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How esports can save colleges

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece about esports and the Olympics after sitting on a panel discussing whether, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, esports had an opportunity to work with the International Olympic Committee. After careful consideration and research, my conclusion was basically, “I think that the Olympics need esports a whole lot more than esports needs the Olympics.”

I was surprised by some of the data I uncovered in the course of researching the Olympics piece, specifically on audiences for international, professional and collegiate sports. I observed that while the esports model isn’t as mature as in traditional sports, esports actually garnered close to the same level of viewership, and the audience was growing astronomically. I couldn’t help but wonder how long this phenomenon would go unacknowledged by the institutions that might benefit most from it.

Enter colleges’ and universities’ flirtation with esports: There are currently more than 170 collegiate varsity gaming programs in NCAA Division I, and the number of clubs is even higher. So even as institutions investment in esports, there are still many misunderstood and overlooked aspects of the potential to drive value (and even revenue) in the collegiate esports space.

College in the 21st century

The college experience today is very different than it was 50 years ago. The pace of change outside of institutions is ever-accelerating, often leaving colleges struggling to keep up. Technology, students’ interests, evolving economies and workplaces, and changes in cultural norms have left colleges and universities in a place of less relevance than at many points in the past.

The same can be said of college sports: Outside forces have eroded a once-near-hegemonic source of collegiate pride, cultural power, recruitment, alumni engagement and, in some cases, revenue.

I did a quick review of the audience for the biggest NCAA events in the world; the Football Bowl Subdivision Bowl Championship and the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.

pre-championship viewers FBS bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

post-championship viewers

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

Look at the average viewership of the big bowl games before the championship system went into effect in 2015, as well as after. Above, you see the trend line for viewership for the various big bowl viewership as well as an average. While there are certainly occasional spikes, the best case you could make here is that the product is flat — when you isolate the trend line for both, here is the result:

average viewership all bowls

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

In the aggregate, the trend seems mostly downward.

Look at the same trends in viewership for the NCAA Final Four — the early semi-final, the late semi-final and finally the championship game.

final four viewership

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

They look rather similar. So, while collegiate sports still have a massive following, there are two concerning issues here. First, the audience isn’t growing at all; in fact, it appears to be slightly contracting. Secondly, the audience is aging, making collegiate sports less relevant to younger people. While an older audience is still a valuable source of alumni donations and ancillary revenue, it doesn’t exactly align with another core target demographic: potential college students.

Now despite this, there is data that suggests that schools with elite academic departments do enjoy a phenomenon known as the “Flutie effect,” named after Doug Flutie, a quarterback for Boston College whose exciting performance on the gridiron was credited with boosting BC applications. An article in Forbes breaking down an HBS study goes into the phenomenon more deeply than we can here.

Granted, much of the data is from a few years ago, when college sports were perhaps more relevant, but the point is broadly the same: Having an elite program in an activity students enjoy benefits the institutions that sponsor and promote them. But what happens when enthusiasm for those activities among the student body is waning? One idea is to explore involvement in what the students of today are interested in.

As a comparison to FBS football (maxed out at 35 million viewers) and the NCAA Final Four (maxed out at 28 million), Riot Games’ Mid-Season Invitational event for League of Legends had a total viewership of 60 million people. In second place is the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice with 46 million people. While precise demographic data isn’t readily available, it stands to reason that the latter two events skew younger than the former two.

A few caveats, as these are not precisely apples-to-apples comparisons: These esports events are broken up over a number of days and encompass a significant number of matches — comparable to March Madness, perhaps — and the content is consumed in different ways. Much of the NCAA’s content is presented on television, some of which is on paid, premium channels. Esports events are broadcast on Twitch and YouTube via streams for free.

But the thing to understand is that esports audiences are growing at a 15%-16% year-over-year clip and it commands a worldwide audience, meaning its total addressable market (TAM) is MUCH bigger. The NCAA events are not likely to draw serious audiences outside of North America.

COVID-19

In the context of the pandemic, colleges are hamstrung by students’ inability to engage in a college experience in-person, which is one of the primary reasons one goes to college. Networking, developing new friends and having new experiences are all a part of the collegiate draw, none of which work as well from students’ parents’ living rooms. Similarly, collegiate sports as we know them have essentially ceased to exist, along with their functions of institutional pride, marketing and revenue. The NCAA Tournament was canceled in March of 2020 and there is no sign that it, or any other sport, will be back anytime soon.

Esports, on the other hand, are thriving in this context, thanks mostly to their ability to offer remote competition and viewing. Esports tournaments can isolate audiences, teams and even referees to allow for safe content creation and consumption.

Esports and college

Believe it or not, esports is a better fit for college than it is for the pros. I won’t go into all of the details here, but I actually wrote a separate article about why the pro sports model is NOT a good one for esports. In this article we talk about intellectual property, who owns the league in esports and how all of the entities make money. The biggest problem is, in pro sports, the teams own the league and can then act in the best interest of all of the teams. In esports, the league is usually owned or regulated by the publisher of the video game, meaning you have hands in the monetization pie in a way that pro sports doesn’t have.

The interesting thing about this is that college athletics actually has the same problem and has found a way to mitigate that. The athletes get their scholarships, and the schools, their athletic conference, and the NCAA itself all own a piece of the pie that gets packaged and sold for distribution to the ESPNs and Fox Sports of the world.

This is a much better model for esports. It’s unlikely that any group that “owned” football IP would tell the Dallas Cowboys how to market their team, what their cut is and how it will be distributed. This process happens all the time in college, though. In fact, in order for everyone to get their seat at the table, you HAVE to work all of this out so that the schools make some money (equivalent to a team), the conference makes their money (equivalent to the league) and the NCAA makes their money (equivalent to the publisher themselves). If the chain breaks down at any point, then the whole process grinds to a halt and nobody makes money.

I mention this in my article about the Olympics. The IOC is used to having full autonomy over how the Olympic Games are broadcast, which events are part of the games, who is eligible and who isn’t, etc. There is no chance this would be the case if the Olympics took on esports. The publisher would absolutely wield an incredible amount of influence over how the games are portrayed, broadcast, judged and the like. The IOC isn’t used to that. In college, that’s just a typical Saturday afternoon.

College admission is down and not just because of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, colleges were trying to find their footing with potential students as people reevaluate the college experience. Forbes wrote back in 2019 that college enrollments were down two million students in that decade. Add onto that the preliminary data we are getting on the effect of COVID on colleges, we could see enrollment in 2020 down anywhere from 5%-20%.

Student enrollment at US colleges has been declining since 2011

Image Credits: Brandon Byrne

The outlook

For colleges, it’s not great. Revenue is massively down, with even stalwarts like Harvard University hemorrhaging cash. With enrollment down before the pandemic, we have reached a point where colleges and universities have to adapt to survive.

The good news is, I believe that esports could be an opportunity to do just that. Colleges are diving into esports, with 115 different programs offering scholarships for esports and club programs are growing even faster. Certainly, it will help attract students, but monetization in esports is really tricky.

It’s critical that colleges and universities get expert advice on how to create an ecosystem that ultimately compensates all of the stakeholders, including the college themselves. It also will require universities to move quickly and get on board with a model that is still being formed in real time. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, but I think there will be many colleges that will. The time to move is now.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Cultured meat has been approved for consumers for the first time

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The first lab-grown, or cultured, meat product has been given the green light to be sold for human consumption. In the landmark approval, regulators in Singapore granted Just, a San Francisco–based startup, the right to sell cultured chicken—in the form of chicken nuggets—to the public. 

Just had been working with the regulators for the past two years and was formally granted approval on November 26. Singapore’s regulatory body assembled a panel of seven experts in food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology, public health policy, food science, and food technology to evaluate each stage of Just’s manufacturing process and make sure the chicken is safe to eat. “They didn’t just look at the final product; they looked at all the steps that led to that product,“ says Josh Tetrick, Just’s cofounder and CEO. “We were impressed with how thoughtful and rigorous they were.”  

An as-yet-unnamed restaurant in Singapore will soon be the first to have Just’s cultured chicken on the menu, but Tetrick says he plans to expand after that. “We’ll go from a single restaurant to five to 10 and then eventually into retail and then after that, outside Singapore,” he says. 

Most cultured meat is made in a similar way. Cells are taken from an animal, often via a biopsy or from an established animal cell line. These cells are then fed a nutrient broth and placed in a bioreactor, where they multiply until there are enough to harvest for use in meatballs or nuggets. A slew of startups have been founded using variations on this approach, in the belief that cultured meat will appeal to flexitarians—people who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat for ethical or environmental reasons, but don’t want to give it up entirely.

The budding industry has progressed a long way since a $330,000 burger was famously cooked on TV in 2013, driven by the idea that if it’s done right, meat could be produced with far lower greenhouse-gas emissions and zero animal suffering. But cost is still a hurdle: the high price of the growth factors required to develop the cells mean the price tags for pure cultured meat products are still measured in hundreds of dollars per pound, far too expensive to compete with regular meat. So Just’s first chicken products will be chicken “bites” that use cultured chicken cells mixed with plant protein—although Tetrick wouldn’t say in what proportion. “Chicken nuggets are already blended—this one wont be any different,” he says. The bites will be labeled as “cultured chicken” on the restaurant’s menu.

Singapore’s decision could kick-start the first wave of regulatory approvals around the world.

“We are hoping and expecting that the US, China, and the EU will pick up the gauntlet that Singapore just threw down,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works in meat alternatives. “Nothing is more important for the climate than a shift away from industrial animal agriculture.”

While Just has beaten them to the punch, many big firms are already working with regulators to get their own products to market. This is not something to be rushed, Friedrich says: “It is critical for cultivated meat companies to be extra careful and to go beyond consumer expectation in ensuring consumer comfort with their products.”  

Memphis Meats, which counts Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and traditional meat manufacturer Tyson Foods among its many investors, has teamed up with a number of other firms, including Just and cultured-seafood makers BlueNalu and Finless Foods, to form a lobbying group that is working with US regulators to get their products approved.

The way that might actually happen was only hammered out relatively recently. In March 2019, it was announced that the FDA would regulate the early stages of the cultured-meat process, including cell banks and cell growth. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will then take over at the cell harvesting stage and will inspect production facilities and approve labels used on cultured-meat products. In Europe, companies must apply for authorization and meet the European Union’s regulation on novel foods. The process is likely to take at least 18 months, and no cultured-meat company has yet applied.

Both Singapore and Israel have actively made themselves welcoming to startups in plant and cultured meat, Freidrich says. Governments should follow their lead and start treating this like initiatives in renewable energy and global health, he says.

“We need a space-race-type commitment toward making meat from plants or growing it from cells,” he says. “We need a Manhattan Project focused on remaking meat.”

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Longtime investor and operator Adam Nash says he just launched a new fintech startup

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Adam Nash, a Silicon Valley-born-and-bred operator and investor, is back at it again.

Today, on his personal blog, he announced that he has started a consumer fintech company that has already garnered initial funding from Ribbit Capital, along with other “friends and angels” who appear to have also pitched into the round, including Box CEO Aaron Levie, Mighty Networks founder Gina Bianchini, Superhuman founder Rahul Vohra, and Amy Chang, who sold her startup Accompany to Cisco in 2018.

Nash didn’t reveal many details in the post or later on Twitter, saying he’ll have more to say when the company is closer to launching. All we really know at this point is that he cofounded the company with Alejandro Crosa, an Argentinian software engineer who most recently spent five months at Slack but logged more than three years at both Twitter and LinkedIn before that.

Nash said on Twitter that the two met at LinkedIn, where Nash was himself VP of product management for four years beginning in 2007. It’s a good detail to know, considering that Nash has logged time at a wide variety of tech outfits over the years, making it hard to guess at whom he knows and from where.

A computer science graduate of Stanford, where he later nabbed a master’s degree, Nash began his career interning at NASA, HP, and Trilogy before landing his first big job as a software engineer at Apple in 1996 (when former PepsiCo exec, John Sculley, was briefly running the place).

After moving on to a bubble-era company that no longer exists, Nash tried his hand at VC for the first time, joining Atlas Venture as an associate. To get more operating experience, he then jumped to eBay, where he was a director; LinkedIn, where he met Crosa; then Greylock, where he spent just over a year as an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) before joining the wealth-management startup Wealthfront as its president and CEO, a job that the company’s original CEO and founder, Andy Rachleff, reclaimed in 2016.

Nash didn’t disappear from the scene. Instead, he rejoined Greylock as an EIR for another year before joining Dropbox shortly after it went public in 2018 as its VP of product and growth, leaving that post back in February to start his own thing, he said at the time.

That Nash would start a fintech company specifically isn’t surprising, considering his involvement with Wealthfront, as well as some of the personal investments he has made in recent years.

In 2018, for example, he wrote a check to LearnLux, a five-year-old, Boston-based educational startup that helps employees better understand their 401k, health savings accounts, and stock options. He is also an investor in Human Interest, a five-year-old, San Francisco-based startup that offers automated, paperless 401(k) plans.

Nash is also riding a very big wave.  According to Pitchbook, consumer fintech is on pace to attract a record amount of venture funding in 2020, at least in North America and Europe.

We’ll let you know more about what Nash is building as soon as he’s ready to share more. The little that Nash is saying publicly for now is that he and Crosa believe there is “still a lot more to do in consumer fintech, and that through software we can help bring purpose to the way people approach their financial lives.”

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Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger is now available

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Back in October Apple announced the MagSafe Duo, a folding travel charger capable of charging both the iPhone and either an Apple Watch or AirPods simultaneously/wirelessly. In an unusual move, the company didn’t specify exactly when it’d start shipping — or even when it’d go up for sale. Some rumors suggested late December, while others were uncertain it would even make it out before the end of the year. When was this thing actually going to be released?

The answer, it seems, is today. The MagSafe Duo just appeared on Apple’s own store and, with delivery estimates as soon as this week, it looks like they’re shipping them immediately.

TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino gave the charger a spin a few weeks ago, calling it “useful, but expensive and underwhelming” while noting that it feels like something that should cost around $70 rather than $129.

 

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