Using celebrities to accelerate the growth and popularity of a business or product is by no means a new concept but the NFL Players Association has quietly been turning the power of the professional athlete platform into a (really) big business. A little over a year ago, the NFLPA, MLBPA, and sports-focused investment firm, RedBird Capital, founded OneTeam Partners as a joint venture with the goal of leveraging the immense platforms of their collective membership to do more than just “run of the mill” licensing. OneTeam Partners has expanded the traditional business lines players unions typically engaged in on behalf of their members to include other verticals such as content creation/production and venture investing. With the acquisition of Under The Lights Flag Football, it looks like the players (as represented by OneTeam Partners) are now dipping their toes into the world of private equity.
Under The Lights, which is a national youth flag football league, was originally founded in 2015 as a non-profit vehicle to raise money for a fallen Navy Seal, but the company’s founders quickly realized that there was a lot more there than simply a good way to raise money for a worthy cause. After digging into it further, Under The Lights’ Chairman, Eric Beach realized there was a huge untapped opportunity that was part of a larger trend of parents waiting longer to let their children play tackle football.
“Like any other youth sport, flag football across the country was completely discombobulated but we quickly realized that with over two million kids around the country playing flag football that there was a chance to create something. Three and a half years later we ended up growing to over 100 sites across the country,” said Beach.
It was this kind of growth and success that caught the eye of OneTeam Partners’ President Brent Stehlik who had been actively keeping his eyes open for M&A opportunities in the form of companies that fit within the overall ethos and that he could grow by 2x or 3x in a relatively short span of time.
“This is our first major investment in the youth sports space but we think that youth sports is a growing business – and of course investing in the expansion of youth sports is good for the sustained growth of our respective games,” said Stehlik.
It’s easy to see why a company that is quite literally engaged in the business of football might be a natural fit for an entity that represents the best players in the world. The more operative question is whether a players union, even one as enterprising as the NFLPA, can successfully buy and run businesses. Stehlik however sees OneTeam’s role as merely a supporting role, emphasizing the point that “We invest in really good operators and Eric (Beach) is just a really good operator.” In other words, OneTeam’s acquisition strategy isn’t that of a typical private equity firm that intend to aggressively cost-cut and replace the current staff with their own management team, they’re investing in capable teams that already know how to run their businesses but that represent a natural fit strategically.
When it comes to flag football specifically, it’s no secret that we have seen a significant shift with parents opting to place their kids into less physical sports than tackle football especially in light of the revelations about the risks of long-term brain, so a sport that marries everything that is great about the game of football with a fraction of the risk of physical injury appears to be a perfect solution to continue to encourage kids to play the game. As far as who is helping drive the popularity of youth flag football, it should come as no surprise that mothers are the driving force.
“Mothers are making the decisions without question, not the dads,” said Beach.
While people who cover such matters concern themselves with the money that gets divvied up between the leagues and the players vis a vis collective bargaining, the NFLPA has quietly been creating value that is independent from anything that would make its way to the collective bargaining table and the work OneTeam is doing is just another example of that.
“We’re continuously looking to develop the game the right way, and I’m happy that OneTeam and the NFLPA now have a fantastic opportunity to do just that through our investment in Under The Lights,” said DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA Executive Director and Board Member, OneTeam Partners. “This is a tremendous national platform for the NFLPA and its members to support and grow the flag football league.”
If there’s anything this move by OneTeam signals, it’s that the athlete platform is as strong as it’s ever been and that the reports of the death of the game of football have been greatly exaggerated.