Broncos’ Okung big fan of technology in sports
Last week the NFL Players Association announced the launch of OneTeam Collective, a business accelerator for sports technology startups.
The program is billed as the first athletedriven accelerator that will help startup companies obtain rights to sports-related intellectual property in exchange for equity. The players association has exclusive group licensing rights for more than 2,000 NFL players.
With six other founding partners — the Harvard Innovation Lab, Intel, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Madrona Venture Group, LeadDog Marketing Group and Sports Innovation Lab — and an athlete advisory board, the NFLPA will consider sports ventures and product ideas related to data analytics, sports nutrition and wearable technology, fan engagement and virtual reality, among other things.
On that advisory board, a mix of both current and former players who will help build a professional network and have input on portfolio companies, is Broncos offensive tackle Russell Okung.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Okung said. “OneTeam Collective is an opportunity for the NFLPA to be taken seriously as a business. They’ve created a business model around an accelerator as well as a licensing arm that is taking equity in exchange for using the likeness of players.”
Okung took an unusual path to Denver during the offseason by negotiating his contract and thereby forgoing agent fees. Terms of the contract were assailed because it afforded him no guaranteed money up front, a huge risk for someone whose career can instantly be cut short by injury or competition. At the time, Okung said he was betting on himself and in the months since, his message hasn’t wavered. It’s only grown stronger as he’s fed both his interests of sports and technology.
In early 2015 Okung launched his GREATER Foundation to provide technology education and leadership programs to students in underserved areas of Seattle and Stillwater, Okla., where he played college ball. Since arriving in Colorado early this year he’s been involved in the Boulder and Denver tech startup scenes, and recently joined the Broncos to host a hackathon for students interested in STEM.
Call Okung a geek, and he likely will feel honored.
But this year more than ever his candid voice and that of other professional athletes have seemingly given them newfound power. Players have embraced their platform to speak about issues that go far beyond the playing field where in the past most opted to keep quiet to avoid losing endorsements, fans, playing time, even their jobs.
In many ways Okung views the creation of the NFLPA’s accelerator as an extension of that outreach. OneTeam is in its infancy, but the development alone is a step.
“This gives players a lot more power as well as really good relationships with technology companies and businesses alike,” Okung said. “It’s something the NFLPA really took into account, as players really want to leverage our power and our platform in a real way.”
Okung’s interest in technology took off a couple of years ago, when he was with the Seahawks. It has transformed into somewhat of a personal mission.
“There isn’t a business that technology isn’t touching in some facet,” he said. “It’s affecting jobs, it’s changing productivity, and you just have to be aware of what’s going on. I think it’s something that guys should definitely take seriously. … My thing is, why not get more educated about where your money is going or how it’s working?”
For Okung and any other athletes, trust plays a leading role in their careers and livelihoods off the field. Fame and fortune lure many who simply want a piece.
“It’s hard to find somebody who you can trust with your money and who won’t take advantage,” he said. “Clearly we’ve seen a lot of people who try to take advantage of players and exploit them. And that’s the thing. I’m not telling guys to go invest in technology, because venture capital is something that’s really high-risk and something you want to be careful about. What I’m saying is they should challenge themselves to have an aptitude and to be really intellectual about how their money is working and what’s really going on.”