When Jon Sakoda, a general partner at the venture capital firm NEA, showed up late to a Goldman Sachs event last year, he didn’t expect to meet a lot of new people, much less a living sports legend.
But after the event, someone familiar tapped him on the shoulder — it was Derek Jeter, the former New York Yankees shortstop, who’s now running his own sports media company, The Players Tribune.
Jeter was on a trip to meet with a few Silicon Valley venture capital firms at the time, and he wanted to learn how technology could help grow his online media firm. He laid out his vision for The Players Tribune, a website where professional athletes create their own content, and how he wanted it to ultimately become a platform to directly connect athletes with fans.
Sakoda was immediately sold. The idea was new and the site was growing fast. Jeter’s connections in the sports world allowed him to increase the editorial content from one post a month to multiple stories a day. Now it has attracted over 100 professional athletes to write for his site, including Kobe Bryant, Russell Wilson, and Hunter Pence.
They soon had a follow-up meeting and Sakoda introduced Jeter to Blue Jeans Network, one of NEA’s portfolio companies that specialises in online video conferencing. In less than a month, the two companies became partners, integrating Blue Jeans’ technology to Jeter’s site. Jeter even joined Blue Jeans’ board of advisors.
“We really saw eye-to-eye on how his media platform and his unique connections to athletes, coupled with Silicon Valley’s latest and greatest technology could be a disruptive force in the media business,” Sakoda told Business Insider.
And on Monday, Sakoda and Jeter took another step forward in their business partnership by announcing a Series B funding worth $US9.5 million. The financing, coming out of NEA’s massive $US3.1 billion fund raised in April, represents The Players Tribune’s first-ever VC funding. Existing investors, including Thomas Tull of Legendary Entertainment, will also join the round. The new funding will be spent on creating more radio and video content, as well as hiring more staff.
The Players Tribune is still in its early stages. But Sakoda sees a huge opportunity going forward, especially since it’s led by one of the most successful athletes of all time.
“Jeter relayed his favourite quote recently, which was, ‘I love it when people doubt me. It makes me harder to prove them wrong,'” Sakoda said. “If you have had a celebrated history of Derek’s career, would you really want to bet against the guy?”