Suddenly, if you’re a tech entrepreneur and you don’t own a stake in a sports team, you’re the odd one out.
The Golden State Warriors, who appeared in the NBA Finals for the past two seasons, have been called Silicon Valley’s sports team; the ownership group is mostly venture capitalists. Six other NBA teams are owned by people who made their money in tech. In 2013, the NFL became the first pro league to launch its own venture capital fund, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has personally invested in the daily fantasy sports app DraftKings.
Dennis Crowley, co-founder of location-based social network Foursquare, isn’t immune to the trend. He is the owner of a semi-pro soccer team, the Kingston Stockade Football Club, in Kingston, N.Y. But he got into sports ownership a little differently; he approached it like a startup founder would.
Crowley and his wife Chelsa have a second home in Kingston, a two-hour drive from Manhattan, and during their time there, Crowley noticed many signs of soccer fandom, like Premiere League jerseys and vocal fans in bars. And yet, soccer fans in the town had no local team to root for and nowhere to watch a match in person. “Why doesn’t someone put a team here?” Crowley says he wondered. So he did, after developing the idea at Angry Wade’s, a sports bar in Brooklyn, with friends from his own amateur soccer team.
Crowley reached out to members of the Kingston community to solicit feedback on everything from team name to colors to logo. (He detailed the entire soup-to-nuts process in a blog post, an effort to demonstrate full transparency and encourage others to create a team.) In November, the Stockade launched in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), often called “Division 4,” a 13-year-old, semi-pro league three steps below Major League Soccer. The squad just finished its first season of play with a 5-8-3 (wins, losses, draws) record. Stockade drew nearly 900 fans to many of its games.
Crowley says the team went just over its budget for the year of $50,000—cheap compared to the $1 million Jay Z spent for a tiny stake in the Brooklyn Nets, or the $2 billion Steve Ballmer paid for the Los Angeles Clippers. All kidding aside, Crowley has no illusions about the size or scope of his venture with the Stockade, but he has parlayed his experience running Foursquare into the soccer enterprise in a way that other techies-turned-sports-owners ought to watch.
“We know we’re in the fourth division, and it’s small dollars and a small audience, but we try to treat it like it’s a real, important club,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “We started this team from scratch, it’s not crazy, you can do it too… Here’s the instruction manual. I want to tell the story of startup soccer.”
Crowley plans to keep telling it by posting a wrap-up blog post of the first season that strips bare the budget and the expenses, line by line. It is a departure from the normally buttoned-up ownership information of other teams. It is also a departure from the way that private tech companies, like Foursquare itself, pick and choose what information they share.
Foursquare, co-founded in 2009, has raised $166 million in funding and says it has 50 million users checking in to locations each month through its app. In January, it raised a new $45 million round at a lower valuation than before, a dreaded “down round,” and made former COO Jeff Glueck its CEO. The service has been somewhat handicapped in recent years by the ability to check in on larger platforms like Facebook and Instagram. To combat this, in 2014 Foursquare launched Swarm, a separate, game-like app for check-ins. The Foursquare app is now mostly for recommendations, and competes with Yelp.
Moving out of the daily CEO role has afforded Crowley more time to tinker on Stockade FC. As for the larger trend of wealthy technologists rushing into sports, Crowley has a guess as to its allure: “The skills are kind of complementary,” he says. “You’re starting something from scratch, you have to not be afraid of starting it… And then, to be honest, there are a lot of interesting technical challenges—like, how do you figure out who streams the games, how do you figure out how to price things appropriately so it’s open to everyone, how do you figure out how to get a nationwide following for our little club in Kingston? Those are fun problems to solve.”
Of course, such examples are microcosms of the same issues that the much larger teams and leagues are scratching their heads over as well.
From baseball’s tech arm MLB Advanced Media, which has grown so big it now handles the digital content for the NHL too, to the NFL’s flashy mobile-video app, to Major League Soccer’s recent full-league logo makeover to look more European, the big dogs of sports are wrestling with technological questions to grow their audiences. And their team ownership groups are closely involved in those steps.
Don’t be surprised if Dennis Crowley eventually shows up in one such group.