This summary was compiled by Columbia student Kelly Carroll.
This post is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
It was announced this week that private equity firm Ropart Asset Management and The Madison Square Garden Company had both made strategic investments in the future of Excelle Sports, a growing media company focused on women’s sports. Earlier this year, shortly after Excelle’s launch, CEO and co-founder Kim Donaldson sat down with Joe Favorito and Tom Richardson to talk about the company, what it really takes to create meaningful content around women’s sports, and the big-picture thinking needed to build a startup.
Always an entrepreneur: Donaldson grew up in an athletic household in New York City, attending Rangers games at Madison Square Garden as soon as she could walk. A lover of skiing, skating, and tennis, she eventually became a national champion squash player at Yale. But Donaldson was also always an entrepreneur. As a child, she would try to sell things to the guests her parents invited to their home. She set up a sidewalk business selling her old toys, a venture her mother quickly shut down. As an adult, Donaldson started a branding, marketing, and graphic design company she ran for 10 years. Later, she started Bottlenotes, a media company that paired the wine and craft beer industries with technology to help inform consumers. “A lot of it was ahead of its time, unfortunately, which is often the problem with startups,” says Donaldson of her past businesses. “You can be too late to get in the game, but equally as bad is when you’re too early and people aren’t ready.”
Something the world needed: While satisfying her entrepreneurial bug, Donaldson still had not found a job that really spoke to her passions, until a friend suggested getting into something sports related. “It hadn’t occurred to me that I could work in sports, I guess because I saw sports as a fun thing, and a hobby, and a passion,” Donaldson says. “But also, as a woman I think it didn’t occur to me that I could work in sports unless I was a professional athlete.” In search of the right niche, Donaldson began researching online to see what kind of media businesses were in the women’s sports space. Shockingly, she saw very little. While monitoring espnW’s content during a week in early 2015, Donaldson noted that the site didn’t cover the U.S. women’s ice hockey team’s world championship win, nor a huge victory for skier Michaela Shifrin. She became determined to create a comprehensive space for women’s sports: “I got really excited that maybe I had actually found something that didn’t exist and that I really believed the world needed.”
The first steps: A huge proponent of LinkedIn, Donaldson used the professional networking platform to reach out to athletes, coaches, sports marketers, governing officials, and other influencers that could help make her idea a reality. Within a month, 20 Olympic athletes had accepted her connection, as well as many other athletes, coaches at all levels, and others. Donaldson then sat down to think about the financial aspects of the company—the revenue streams needed to make it viable. She also studied the models of sports media leaders—companies like Bleacher Report and ESPN—for insights into how content is produced and leveraged. For Donaldson, it was important for the focus of her company to be the content, whether it be news, features, profiles, videos, and other digital media. Her ultimate goal is to make Excelle a Bleacher Report for women. “I didn’t just want to be another little startup,” she says, “and I certainly didn’t just want to be a nice, good effort for women’s sports.”
Timing is everything: With all these pieces in place, Donaldson still knew that a startup company’s success is often dependent on timing. While predecessors like Sports Illustrated for Women had never gained the staying power Excelle is striving for, Donaldson said the sports media market is ripe for women’s sports content, due to an uptick in women’s sports participation, the reach of social and digital media, and the desire of advertisers to harness the female demographic’s buying power. “The athletes are out there, and the people who like watching them are out there,” she says. “It’s a question of growing at the right pace so we don’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Making it meaningful: The growth that has attracted investors like Ropart and MSG to Excelle is in large part due to the comprehensive content the company is producing, and the partnerships it is making in women’s sports. Golfer Michelle Wie, for example, is a member of Excelle’s Athlete’s Council, which also includes Olympic swimmer Kim Vandenberg and NASCAR driver Julia Landauer. The Coach’s Council includes professional and college women’s ice hockey coach Digit Murphy. These partnerships and connections pave the way for Excelle to dive deeper into the women’s sports landscape. Moving forward, Donaldson wants to produce more athlete-driven content, forming an even more direct route to meaningful content. “It’s a lot of fun, the athletes telling their own stories,” she says, “and asking questions that really are different than your sort of straight press/news questions.”
These were just some of the topics Kim Donaldson discussed with Joe and Tom. The entire podcast, number 14 in the series, can be heard here.