes with hefty donations or as enthusiastic ambassadors (think David Beckham’s UNICEF fund), but attaching a team’s image and reputation to the futures of growing companies is a bold, new game.
“Owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer and CEO Scott O’Neil are really forward-thinking about ways they can use the Sixers to build businesses—and not just businesses that are directly related to sports,” said Seth Berger, the newly named managing director of the innovation lab. “This team and this organization is so connected in so many different industries that we can help many businesses grow.”
Berger, himself a sports industry entrepreneur, founded the well-known basketball sneaker, apparel and entertainment company AND1 in the 1990s after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business.
According to Berger, the program he’s already started managing promises much more flexible deal guidelines and structure than the typical incubator, but the program’s biggest pull is in its network. “Sports owners and executives are some of the most well-connected people in any industry,” said Berger. “We can get to anyone in business we need. Because of that, we can really help businesses grow.”
He added, “The new ownership in sports is really those who have made it being business people, so I believe they look at sports teams as another investment as opposed to a long-time family holding.”
While the 76ers are early to the sports space with this, other teams across platforms — take the Dodgers, Broncos, Bucks and Nets, for example — are already also working on similar business innovation plants and projects of their own.
Berger says they’re looking for applicants that present great ideas and a great management team. “Rarely do you find both,” he said. The program tends to lead towards consumer-facing businesses, Berger says, and so far, they’ve received applications in industries ranging from cyber security and health care to education.
And having been a broke entrepreneur himself, living off of imitation ramen and second-rate chicken wings for many years, Berger says he’s glad to be able to coach businesses to help them improve.
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