The influx of private equity into the world of sports has been well reported in recent years, with the adoption of PE minority stake allowances by many U.S. professional sport leagues leading to notable deals like Arctos Sports Partners’ acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal’s stake in the Sacramento Kings, or Dyal HomeCourt Partners’ minority stake in the Atlanta Hawks. And now there is another subsector in the sports industry that is emerging with M&A.
But while franchise ownership makes for big headlines, in fact, team ownership represents a small percentage of the total number of deals getting done in the industry. And many middle-market firms have identified niches within the sports industry as attractive investment ideas to pursue.
Firms like Brand Velocity Partners, MSP Sports Capital, Solace Capital Partners and Bruin Capital, among others, are getting in on various sports-related businesses that they say represent value opportunities for investors.
“It’s much better as an investor to be in a position to ‘win’ regardless of the outcome of the game,” says Austin Ramos, founding partner of Brand Velocity Group. “Like selling ‘picks and shovels’ to goldminers, many aspects of the sports ecosystem aren’t reliant on the outcomes of games.”
Ramos explains that private equity has become focused on the businesses that support sports participation or the functioning of professional sports teams themselves. Think uniforms. Or sports betting platforms. These related businesses offer great opportunities for PE, Ramos says.
For example, BVG acquired Score Sports, a Wilmington, Calif.-based manufacturer of uniforms and equipment for youth sports. Leveraging the firm’s new partner, former New York Giant quarterback Eli Manning and other notable pro athletes, Score Sports reaches the aspirational market beyond professional leagues in basketball, baseball and soccer to athletes of all ages.
“There are a remarkable number of opportunities for the right firm—one that truly understands the space—to create real, meaningful value,” says Ramos. “We see the societal trends (e.g., physical health, mental health, and content/entertainment) continuing to make this a compelling industry. We see team and media rights valuations continuing to rise. With all of this, you’ll see an increase in the value of related categories like apparel, equipment, and professional services, as well as more emerging verticals such as technology and gaming.”
Jahm Najafi, partner and chairman of MSP Sports, which recently acquired a controlling stake in the X Games from ESPN, believes that sports are an attractive asset class for private equity firms due to increasing valuations, the ability for private equity to provide value creation and general resiliency through market cycles.
Najafi notes that, “MSP pursues opportunities in established, mature organizations in areas we see growth, which – including teams and leagues – include sports data and analytics, experiential entertainment companies, regional sports broadcasting networks, streaming video, wearables, and gaming.”
Other growth areas include AR, VR, crypto and web3, collectibles, and sports betting, he says. Najafi believes ultimately the IP of sports assets “will offer the best risk-adjusted returns over the long-term.”
George Pyne, CEO and founder of Bruin Capital, a sports, entertainment and media investor, says his firm is also focused on technology within the sports world.
One example is golf. The firm invested in Full Swing, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based firm which Bruin says is the only simulator giving players patented dual-tracking technology to provide unmatched real ball flight.
“Technology is disrupting every form of our life,” Pyne says. “And in sports, that’s absolutely true. So we’ve invested in middle-market technology companies that we think are at the intersection of the change in content consumption, and we’ve invested in data companies that help leagues, federations and clubs monetize data. So those are two themes I think will hold up in a bad economy. Plus, we’ve seen that if you invest in the right technology company with the right idea, there’s enormous, enormous growth potential.”
Consumers Impacting the Market
Brett Wyard, managing partner at Solace Capital Partners notes how health and wellness have become an increasingly important aspect of people’s lives. “Enterprises serving these sectors – such as equipment manufacturers, apparel brands, nutrition businesses and other companies – have developed a very loyal customer base and enjoy resilient demand drivers even during periods of economic uncertainty.”
While smaller entrants, including newer and less established brands, may have strong penetration with customers within a specific niche, many of these businesses lack the financial and operational resources to scale efficiently, Wyard says. “This is where seasoned investment firms can play a key role in helping businesses grow by providing them with capital and expertise.”
Wyard notes that Covid has played a role for Solace and their view of how attractive certain sports-related niches look.
For example, the golf industry saw outsized growth due to the pandemic. Remote/hybrid work and deurbanization have resulted in an increased number of golf rounds played and as a result, an increase in the value of golf-related assets. In March of 2022, Solace purchased market leader Sun Mountain Sports, a provider of golf bags, push carts and outerwear.
“We believe the golf sector has many attractive, long-term tailwinds due to increasing popularity, participation and spend, but also a near-term idiosyncratic catalyst in the form of the baby boomer generation entering their “prime” playing years,” Wyard says. “Moreover, golf enjoys a high-earning customer base. Within golf, we believe premium equipment manufacturers who cater to this affluent and growing customer base and ‘off-course’ retail channels (i.e. outside of a club pro shop) will continue to experience growth.”
Look for private equity to continue to find opportunities in markets disrupting the sports world.