Inside Bruin Sports Capital - Part five: Working with Courtside Ventures and Soulsight

Bruin Sports Capital is the investment vehicle set up in 2015 by former Nascar and IMG executive George Pyne. In the fifth and final instalment of a series profiling the business and its portfolio companies, the heads of Bruin-backed Soulsight and Courtside Ventures discuss life working alongside Pyne.

by Michael Long
Inside Bruin Sports Capital - Part five: Working with Courtside Ventures and Soulsight

Throughout his career, George Pyne has been known as a builder of businesses.

An Ivy League alumnus who played football at Brown University, he developed his management chops at his family’s real estate company in New England before relocating to Atlanta, where he helped the city’s Chamber of Commerce overturn the fortunes of its Board of Education. Later, he secured a role at Portman Companies under the revered architect and commercial real estate mogul John Portman, for whom Pyne oversaw a US$2 billion debt restructuring, the second largest in the world at that time.

It was while working under Portman that Pyne experienced his first taste of sports business. Spotting an opportunity to commercialise some of Portman’s real estate around the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta, the young executive sold space for corporate hospitality and VIP parties featuring NFL players. That kernel of an idea spawned AMC Events, a division that would go on to manage and market sports properties, including Pyne’s next employer, Nascar.

Pyne joined the motorsport series in 1996, serving as head of licensing before rising to the position of chief operating officer in 2003. By 2006 he had jumped ship to IMG Sports & Entertainment, where, as president, he helped turn what was primarily a talent representation agency into a global sports media, marketing and entertainment behemoth.

George Pyne's Bruin Sports Capital became a Courtside Ventures partner in 2016 and purchased Soulsight in October 2018

Looking back, Pyne cites his experiences running Nascar and IMG as his greatest learning curves. Indeed, he doesn’t look too far from those organisations for inspiration - he points to Bill France and Roger Penske, two godfathers of stock-car racing, and the late Ted Forstmann, under whom he worked at IMG, as his standout influences. Pyne also likens his approach at Bruin Sports Capital to the model employed by Peter Chernin, the American chairman and chief executive of The Chernin Group (TCG), which operates and invests in businesses across media, entertainment and technology. “What Peter Chernin has done in entertainment,” he says, “we’re trying to do in sports.”

But at Bruin, which he conceived after leaving IMG in the summer of 2014, Pyne sees himself playing the role of business coach-cum-mentor more than straightforward investor. “We have a small team at Bruin but it’s really me and that CEO,” he says. “So we’re very entrepreneurial.”

He often speaks of creating a culture of excellence, of the importance of building trust and recognising that, in business, success comes through a mindset of dealing with “people, not robots”. His refusal to change any of the leadership teams at Bruin’s portfolio companies speaks to a man who places greater emphasis on empowering management and long-term growth than on the traditional private equity mindset of streamlining and flipping businesses for quick profit.

“I think it’s fun for them to create new things,” Pyne says. “It reenergises a management team, so I think it’s fun for the managers and it’s fun for us. We’re on the offence, and that’s what this is about. We’re not minding and grinding - we’re building.”

It is an approach that certainly sits well with the executives on whom Bruin makes its bets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, every one of Pyne’s business partners paints a picture of a caring, generous and accessible businessman; someone who would more readily join them on the frontline than pull the strings from a distance while demanding results. Weekly calls and monthly meetings are testament to that, but for many it is Bruin’s ability to act quickly and decisively, to stay nimble and take calculated risks, that is especially liberating.

“We were looking for someone who could be a catalyst to our growth but not a dominating force,” says George Argyros, the chief executive of Soulsight, a Chicago-based strategic brand design agency Bruin acquired in October. “We were looking for a group that would come in and understand that as a culture-forward company that Soulsight is, that it’s quite important not to detonate what has made us a very, very healthy company and quite successful in our own right.”

Argyros, an affable 50-something who speaks with an easy Midwestern drawl, says he “couldn’t be happier” with life under Bruin. “Truthfully,” he says, “we’d dreamed this scenario up without knowing it was something that even existed, as we do a lot of in the creative world.”

Having acquired Soulsight in 2015 through “a very friendly managerial acquisition” involving two other business partners, Argyros came to see Bruin as the ideal platform from which to take the company’s expertise in consumer packaged goods (CPG), where its USP has been to use design thinking as a business development tool, and apply it to sport.

“For us, this is a fantastic opportunity because our expertise in developing emotional connections between brands and consumers can be applied to both areas, and we can learn from both categories and apply them to each other,” he says.

“Our advantage is we have worked globally across every aisle and every category of consumer packaged goods and understand such a deep level of demographic and psychographic data. We can aggregate that through our system and our innovation process can help every category within the sports and entertainment field widen their appeal and connect to different types of consumers.”

Another Bruin portfolio company that continues to benefit from Pyne’s connections is Courtside Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm investing in sports, technology and media. The Detroit-based company has made 32 investments to date from its initial fund of US$35 million, including The Athletic, StockX, 100 Thieves, the Drone Racing League, Beam, FanAI, LiveLike VR and Religion of Sports.

“We’d be understating the value by just saying that George and Bruin has opened up doors for us,” says Deepen Parikh, a partner at Courtside. “I think, at the end of the day, sports is heavily a relationship business. We still are in an industry where, although there is a tremendous amount of innovation taking place, a lot of businesses are still reliant on, I don’t want to say permission, but the approval or buy-in from a lot of large parties - whether it’s a media company, a sports league, whatever the case may be. So relationships can never be understated.

“In the Bruin network, George aside, you have all the assets that they’ve been building. We have a very close relationship with Deltatre, who obviously understand the technology, OTT, media landscape very well, so we turn to them a lot of times in our diligence. We have Engine Shop that we are very closely aligned with in terms of the way they’re working with their clients, from brands to their initiatives in esports and gaming. And then you have a lot of the other assets that Bruin is looking at or has looked at, where there’s just a lot of synergies with what we do and what Courtside’s mission is.”

As for Pyne’s input and influence in particular, Parikh speaks in glowing terms. “I truthfully can’t think of a person who is more well-versed from not only a relationship standpoint, but having seen multiple cycles in the sports industry,” he says. “We’re talking about everything from live events and marketing and entertainment, all the way through more global business, understanding what a league in India might be interested in versus Europe versus the US. Those are all things that, truthfully, only come with experience so we heavily rely on George in a lot of those cases.”

Yet for all the credit directed towards its spearhead, Bruin is by no means a one-man enterprise. Alongside Pyne, Bruin’s other partners include former Allen & Company vice president Jeff Roth, the company’s financial, strategic and deal lead; ex-IMG College chief operating officer Tony Crispino, who oversees Bruin’s day-to-day operations; and David Abrutyn, another IMG recruit whose expertise lies in brand strategy and who is the long-time commercial agent of Russian ice hockey star Alex Ovechkin.

Each of those partners works closely with the executive teams of Bruin’s portfolio companies, assisting on key areas such as strategic planning, business development, mergers and acquisitions, financial management and recruitment.

Together, they comprise a formidable team, and for all that Bruin’s success to date has been down to a serendipitous blend of opportunism and strategic foresight, little about their approach will change if Pyne has things his way.

“I think success,” he says, “is building something great and, being a disruptor by heart, something that looks a lot different when you finish than when you started, that it wasn't kind of the same old, same old. A good ice cream shop doesn’t just sell vanilla ice cream.

“I’ve been so busy I haven't really thought about what stage of the game that we’re in. It’s evolving and we kind of just take it one day at a time. We have a lot of gasoline left in the tank so we’re going to keep charging pretty hard over time, continue to be opportunistic, and continue to look for things that we can build and grow with great leaders.”

Click to read the rest of our 'Inside Bruin Sports Capital' series: parts one, two, three, and fourThe full series can be found here.