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Star Power Fuels An Underdog Startup

Underdog Venture Team and its diverse group of leaders are changing the face of client services and venture capital

By David Gardner

Even as they were coming up in a cutthroat industry, Dan Mannix and Dave Nugent developed an easy friendship. Their client book often overlapped, but there was never any competition between them because they worked in separate services. As Mannix built up LeadDog Marketing, Nugent developed his technology firm, Omnigon. After they’d each sold their businesses in 2016, they wanted to find a way to work together directly.

But they didn’t just want to go back to the same playbook. “The reality is: I’m a 54-year-old white man, and most of the leaders of the industry look too much like me,” Mannix said. “When Dave and I started talking, we asked ourselves: How do we create a company that’s a reflection of our diverse society? And could we make this company a new model for our industry?”

Dan Mannix (yellow cap) and Dave Nugent (on Mannix’s right) founded the company in 2021 and have since added more than a dozen colleagues.jesse ward

The model that emerged, in spring 2021, was Underdog Venture Team. Mannix and Nugent spent the rest of the year refining the business plan, raising money and acquiring talent. They designed Underdog to be part venture capital, with a commitment that two-thirds of the companies they invested in be run by women or people of color; and part client services, leaning on their respective backgrounds in marketing and tech.

They raised between $1 million and $2 million, with a lead investment from Isos Capital Management. “Investors who don’t value mission-oriented companies are missing big opportunities,” said Isos founder and co-CEO Michelle Wilson. “In our experience, brands that do things with a purpose and who do things that matter make a difference first in the heart of their consumers, then in their minds and wallets.”

While the company has been operational since the beginning of the year — its clients include Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park and Moolah Kicks, which was founded by Natalie White and creates a basketball sneaker for women and girls — it is formally announcing the brand’s launch this week as the presenting partner of SBJ’s ALL IN virtual conference on DEI.

Mannix and Nugent also wanted the company to be life-changing for the people who came to work for them. That’s why initial hires were offered not only competitive salaries, but also an equity stake in the company. “There’s a risk in joining the startup world, but we tried to de-risk it enough where it became a viable option for some incredibly talented people,” Nugent said. “The equity stake means that we’re all in this together, and that there’s significant upside for the core team.”

The core team’s mission is to show that a valuable business can be built with a missional mindset and a commitment to equity. “We love being on the same team together,” Mannix said. “Not to get too grandiose, but we’re trying to create a movement within the sport business industry.”

To do that, Mannix and Nugent are leaning on five key executives in particular who will turn this Underdog into a blueblood: 

jesse ward

Megan Allison

Every year, Megan Allison looked forward to SportsTank. Before the pandemic, the event was an annual showcase where entrepreneurs in the sports space could get feedback from a panel of advisers — and get funding from a group of investors. Allison loved hearing all the innovative ideas, but as a member of the advisory panel, she didn’t get to back any of them.

“I wasn’t looking at it as an opportunity for me,” she said. “I was happy to give my advice, but there was a disconnect — I wasn’t really invested in their growth. I couldn’t help but want more.”

Wanting more was on Allison’s mind a lot last year as she approached her 50th birthday. She had been at  Genesco for 16 years. In 2010, she’d moved to North Carolina to start the Charlotte office, and she spent the past decade turning it into a powerhouse group, with clients including Advanced AutoParts and Bojangles. But she wondered if it might be more fulfilling to help smaller brands find their footing in the world of sports.

“I was thinking about all of that when I met Dan,” she said. “We were at SBJ Game Changers in October, and he started our conversation by asking me: ‘Who are the best women- or minority-owned agencies in our industry?’ And I had to say: ‘I don’t know.’ He said he was looking to change that.”

As the managing director of the Brand Strategies and Experience Group at Underdog, Allison will bring her decades of brand experience to a new portfolio of clients — big and small.

“We have to generate revenue and pay our bills, and startups won’t be able to do that for us right away,” she said. “So we’ll be working with all kinds of clients. But the thing that really wrapped this all up in a bow for me was the opportunity to work with startups, to have a social impact and to have equity. We’re all invested in building this thing together.”

jesse ward

Alysse Soll

When Alysse Soll was a freshman at Cornell, the hockey coach tracked her down on campus and invited her to join the team. Soll had trained as a competitive figure skater as a kid, but she’d never played hockey. Her only experience with the sport was seeing Rangers and Islanders players, heavy on bruises and light on teeth, skate onto the ice for their practice as she was leaving hers.

She asked her mom and dad if she should play. “My mom said, ‘No thank you, I like my daughter’s face just the way it is,’” Soll said, and laughed. “But my dad gave me this really great advice. He said that this would be my chance to do something I’ve never done before — to be a part of a team.”

Playing hockey at Cornell also paved the way for her career. After working on Wall Street for a few years, Soll moved to the West Coast in 1990 to help the San Jose Sharks — the NHL’s first new franchise in 10 years — establish a fan base. She went on to launch the first marketing department at the NHL’s league office. One of her major initiatives there, in the early days of the internet, was to switch the fan All-Star voting from mail-in paper ballots to an online system, increasing the number of votes from 2 million to more than 20 million.

After a stint at TimeWarner, she started her own firm, NewModel Advisory, which was acquired last year by Underdog, where she’ll serve as CEO of Underdog Advisory. Soll, 59, will be tasked with sourcing, advising and fundraising for Underdog’s startups.

“If I was in one of those situations where I had to pick 10 people to be stuck on an island with forever, Dan and Dave would be two of my top choices,” said Soll, who is also the board chair for Women in Sports Tech. “In our business, there are people who talk about it, and there are people who do it. I want to be with the doers, not the talkers.”

jesse ward

Sara Toussaint

In the early 2010s, Sara Toussaint traveled to colleges around the country for a venture firm. She was looking for university researchers who were working to create the next Gatorade or Google so that her company, Allied Minds, could get in on the ground level. In addition to discovering some companies that eventually went public, she also learned how few of these entrepreneurs were women of color.

“Probably 99% of the companies we met with were run by men,” she said. “And those men were predominantly white. In my couple of years, there were very, very, very, very few women.”

Toussaint had experience working in male-dominated work environments. She spent a couple of years in labor relations for Major League Baseball, informing clubs when minor league players tested positive for drugs. She also worked in marketing for Major League Soccer before joining Wells Fargo in the sponsorships department. They were looking for someone who knew soccer and who spoke Spanish. When they asked her if she’d be interested, she said, “¡Por supuesto!”

On her own, she continued to invest in early-stage startups like the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League and a social impact food company called Purpose Tea (which was founded by an Asian woman). In April, she’ll join Underdog as a managing director, identifying diverse founders who have ideas worth investing in.

“Regardless of who you are or what you look like or what industry you’re in, the startup path can be unknown for a lot of founders,” she said. “Unless you’re in Silicon Valley or New York, it’s hard to know where to go when you need someone to invest in you. It’s amazing to join an organization whose mission is to support people who look like me and to help them have what they need to see their business succeed.”

jesse ward

Nicole Jeter West

Last year, when Nicole Jeter West was evaluating her next career move, she came up with four filters to help her narrow down the options. First, she wanted to invest directly in women and people of color in the industry. Second, she wanted to create and lead the company’s culture. Third, she wanted to work in spaces beyond sports. And fourth, she wanted the chance to create generational wealth for her family.

“I really did some soul searching about what I wanted from the next chapter of my life,” she said. “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. I wasn’t just thinking about what I wanted from the industry anymore. I’m at the stage now where I want to think about what I can give to the industry, and to the people who will come after me.”

Jeter West started her career as an hourly worker in the Knicks’ marketing department and worked her way up to director of marketing during two stints with the organization. She then spent five years with the U.S. Tennis Association and another four years with Legends. Before becoming Underdog’s CEO, she had served as the head of marketing and brand engagement for LA 2028.

“I’m half Puerto Rican and half Black, and I’ve often been the only person who looked like me in a room or an organization,” she said. “For me, diversity is not just that we need a token number of people to fill a quota. It’s about diversity of thought and of experience — life experience, career experience and cultural experience. That’s what makes innovation happen. That’s what we’ve been building from the beginning at Underdog.”

And after years leading divisions within some of the biggest companies in sports, Jeter West has been reinvigorated by Underdog’s startup sensibilities. When she, Mannix and Nugent reached the end of the negotiations to bring her on as CEO, they celebrated not with champagne or even a paper contract. Mannix had a bag of M&Ms, so they sealed the deal with a handful of snacks.

jesse ward

Brian Westbrook

Brian Westbrook usually likes the anonymity of New York City. When he’s out walking his three dogs — two French bulldogs and a Belgian Malinois — people don’t come up to him to ask about the nine seasons he spent as an electric NFL running back, or about his pair of Pro Bowl selections. But when Dan Mannix moved in down the hall, the businessman and the former Philadelphia Eagle found an easy friendship.

“I moved into the building in 2017, and he came shortly after that,” said the 42-year-old Westbrook. “He had just sold his company, and I was getting ready to join Ryan Howard’s investing group SeventySix Capital. We just found that we had a lot in common.”

As the managing director of Athlete Entrepreneur Network, Westbrook will provide a crash course in business education for current and former athletes. He’ll help them with everything from evaluating investment pitch decks to understanding the etiquette of the board room.

Westbrook had a solid foundation in business. His father was a bank manager, and he earned his bachelor’s in management information systems at Villanova before earning an executive business degree from Wharton while he was still in the NFL. With Underdog, Westbrook wants to level the playing field on the business side of sports.

“Professional sports have made a lot of minority people millionaires, which is great,” he said. “But when you look at the people who are making the [major] money, there’s still a big disparity. When people who look like me make up 80% of the league and 0% of the owners, there’s a problem. It comes down to the education and to networking, and we’re going to be able to help players with both.”

David Gardner has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated, among other outlets.

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