What of the Seattle Sports Tech Venture Capital Market?

May 28, 2018

A general theme hanging over the Seattle startup scene is the lack of local venture capital available.  This forces local entrepreneurs to spend time outside the region seeking funding.  And if such funding is found, the local companies perhaps don’t end up as much of a priority for out of town venture capitalists.

With this background, it doesn’t seem surprising that Seattle isn’t at the forefront of sports tech venture capital.  While some local startups such as VICIS and TraceMe have found funding either locally or outside the area, Seattle is devoid of sports tech-devoted venture capital funds or accelerators.  These have sprung up in many other cities across the U.S., as either offshoots of regular venture capital firms or major league franchises (Courtside VenturesGlobal Sports Venture Studio, Stadia Ventures, for instance).

Seattle doesn’t have anything similar, which is a bit surprising given the region’s large tech presence along with the mostly forward thinking nature of Seattle’s pro sports franchises.  Efforts locally tend to be of a smaller scale, such as the Sounders support for the annual Seattle Sports Tech Hackathon (disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer organizer of these events).  A local venture banker told me a couple of years ago that the region is too small, and the sports tech sector too niche, for such a fund to be relevant and have a chance at earning returns for its investors.  Maybe things are changing for the better.

But there’s no denying that sports tech funding within the entire venture capital ecosystem is small.  One report had 2014 sports tech related investing at just short of $1 billion.  Meanwhile, total venture capital invested in 2017 was estimated at $148 billion.  So, yeah, it’s small.  But the sector’s influence seems to be growing, at least if judged by those scrambling to see how they can benefit by being on the ground floor with the next big idea in sports media, wearables, esports, gaming, social engagement, etc.  Ultimately, potential opportunities will be too important to ignore, and local players will emerge to provide funding when the risks of not participating in the sector become a disadvantage.


950 KJR Shakes Up Lineup

May 18, 2018

Sports Radio 950 KJR continued their shake up in March, juggling their hosts time slots and naming a new morning team to fill in following the temporary run of Dick Fain.  Fain himself had filled in admirably for the departed Mitch Levy since August.

The new lineup includes Chuck Powell, moving from the morning midday show, and former Mariner Bucky Jacobsen in the morning drive.  Powell’s co-host, Jason Puckett remains in the 10am-1pm time slot, joined by former KJR stalwart Mike Gastineau on a temporary basis until the recently retired Seahawk Cliff Avril joins Puckett in July.  Ian Furness maintains his 1-3pm afternoon midday show, while Fain joins Dave Mahler in the afternoon drive.

Additionally, Terry Blount, once ESPN’s Seahawk beat reporter, recently started a Saturday, two hour midday show.  Weekend programming for sports radio stations provide ample opportunity to experiment with local shows, hosts and topics, in an effort to establish a niche, grab listeners and as a test run for weekdays.

This string of changes at iHeartMedia’s Elliott Avenue studios began with Levy’s highly publicized, low brow departure.  Not so coincidentally, at the same time The Seattle Times banned their staff from appearing on KJR.  Along the way, the station picked up Sounders broadcast rights, added a secondary channel in 1090 AM (formerly CBS Sports Radio The Fan) in the acquisition of some CBS stations and at the same time switched South Sound Sports 850 AM to political talk, though keeping the Rainiers on there due to that station’s strong south sound signal.  The long time Seattle sports talk station seemingly did everything but reintroduce an FM simulcast.  All this while iHeartMedia filed for bankruptcy.

KJR’s ratings have generally lagged rival 710 ESPN.  Time will tell whether these changes help.  If so, it may next be 710’s turn to shake things up.  With an NHL expansion team likely on its way in a couple of years, expect both stations to make a play for that club’s radio rights.  The preparation to impress is under way.

Force 10 Sports Expands Portfolio

April 10, 2018

Force 10 Sports Management, an arm of the organization that owns the Seattle Storm, recently announced they’ll handle ticketing and business operations for the Seattle Reign, in addition to communications for the Seattle Seawolves of the new Major League Rugby.  The Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament is another property.

With the Reign season having started, and MLR and the WNBA to start soon, Force 10 looks to be plenty busy this spring.  Whether these added duties represents a new effort to expand its portfolio or just an easy grab at some immediate opportunities remains to be seen.  But it is another way for Storm ownership to earn ancillary revenue and enhance the club’s value.

Close Ties of Local Sports Execs, but ROOT Sports NW remains lonely

March 21, 2018

Geoff Baker of the Times penned an article about the coziness of our local teams.  The gist is the expected arrival of Tod Leiweke to run the yet-to-be-official NHL expansion team and his relationships with other local sports executives.

It all makes sense until the part about how the relationships could benefit ROOT Sports NW.  ROOT and the Mariners have had plenty of time to gain full Sounders TV rights, from the club’s entry into MLS in 2009 to when the M’s took a majority stake in ROOT Sports NW in 2014.

In fact, it’s going in the other direction.  This season, the RSN is no where to be found as a cable partner, with the Sounders instead going with YouTube TV in addition to recent broadcast partner KCPQ/JoeTV.  And just like that, the Sounders crest is no longer featured on the ROOT website.  But the rival Timbers are still a partner with ROOT.  That doesn’t seem to bold well of a future where the Mariners share ROOT with the Sounders.

ROOT is not alone this.  Not long after 710 ESPN affiliate 97.3FM lost Sounders radio rights to 950 KJR, 710’s website dropped the Sounders from the “teams” banner on the main page.   These actions tell fans that these media outlets were interested in covering the Sounders when there was a media relationship, but not as interested in covering the club as a local sports team.

Baker also doesn’t touch on the much rumored ROOT Sports NW/TrailBlazers negotiations from last summer, where many thought the region’s NBA team would end up on the region’s main RSN.  For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.  Given this, and the lack of a Sounders deal, it’s easy to conclude that the Mariners primarily want to keep ROOT an M’s specific network, with some Timbers soccer here, and Big Sky football there.  That’s fine, until it’s time to renegotiate carriage deals or a rival network emerges.  After all, who’s to say the new NHL team would even want an RSN?  Maybe they go the OTT route, especially given the demographics of the league and this market.

Lastly, we don’t know if the Storm and Reign fit into this close executive circle.  But we do know their games are additional programming that could benefit ROOT.  Marketing opportunities could range from a Sounders/Reign doubleheader at the CLink to a Storm game at Safeco.

Baker raises some interesting points, but at least when it comes to the Mariners and their running of ROOT, actual events show the network has little interest in becoming an “MSG Network type venture.”  And this doesn’t even get into the M’s real estate strategy, anti-SoDo stance and apparent disinterest in incremental revenue opportunities possible in its neighborhood.  Cozi, maybe.  But not without a lot of local possibilities already left on the table.

The Sounders partner with 950 KJR AM

February 27, 2018

In a surprising, yet logical joining of two Seattle sports institutions, the Sounders and 950 KJR AM announced a multiyear agreement for the iHeartMedia station as the new radio home of the club.  Surprising because Sounders and soccer talk has not been even a small part of the station’s programming that trends towards football heavy discussion.  Logical because KJR has programming room to add one of the city’s major sports franchises, just as the Sounders can benefit teaming with the city’s oldest sports talk radio station in an attempt to gain the attention of the region’s casual sports fan.

KJR, the long time Sonics radio partner when the two shared common Ackerley family ownership for years, has been without a local major league franchise since the failed Schultz ownership switched radio broadcast affiliates in its latter years.  And it doesn’t seem like the Mariners or Seahawks will change radio homes anytime soon from 710 ESPN.  The loss of UW football/basketball games a few years ago left KJR with no live, local play by play programming.  That’s a tough position for a sports radio station that use to bill itself as the live and local choice.

If this relationship between KJR and the Sounders goes well, it also further strengthens the station’s standing if the NBA returns.  Between a successful run with the Sounders, a history with the Sonics and available air time during the winter months, the old radio home of the NBA would be well positioned to become the new radio home of the NBA.  It would complement the Sounders schedule well.

This possibility perhaps gains in likelihood if the expected NHL expansion franchise partners with 710 ESPN, given the closeness of 710 with OVG and the ownership group.  Adding an NHL team to a schedule that already includes the Mariners, Seahawks and WSU athletics would leave little programming room for an NBA team.

The Sounders finally get a consistent radio home after years at 710 ESPN sister station 97.3 KIRO FM.  The fact they were on that sister station did little to get the club attention on 710.  They were neglected, or even derided, as much on 710 as they were on KJR.  The relationship with the Bonneville owned stations stemmed from when the Sounders business operations were run by the Seahawks.  The Sounders essentially were an add in to the Seahawks/Bonneville partnership, and were treated as such.  Now the team will receive attention and focus from KJR as a rights partner that they never had with 710.

This agreement is worth a shot for both sides.  Financial terms were not revealed, but the deal can definitely benefit the Sounders and KJR.  And short term success can lead to longer term opportunities for each.  As weird as this clash of two sporting cultures seems now, fans may one day see it as a pitch perfect partnership.


Build the Seattle Hockey Pyramid

January 23, 2018

Now that the formality of the city and the Oak View Group agreeing to an MOU is in the books, we can wait to see if the former Washington State Pavilion can truly be renovated (again) in time for a potential NHL start date of October 2020.  Typically, given the usual city process, the answer is no.  However, the city so desperately wants this all to happen that one must be inclined to think it just may all come together in time.  Please ignore the process shortcuts the city will take to ensure the timely conclusion.

If the NHL grants an expansion franchise to the city (again…look up the provisional franchise granted in 1974 to begin play in 1976), how will the team be successful off the ice?  It’s about building the hockey pyramid, which should become a main community focus of the organization.

This means helping fund new indoor ice rinks throughout the region that youth leagues to adult rec leagues can benefit.  It means funding outdoor rinks in parks that can be used for street or roller hockey.  Or even actual ice hockey for the few times a year the area gets snow.  It’s sponsoring summer street or roller hockey tourneys in prominent outdoor locations.  From all this activity the hope would be that youth hockey enrollment increases (boys and girls), youth club hockey expands and maybe even some high schools take up the sport.

Next, ideally the new franchise would provide seed funding to help start division one hockey programs at a few of the universities in the Northwest.  Many of these schools already have club programs from which the jump to D1 would begin.  Programs at these schools would provide a further step up the hockey ladder for the youth players skilled enough to play at a higher level.  And provide fans another outlet to view the game in a different way, maybe in their school colors.

Additionally, the team would support whatever junior or minor league hockey exists after the NHL arrives, perhaps as an affiliate club or by keeping organizational linked players nearby.

Sitting atop the pyramid, the new team would have a lot of work to do to keep the foundation strong.  But there’s really no other choice for long term success.  The location of the Seattle Center Coliseum alone gives pause about the long term viability of the franchise if fans from outside downtown cannot easily access the arena.  That’s a lot of potential revenue from season ticket holders, club seat buyers and suite rentals left on the table.  Maybe the Hansen/Nordstrom group should keep that land in SoDo just in case it’s needed for a new arena in a decade…

None of this is new to Tod Leiweke.  When he soon leaves his post as NFL COO to run the hockey campaign here, local fans can know they’re getting a hockey fan who has already had much success in this market with the Seahawks and Sounders.  All of Leiweke’s experience will be needed to help ensure years of good fortune on our yet to be granted franchise.


New National Sports Network On In Seattle

October 30, 2017

If you find yourself needing more Mountain West Conference volleyball or West Coast Conference coaches shows, Stadium is for you.  Stadium is the joint effort of Sinclair Broadcasting, Campus Insiders and 120 Sports.  Available nation wide via its website, broadcasting on Twitter and distributed on over the top services, Stadium can also be seen on broadcast TV on digital subchannels throughout Sinclair’s network of properties.  Locally, Stadium appears on 51.3, which is actually a subchannel of Univision.

The multi-platform approach is a unique way to go for national reach.  At least compared to that of a network distributed via cable.  Along with college sports, 120 Sports’ relationships with the various major leagues means highlights and archived programming are also part of the network.  Studio programming provided by 120 Sports includes The Rally, which some refer to as a millennial version of SportsCenter.  Campus Insiders, meanwhile, brings its array of webcasts of collegiate sporting events.

It may be modest now, but over time we’ll see if the owners have grander plans for Stadium.  Given the network began televising in September to a non cable audience, it still has a relatively low profile.  But for those cable cutters and cable nevers, it’s another option to view and consume national sports news and content through linear TV and online.