Jasmine Robinson is a Partner at Causeway Media Partners, a Cambridge, Mass. venture capital firm that invests in sports, fitness, and media startups. Causeway, founded in 2013, specializes in growth-stage investments in young companies that have already proven out their business model and chalked up some early revenue. The firm’s investment portfolio includes companies like Zwift, a system that gamifies cycling workouts; the Formula E electric racing series; and SeatGeek, the search engine for tickets.
And the Causeway team is no stranger to the sports world. Robinson is a former Manager of Investments & Business operations with the San Francisco 49ers — and she works alongside Wyc Grousbeck, majority owner of the Boston Celtics, and Mark Wan, a partial owner of both the Boston Celtics and San Francisco 49ers.
We sat down with Robinson as part of our ongoing Innovation in Sports series, to discuss the trends and technologies she’s tracking in the sports space, as well as some of the sports-related startups that Causeway has put its money into.
Recently, it appears there are more investors funding the sports industry and more venture capital in general. Have you noticed an uptick in the number of sports-related startups benefiting from that abundance of opportunity?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a dramatic increase in actual proper VC funds being set up to really focus on these areas. And alongside that, you’ve seen a lot of the traditional tech VCs move into sports, and start spending a lot of time there. So I think the ecosystem is certainly thriving. I definitely think that the result is that there are more startups getting funded in these verticals, and therefore being able to scale and grow.
What are the stories and trends from the pandemic timeframe you think are most important? What trends have you seen emerge from the clashing of the at-home and the in-person worlds?
The companies that we’ve backed typically fall into one of those two buckets. So either they’re digital-first and digital-oriented — and saw some tremendous tailwinds in the pandemic — or companies that were really dependent on being live and being there in person, and saw a lot of headwinds from the pandemic. As we’re hopefully starting to emerge from the pandemic, globally, although we’re definitely not all the way there, we’re seeing our live in-person companies seeing a ton of demand.
I remain as bullish as ever about businesses that are trying to connect people in person, for real experiences and moments. But I also think digital businesses are poised to continue to grow.
I remain as bullish as ever about businesses that are trying to connect people in person, for real experiences and moments. But I also think digital businesses are poised to continue to grow. If you think about digital fitness, people who used to be “gym people” are now willing to [look at] connected fitness equipment or digital apps. People who maybe weren’t as into the gaming ecosystem, you know, dove in with the pandemic, and will keep that as part of their entertainment mix over time. It’s creating some really interesting dynamics that have expanded the market opportunity for some companies
What are some companies that Causeway has in its investment portfolio that fall into either the digital or in-person realms?
On the in-person side of things, one really fun business that we’re involved with is a company called QuintEvents. They’re a company focused around VIP events, travel, and experiences, primarily related to sports-related products, but also things outside of sports – they’re a close partner to Barrett-Jackson [the car auction company], as an example. They’re partners with groups like the Kentucky Derby and Formula One. They obviously faced a challenging year with the pandemic, as a lot of those major events shut down. But now that things are opening back up, they’ve seen tremendous demand for their product both from their corporate buyers, as well as their individual buyers who are just excited to get back out to experiences.
An example on the digital side, we’re investors in a business called Zwift, which is in that sort of digital training space. It’s focused primarily on the cycling market but is also expanding into other realms. And they saw tremendous growth during the pandemic as people needed to train at home, whether that’s for fitness or for cyclists that needed to get their practicing [done] at home. But even coming out of the pandemic, they still see that people want to leverage their virtual world to train… they got over that hump in the pandemic, and they’re continuing to see engagement. And now that there’s an even broader community on the platform, I think it makes it all the more appealing for new customers.
What are you seeing with the rise of streaming platforms — and the competition for content there?
Content is going to continue to get more and more valuable. You saw the news recently about Amazon being likely to take over the NFL Sunday Ticket packages [to access a season’s worth of football]. That’s an example of new content formats and delivery mechanisms that are going to create new opportunities.
What’s really interesting is that when sports can move off traditional broadcast cable and into a streaming ecosystem, all of a sudden, you don’t have to say, “How do we create a program that millions of people want to watch?” Instead, you can say, “If I can create content that’s really compelling to thousands of people, that’s actually good business as well.” That’s what has enabled the creation of a lot of new sports, and enabled eSports to rise… being able to go directly to fans on [a platform] like YouTube… it is new content and the ability to go out and reach smaller audiences but really monetize those audiences directly has created this opportunity in the market.
As we’re out talking to leagues and teams… I think there’s a lot more willingness to innovate.
We continue to believe in the value of content… for example, they’ve started having Peyton and Eli Manning call some games on ESPN… the fact that over the last 12 months, you’ve seen ESPN experiment with that and with a handful of other [programs], I think it’s a good testament to people being a little bit more willing to try things out. I really noticed in the pandemic was [that], all of a sudden, you need to have a little bit of a different content experience. And so as we’re out talking to leagues and teams, and as we see companies selling into those stakeholders, I think there’s a lot more willingness to innovate in ways that we didn’t see moving as quickly before.
Have you been back to in-person games yet, out there in the San Francisco area?
I haven’t done much of it yet. I did make it out to one Giants versus Dodgers game the other day, and it was definitely fun to be back. I’ll admit it was also a little bit strange to be back in that large of a crowd, after not having done much of that over the last year, but I’ll definitely make it out to Levi’s Stadium for one or two 49ers games this year. It’s so much easier for venues that are outdoor venues [to be attracting fans]. I definitely feel for all of the NBA arenas, where they’re dealing with mask mandates indoors…
When I did make it to the game, it was great to be back there. Even watching on TV, it’s great to have the energy of fans – I think it’s such an important part of the sports product as well… I’m excited to see how all of this evolves. And I’ll be crossing my fingers that more and more people get vaccinated so that we continue moving in a direction of getting to enjoy those live sports experiences.