TMR Q&A: Jeffrey Pollack Talks Sports Startups and the Path to Business Success of Ones Basketball League

In mid July, Ones Basketball League, the brainchild of Basketball Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady, will bring together 22 athletes who won regional competitions to see who may be the best one-on-one player in the country. McGrady, who came up with the concept and self-funded what has been called a bit of a “Beta” or “Popup” season, has been given great credit for seeing an opportunity that existed as a bit of blue ocean in a crowded basketball space, and has literally run with it to great buzz and recognition since launching the prototype in March.

One other thing the perennial All-Star has been given Kudos for is bringing in a senior leadership team, as well as some key media partners, to help refine and flesh out OBL from every aspect in this first season. One of those people helping mold the business side of OBL is Jeffrey Pollack.

For the few who may not know, Pollack is a longtime sports business executive and Emmy Award winner with more than 25 years of leadership experience driving change, growth and innovation for a range of public and private ventures, including a few startups, in sports.

Most recently, he served as President and CEO of the XFL, where he joined the league in 2019 as President & COO to lead all strategic planning and business operations, reporting directly to Chair & Founder Vince McMahon. Under Pollack’s leadership, the XFL launched in 2020 to critical acclaim and proved Spring football is viable in the U.S. Following the XFL’s shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he led the organization through an orderly bankruptcy process and successful sale and transition to a new ownership group featuring Redbird Capital, Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia. Immediately prior to his leadership role at the XFL he was Special Advisor and Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer for the NFL Los Angeles Chargers and served as Executive Chair of the Professional Bull Riders, and President & Commissioner of the World Series of Poker, which, during his tenure, shattered all previous attendance records, became a worldwide sports and entertainment phenomenon, and crossed the $1 billion mark in total prize money awarded.

Earlier in his career, he was the Managing Director, Broadcasting & New Media for NASCAR and served as VP, Marketing & Corporate Communications for the National Basketball Association, as well as a Strategic Advisor to the late-great NBA Commissioner David Stern.

With all that experience in the OBL clubhouse, we thought we would ask Pollack not just about this latest venture, but about the sports startup space in general.

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Team Marketing Report: What are the elements you see, especially in sports, that are essential to startup success?
Pollack OBL

Jeffrey Pollack: I have a time-tested framework for startup success in sports and it boils down to four key ingredients. First, you need to be confident there is a deep market for both player talent and potential fandom. Second, the product — your form of competition, the soul of your game — must resonate with the market and have meaning for both participants and the audience. Third, the participants and the audience need to connect directly and authentically to one another. And, finally, the entire operation needs to be a learning organization that is patient and nimble and promotes a culture fueled by passion.

TMR: What’s the biggest mistake startup leagues or brands make when getting into the sports business?

JP: The greatest pitfall is underestimating the time and patience required to meaningfully breakthrough and establish your brand as one worthy of athlete, fan, and industry consideration. When I was leading XFL 2.0 I often said that, if we finished our first season, the general reaction would be, okay, show us you can complete two seasons. Then, if we finished two, we’d hear, okay let’s see three. If we got to three, the conversations and perceptions would start to shift in our favor and our standing would grow beyond cautious curiosity. It takes at least three to four years of steady performance, growth and, frankly, continuous existence, to really gain acceptance as a contender.

TMR: You’ve worked on some very successful startups in your career, what drew you to OBL?
McGrady & Pollack take in OBL’s DMV event @coachE_Calhoun

JP: Tracy McGrady drew me into the OBL. It was clear from our first conversation and meeting that we share a mindset and personal wiring. He’s totally present, authentic, heartfelt, and fearless. Tracy is a fierce competitor, driven by passion and a deep personal desire to create new opportunities for deserving athletes who — for a variety of legitimate reasons — have not had their moments in the spotlight. All of this together made it easy for me to sign on and be helpful and supportive to Tracy.

TMR: How is someone like Tracy McGrady different from other “athlete entrepreneurs” out there today?

JP: Tracy embodies a text-book definition of entrepreneurship. He has a sense of urgency, bias towards action, commitment to learning, and laser-like focus on bringing the OBL vision to life. He’s a bit of a crusader driven to make the world better, and he understands that the business opportunity extends a bit beyond the resources currently at our disposal. That is changing and, through the OBL’s success, I know Tracy will further establish himself as a gifted and talented entrepreneur and sports industry leader. I can’t speak to how he compares to others: I just know that Tracy has the right stuff.

TMR: From a business perspective, where do you see OBL having its best chance of breaking through the clutter we see in emerging sports today?

JP: OBL is tailor-made for Gen Z. Our games are short and snackable (only 10 minutes each). The players are gladiators and social media influencers with big personalities and compelling stories to tell. And we are shining a bright light on the very essence of basketball — a truly global game with no limit to growth. OBL is a pop-up sports league that’s creating an entirely new system for a new generation of athletes and fans. We’re “The American Idol of Sports” remixed for the future of sports, and the early data from our proof-of-concept season suggests we’re on to something special that can punch through sameness and clutter.

TMR: Lastly, who or what are some of the companies, league or teams that have impressed you with the grit needed first to get through the pandemic and then through the challenges of tougher financial times?

JP: The NWSL has impressed me with their ability to push through crisis and challenge with impact and aplomb. Angel City FC represents a new world order in sports, and it is exciting to see their rise, watch their story and success begin to unfold, and know the best is yet to come.