Dan Gilbert’s Courtside Ventures Bets $35M on eSports, VR, Wearables

Earlier this month, it was announced that Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans founder and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has partnered with Bruin Sports Capital and WPP on a new $35 million investment fund. Based in New York City and Detroit, Courtside Ventures will invest in early-stage tech and media startups with a focus on sports.

This isn’t Gilbert’s first foray into the world of venture investing; his portfolio also includes Detroit Venture Partners (DVP) and Rockbridge Growth Equity. Brian Hermelin, managing partner and co-founder of Rockbridge Growth Equity and DVP, said the Courtside alliance “won’t affect DVP going forward,” though the two funds may choose to co-invest in the future. Hermelin will manage the new Courtside Ventures fund with Deepen Parikh, partner at Interplay Ventures and co-founder of NYVC Sports, and Vasu Kulkarni, founder and CEO of Krossover, a sports analytics company.

Kulkarni said Courtside is looking for cutting-edge technology with applications in the realm of sports, such as virtual reality and wearable devices. The fund is also interested in eSports, a quickly growing field that has primarily come to mean professional, organized, multiplayer video game competitions.

If you haven’t yet heard of eSports, you likely don’t have any teenage boys in your life. The popularity of eSports is exploding, according to an ESPN The Magazine report published last summer. Long beloved in Asia, the number of eSports fans in Europe and North America is growing by 21 percent per year, according to ESPN.

Thanks to websites like Twitch, where 55 million users watch live gaming streams and communicate with star players, 205 million people watched or played eSports in 2014. Championship events sponsored by League of Legends, one of the biggest brands in eSports, regularly draw more viewers than the NBA finals or the World Series.

In other words, it’s a big deal. And because the professional gamers tend to live together, interact with each other on social media, and travel to events together, there’s a reality television element to eSports that further appeals to millennials.

Kulkarni offered an anecdote from his own life to illustrate the passion of eSports fans. He recently attended the Cavs-Warriors game in Cleveland and posted to Twitter pictures he took with Warriors phenom Steph Curry and former Michigan State Spartan-turned-Golden State Warrior Draymond Green. Kulkarni also took pictures with an eSports executive, who later posted them to his Twitter account. Guess which photo caused one of Kulkarni’s employees to storm into his office the next morning, breathless with excitement? (Hint: It wasn’t any of the photos with Curry or Green.)

“I couldn’t believe it,” Kulkarni recalled. “Of all the pictures on Twitter, he was excited about a person most people outside of eSports have never heard of. You can see how the viewership numbers for the NFL and NBA are being dwarfed by eSports.”

Courtside is in the process of finalizing an investment in the eSports space, he said, and expects to announce the details soon.

Although Kulkarni said the Cavs’ biggest star, LeBron James, has so far not revealed himself to be a fan of eSports, there are NBA players who are active in the scene, including Jeremy Lin and Gordon Hayward. Retired Los Angeles Lakers forward Rick Fox recently purchased a team in the North American League of Legends championship series.

So far, Courtside has been “inundated by deal flow,” and Kulkarni said the fund is interested in early-stage startups from all corners of the globe. Courtside recently closed on its first investment—Kulkarni declined to provide details—and on the day the deal was signed, the Cleveland Cavaliers had already begun pilot testing the company’s technology. It’s a good example, he said, of the quality of Courtside’s network and how quickly the fund’s managers are willing to move to get Courtside-backed companies to market.

“We like to say we have an unfair advantage,” Kulkarni added. “We can open doors and move things forward faster. We have the ability to call someone in the Cavs organization and ask them to take a quick look, and if they like what they see, I feel pretty good other franchises will like it, too.”

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