Bron­cos’ Okung big fan of tech­nol­ogy in sports

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nicki Jhab­vala, The Den­ver Post Nicki Jhab­vala: njhab­vala@den­ver­ or @Nick­iJhab­vala

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.”

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