A force in youth sports

Blue Star grow­ing by gob­bling up star­tups

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By MELISSA REPKO Staff Writer mrepko@dal­las­news.com

Frisco-based Blue Star Sports has become a force in the youth sports in­dus­try, hav­ing snapped up 18 com­pa­nies span­ning the globe.

Rob Wech­sler can see Dal­las Cow­boys play­ers zig-zag across the prac­tice field dur­ing drills and watch as the he­li­copter of Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones lands on the 30-yard line.

For the se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and founder of Blue Star Sports, it’s just an­other day at the of­fice.

In about a year and a half, Blue Star Sports has become a force in the youth sports in­dus­try, with ties to some of the big­gest names in pro­fes­sional sports. It is based at The Star, the Cow­boys’ glitzy Frisco head­quar­ters. It has raised $200 mil­lion in fund­ing from pri­vate eq­uity firms, Jerry Jones’ fam­ily and the NFL’s in­vest­ment arm. And it has snapped up 18 com­pa­nies span­ning the coun­try and the globe.

The com­pany will soon start a new phase. Wech­sler is step­ping into an ad­vi­sory role and pass­ing the baton to Blue Star Sports’ new CEO, Alex Alt. But Wech­sler, chair­man of the board, said the com­pany has no plans to slow down. He said it may buy an­other 15 to 20 com­pa­nies over the next 18 months.

Youth sports has grown into a $15.3 bil­lion mar­ket, up 55 per­cent since 2010, ac­cord­ing to Win­terGreen Re­search and first re­ported by

Time mag­a­zine. The mar­ket has been fu­eled by par­ents will­ing to shell out thou­sands of dol­lars for their chil­dren to play in recre­ational leagues, com­pete on travel teams or spend one-on-one time with train­ers and coaches who could help them win a col­lege schol­ar­ship or pre­pare them for the pros.

Other com­pa­nies have also made big plays in the youth sports mar­ket. Time Inc. turned three youth sports soft­ware star­tups into Sports Il­lus­trated Play, a mo­bile app that coaches, play­ers and par­ents can use to track stats and plan events. SI Play also has tools for cre­at­ing cus­tom web­sites, run­ning back­ground checks and or­ga­niz­ing tour­na­ments. Dick’s Sport­ing Goods, bet­ter known for its brick-and-mor­tar ap­parel stores, ac­quired youth sports com­pa­nies to cre­ate Team Sports HQ, which has re­sources from technology so­lu­tions to team gear. And NBC bought a sim­i­lar com­pany that’s now called Sports-En­gine.

Fill­ing a need

Blue Star Sports was born out of Wech­sler’s own frus­tra­tions with the slow, dis­or­ga­nized an­nual process of sign­ing up his three kids for sports. Wech­sler pre­vi­ously built and sold pay­ments com­pa­nies. He started ex­plor­ing ways to im­prove the youth sports ex­pe­ri­ence and dis­cov­ered that it had the mak­ings of a great busi­ness op­por­tu­nity: It was a frag­mented mar­ket, had plenty of room for im­prove­ment and was re­ces­sion-proof.

And Wech­sler said he also saw a chance to help kids dur­ing their for­ma­tive years.

“Youth sports is a big part of a lot of peo­ple and how they grow and how they de­velop re­la­tion­ships and team­work and com­pet­i­tive spirit,” he said. “We can make a dif­fer­ence in that with the events that we host, the camps, the tour­na­ments, and then in­flu­enc­ing the leagues and the par­ents and the kids.”

By of­fer­ing bet­ter tools for young ath­letes, coaches and fam­i­lies, he said Blue Star Sports aims to cre­ate a seam­less dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ence that replaces pa­per play­books and reg­is­tra­tion forms; con­nects coaches, play­ers and par­ents; and makes it eas­ier for young peo­ple to reach their sports goals.

He imag­ines his 10-year-old son not only us­ing a mo­bile app to look up a field for prac­tice, but also shar­ing photo and videos from games, fol­low­ing his friends’ game high­lights and look­ing up ad­vice from pro­fes­sional play­ers or role mod­els.

“I have pieces and parts of that, but I don’t have the full thing yet — the con­nected ath­lete,” Wech­sler said. “So that’s where we are go­ing.”

He said Blue Star is also col­lect­ing a tremen­dous amount of data from young ath­letes, in­clud­ing de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion and brand pref­er­ences, that could even­tu­ally be im­por­tant to ad­ver­tis­ers.

Mak­ing gains

A year and a half ago, Blue Star Sports had one em­ployee: Wech­sler. Now its em­ployee count is about 600 glob­ally — and it plans to add about 100 to 150 jobs in the next six months in Frisco, Wech­sler said.

Blue Star Sports be­gan with man­age­ment tools for clubs and leagues, such as build­ing data­bases. Now its fam­ily of com­pa­nies spans the youth sports uni­verse, from tools that build team web­sites, al­low online reg­is­tra­tion and cre­ate fan shops to soft­ware that an­a­lyzes game day videos. It counts large youth sports or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion, Am­a­teur Ath­letic Union and USA Foot­ball, among its clients.

From early on, Blue Star Sports had close ties to the Dal­las Cow­boys. Its logo, a blue star, is rem­i­nis­cent of the Cow­boys’ logo. Wech­sler got the fi­nan­cial back­ing of Jerry Jones’ fam­ily when he was still in the idea phase. He closed the com­pany’s first deal in a con­fer­ence room at Val­ley Ranch, the for­mer Cow­boys head­quar­ters.

Pri­vate eq­uity firm Gen­star Cap­i­tal be­came the ma­jor­ity owner of Blue Star Sports in April.

The NFL’s in­vest­ment arm, 32 Eq­uity, in­vested in Blue Star this sum­mer. The amount of the in­vest­ment was not dis­closed, but Blue Star Sports said funds would be “used to fuel con­tin­ued ac­qui­si­tions in the sports technology space.”

Kevin LaForce, an NFL spokesman, said the pro­fes­sional foot­ball league heard about Blue Star Sports al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter its in­cep­tion through a pri­vate eq­uity firm. He said the NFL sees the in­vest­ment — its first in youth sports — as a way to get more young peo­ple in­ter­ested in play­ing and watch­ing sports.

“Our fo­cus is on kids play­ing foot­ball to some ex­tent, but it’s also on kids play­ing sports,” he said.

Since launch­ing the fund in 2013, LaForce said the NFL has in­vested in other com­pa­nies that align with the league’s mis­sion. It has in­vested in Strivr, a vir­tual re­al­ity com­pany with a sports train­ing fo­cus; On Lo­ca­tion Ex­pe­ri­ences, a hospitality busi­ness for sports and en­ter­tain­ment; and Fa­nat­ics, an online sports re­tailer and ma­jor li­censee, among oth­ers, he said.

Alt, the com­pany’s new CEO, will help in­te­grate the many com­pa­nies al­ready un­der Blue Star’s um­brella, Wech­sler said. Blue Star Sports’ ac­qui­si­tions in­clude com­pa­nies with sim­i­lar or over­lap­ping ser­vices, such as mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies that help plan and of­fer chip tim­ing for races. Alt pre­vi­ously worked as pres­i­dent of hospitality so­lu­tions at Sabre, a travel-fo­cused tech com­pany in South­lake.

But Wech­sler said he’ll stay in­volved with the com­pany that he built. He said he’ll still help guide its vi­sion and its merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions.

Photos by Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Blue Star Sports CEO Rob Wech­sler was a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur be­fore found­ing what is quickly be­com­ing a force in the youth sports in­dus­try. Over the last year and a half, the Frisco com­pany has gob­bled up more than a dozen star­tups.

From early on, Blue Star Sports had close ties to the Dal­las Cow­boys. Its logo, a blue star, is rem­i­nis­cent of the Cow­boys’ logo.

Photos by Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Eigh­teen months ago, Blue Star Sports had one em­ployee: CEO Rob Wech­sler. Now, its em­ployee count is about 600 glob­ally — and it plans to add about 100 to 150 jobs in the next six months in Frisco.

Blue Star Sports’ fam­ily of com­pa­nies spans the youth sports uni­verse, from tools that build team web­sites, al­low online reg­is­tra­tion and cre­ate fan shops to soft­ware that an­a­lyzes game day videos.

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