Growing up in D.C., Cole Van Nice didn't have a hometown baseball to cheer on (the Nationals were still a few decades away from existence). That may have been a cause for consternation for a young sports fan, but when he got older and co-founded the L.A. Dodgers ownership's private investment arm, Elysian Park Ventures, it at least meant there was no gnawing feeling of disloyalty.
Founded in 2014, the firm's name is a nod to the 600-acre city park that hosts Dodger Stadium and the firm's headquarters. It's a way of acknowledging the origins and DNA behind the venture capital endeavor, which boasts a portfolio of around 45 mostly sports-focused companies and has written checks ranging from a $250K to over $100 million for startups at every stage of the growth.
"We can move up and down the capital structure depending on the opportunity," said Van Nice, who wrestled and played football in college. "The only constraint is domain: Everything we do is in the sports world."
Fortunately, the sports world is large. Elysian has investments at every level of competition, ranging from youth all the way up to professional. It's backed companies in esports, sports betting, sports science and technology. It has even had a hand in venue operations, ticketing and fan experience. Van Nice said there's no overarching investment strategy that can be distilled down to a maxim, but a core thesis behind the company is that technology will continue to radically change how people participate and interact with sports.
That thesis, Van Nice said, has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As sports everywhere shut down for months, Elysian saw the remains of the industry lean more into the digital realm. Esports, streaming and virtual fitness platforms thrived in the lockdown world. Without live events, delivering content to consumers became a technology question more than ever. Though there were certainly difficulties for some of their partners, (how does one bet on games that are canceled?), Van Nice said COVID ultimately advanced the timelines for the industry.
"Most of our portfolio came out of COVID stronger than they were going in," he said.
Now, with COVID hopefully receding further into the past, the rest of the sports industry is beginning to recover as well. In an analysis of job postings in sub-industries around sports, Rucha Vankudre, a research manager at Emsi Burning Glass, said that growth in the industry appears to be on a sharp rebound. "Obviously in 2020 we saw a big hit across the board. As we look at 2021, growth is higher than what it was in 2019. It's not quite at the same level yet, but the rate that it's growing has increased, which seems like a good sign," he said.
Elysian Park also runs a project called Global Sports Venture Studio, an incubator for ideas and startups in the sports world, with Elysian serving as a link between startups and industry giants like Major League Baseball, Dicks Sporting Goods, or Adidas. The formula has seen some considerable success too. Van Nice points to a 2015 collaboration between two AI-powered sports analytics companies, Keemotion and ShotTracker, that eventually led to a deal in which Keemotion was acquired by SportRadar earlier this spring, buoying the parent company's latest valuation north of $10 billion dollars.
"That's an opportunity where we were able to innovate early, run it through the Venture Studio Program, deploy a lot of capital against it to build it, and then ultimately see it get acquired by one of the global leaders in the space," said Van Nice.
Even though two of its teams are named after literal Disney movies, the Los Angeles metro area is still a hub for professional sports, with 11 major league teams, including two NBA, two MLB, two NHL and two NFL. And Van Nice said the venture scene is equally robust. "We've had nothing but the highest quality experiences here, both with the entrepreneurs that we've worked with, and the local VCs," he said. "Given our ownership group has a lot of ties to Los Angeles, it's a critically important market for us."
Like a kid at a lunch table reciting rushing yard stats, he rattles off a list of a half dozen or so local startups he's impressed with to illustrate his point. It's easy to tell he's a sports guy.
Editor's note: Elysian Park Ventures is an investor in dot.LA.