Sapphire Ventures Launches Sapphire Sport Investment Fund; Former YES, Fox Sports Exec Michael Spirito Plays Key Role
The goal is a fund focused on Series A and B investments and supported by sports entities and brands
There’s a new sports-tech venture fund in town. Sapphire Ventures as launched Sapphire Sport, which will be led by Doug Higgins, managing director/co-founder, Sapphire Ventures, and Michael Spirito, who joined Sapphire Ventures as managing director in September from 21st Century Fox.
According to Higgins, the fund is looking to fill a gap in the investor marketplace and also offer a first: a fund focused on Series A and B investments and led by execs who have not only technology expertise but also the support of dominant sports entities and brands.
“There are a lot of first-money, seed, and angel investors and then late-stage private-equity money,” Higgins explains, “but, in terms of dedicated Series A and B institutional-investor platforms, there isn’t one that is exclusively focused on this space.”
The fund has the backing of anchor investor City Football Group, owner of English Premier League champion Manchester City, as well as Adidas, Anschutz Entertainment Group, Bank of Montreal, Indiana Pacers ownership, Major League Baseball, New York Jets, the fund affiliated with the owners of the San Francisco 49ers, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Says Higgins, “We are interested in companies and technologies that apply to sports media and entertainment but also have other applications, because that is where you are going to get the most value creation.”
The fund is out of the gate with five companies already in its portfolio: Tonal (a digitally connected home fitness system), Mycujoo (a live–soccer-streaming platform), Overtime (a next-gen digital sports network), Fevo (a social-commerce solution), and Phoenix Labs (a gaming studio).
Tonal CEO/founder Aly Orady sees Sapphire as a patient and experienced partner that also has plenty of strong contacts in the industry: “They bring more than just capital to the table; they provide the expertise and connectivity I need to help us navigate our growth in the booming but crowded fitness market.”
Spirito joins Sapphire from 21st Century Fox, where he led business development and digital media for YES Network and, post-sale, the 22 Fox Sports regional sports networks. At YES, he was responsible for several initiatives, including launching the first-ever authenticated streaming product in U.S. sports.
Higgins says that Spirito is a great addition to the team.
Spirito says his prior experience gives him an understanding of how to evaluate a business with a strategic goal in mind.
“How can sports entities, which see themselves as entertainment brands, use technology to position themselves for the next decade?” he says. “The global sports-media–rights ecosystem has increasingly become proprietary to certain media properties, but they are only 1% or 2% of the whole market. So there are many stakeholders looking to develop a data-driven business for the rights they hold.”
According to Higgins, the best venture capitalists need to continue to reinvent and innovate in order to stay relevant. And that includes being open to partnerships and other opportunities: “There’s a venture-capital mentality of making the pie bigger, and partnering with others and getting different points of view to the table can do that.”
Spirito led digital-media and business development across the portfolio of Fox RSNs. He joined YES Network in 2006, helping build and ultimately sell the business to Fox for $3.8 billion in 2014.