Matilda Sung has established herself in a male-dominated world in a series of bold yet graceful plays. She’s confidently invested $500,000 to $1 million into companies in the interconnected universes of sports media, sports betting, entertainment, and technology. However, she’s also looking at the long game of these industries, not only ensuring they are on strong financial footing, but that they will also become more diverse with more women and people of color joining their ranks.
Sung may be under 40, but she brings over 15 years of management experience to her day-to-day mission helping companies strategize, conceptualize, develop, and deliver on digital products, services, and experiences. The Ludis Capital co-founder and general partner describes herself as a “hands-on/early-stage investor” focusing on companies demonstrating superior growth and potential for impact to business, economy, and society. During her rookie years after graduation, Sung joined the investment banking track of an international bank as the only woman in her cohort of new hires. After earning her MBA, she did stints with an all-star lineup of financial and tech companies like PayPal and HSBC Investment Banking.
Today, Sung is an active mentor and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs and budding MBA graduates. She also sits on a number of startup advisory boards and is a stalwart investor with various private HNW investor groups, including the Tech Coast Angels Group in Los Angeles. She’s a regular presence as a judge and speaker at various industry events, sharing her expertise on topics like startup development and fundraising, strategy planning, web3 and crypto, and numerous sports tech specific subjects, including over-the-top (OTT) platforms, gaming and betting, and connected health and fitness.
Simply put, calling her an MVP in this burgeoning space barely scratches the surface. In this conversation, we’re starting with her accomplishments in her work with the NFL’s social media efforts and the changing landscape of sports betting. From there, the field is wide open. Christopher Yang, who serves with Sung on the executive board of Tech Coast Angels–Los Angeles (one of the largest, most active angel investment networks in the U.S.), sat down with her to discuss her career, play by play.
ALTHOUGH HOLDING POSTS AT HSBC, MCKINSEY, AND PAYPAL BEFORE AGE 40
IS A GREAT ACCOMPLISHMENT ON ITS OWN, YOU MADE YOUR NAME AS THE
PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THE NFL’S ENTIRE DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER EXPERIENCE.
WERE YOU ALWAYS DRAWN TO THE SPORTS WORLD?
I didn’t think I was going to end up working in sports, or end up back in finance and venture after years of focusing on investment banking. I was a typical consultant, on the road four days a week, sometimes five, maybe home for the weekends, or leave on a Sunday. I loved it. I had such a wonderful time working with companies in different sectors, including manufacturing, financial services, pharma, and you name it. My purpose was helping them think through their strategic objectives in the context of technology and digital.
After I had my first child, however, it was a challenge to transition to being a new mom while maintaining that management-consultant lifestyle. One of my clients actually said, “Hey, why don’t you talk to the NFL in L.A.? They’re actually looking to build out their digital strategy group.” I thought, “I’m a fan, but I’ve never worked for a sporting organization before.” As you can imagine, my friends and my husband insisted I go talk to them. I went in and had a conversation with David Jurenka, who was brought in to basically run their owned and operated entity, and from there, I went to work for the NFL.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF PLANNING FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THESE
DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER GOALS AND OBJECTIVES?
As all of the NFL is direct-to-consumer channels, I needed to really think through how we could position them in the beginning. But in my initial conversation with David and the slate of folks I met, I just really hit it off with everybody. I was thoroughly impressed with how they were thinking about the world, the sport, and the opportunities and threats that they were facing. I wasn’t expecting that in full honesty. They have been tracking and monitoring a number of trends that needed to be addressed. For example, people weren’t necessarily going to in person games as often as they used to. People weren’t re-upping their season tickets, the new generation of fans just weren’t consuming the same way. A good number of them didn’t have TVs, and if they did, they didn’t have cable. We had to consider repositioning the NFL in such a way that we can cater to this next generation of fans.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT IN THE INTERSECTION OF SPORTS, TECHNOLOGY,
AND ENTERTAINMENT THAT YOU FOUND MOST INTRIGUING?
In this role, I was in the sweet spot of being able to sit at the cross-section of some of the world’s most valuable content as well as a host of really fun, interesting technologies that allow consumers and fans to watch more easily and engage with what’s going on. During this time, the impact of this intersection came to me like an “aha!” moment. It is technology that is not just disrupting football or the NFL, but also the possibility to disrupt sports in a big, meaningful way. When I was at McKinsey, I had a front-row seat to seeing different industries, manufacturing, financial services, and pharma get disrupted. I learned that sports is no different. It became apparent to me that there are all these different parts of the sports fan journey that could be disrupted by technology and that can be improved with additional technology investments.
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF OTHER SPORTS THAT HAVE CHANGED
THEIR APPROACH TO REACHING FANS IN THE WAKE OF NEW INNOVATIONS
LIKE STREAMING TECHNOLOGY?
One of the examples we talk often about is Major League Baseball (MLB) and BAM streaming technology. I don’t know if readers remember when MLB stripped out Bamtech, its tech arm, about 20 years ago, and each of the MLB teams committed a million dollars to this. They built the streaming technologies really just to power baseball on OTT devices for fans. This, in turn, started an entertainment startup parent powering some of the shows for Hulu and Disney. You may recall that a year or two ago, it was all over the news that Disney ended up buying out the remaining portion of their ownership of BAM tickets.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN YOUR APPROACH TO SPORTS TECH, AND WHAT SETS YOUR COMPANY
APART FROM OTHER VENTURE CAPITAL FIRMS IN THE SAME VERTICAL?
Here is the broad way I would explain our approach to somebody who isn’t necessarily involved with sports tech. We typically look at things at a very high level, at the intersection of sports technology and media and human. At the macro level, we believe in investing in technologies, mostly software, some hardware, that serve to drive growth, expand the consumption and delight around sports and entertainment. People think sports tech is small, but actually it covers a wide area. It could be at the professional level or the amateur level, junior level and the youth sports or teams as well. We look at everything from broadcast technologies to data analytics for our sporting leagues, and athletes to health and fitness applications, to sports betting to fantasy and gaming.
WHAT SIZE COMPANY DO YOU USUALLY INVEST IN?
As far as sort of the criteria and what we look for, there’s sort of a few principles that our team goes by that have guided us over the last several years and going forward as well. These principles are made up of observations that we have had in our respective careers, either as sports execs, former or current athletes, founders of gyms, and financiers. Everybody in our network has come together to sort of pull these ideas into one place. And one thing we observed was the fact that the sports industry is actually grossly under monetized.
THERE’S TALK OF A RECESSION LOOMING AHEAD. HOW HAS THAT IMPACTED
YOUR INVESTMENT APPROACH, PARTICULARLY IN THE SHORT TERM?
We’re actually in the middle of a market correction. When we cranked up our numbers again recently, we noticed the gap had closed. When you’ve got Netflix, for example, losing a good chunk of its market cap, the numbers have closed. With our business on the other side, what’s much more telling is the fact that the sporting leagues, the NFL, for example, renegotiated a number of their contracts in 2020. They’re looking at a valuation of the league and the clubs at north of $100 billion.
When you do the math, it works out to about $250 per fan, which is five times what it was before they had those renegotiations and revaluation of the teams. What has driven up that revaluation is the ability to prove that the more they can connect to more fans, they can drive more engagement, which is driven by that technology. Our second principle is around this idea that sports is really a place where you can test some of the latest and greatest technologies.
WHERE DO YOU SEE ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENT IN SPORTS AND GAMING GOING?
I think on the entrepreneurial side, we’re going to see healthy growth and new entrants coming in. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, and not just folks who were former athletes or those who earned their sports business degree. There are folks who are data scientists, PhDs, and other fields. This is what’s most exciting—attracting people, entrepreneurship, ideas, and innovation from people who aren’t necessarily from the sport space.
The other thing that I’m really excited about is sort of this growing level of access for not just sports tech, but for venture-like alternative investments. There’s been a growing awareness and education in the space. For us, there’s a lot of tier-one athletes who are getting into the space. However, what I think we’re excited about is some of the tier-two or tier-three college or high school getting more financially literate and getting excited about alternative investments at large.
WHAT ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE INVESTOR SIDE?
I see a parallel, similar type of growth. In terms of diversifying the investor base, I think we’ve seen a lot of that for sports tech, as it’s a lot of high-net-worth, small, medium, large family office-type setups. But we’re increasingly seeing more interest from institutional side investors. In the last couple years, when it got time to look more carefully at a company that we might invest in, we’d ask the owner who else is being considered or who else is on the capital table. We were surprised to see some of those other names.
WHERE DO NEWER TRENDS SUCH AS BLOCK CHAINS AND NFTS COME INTO THIS?
There’s so many exciting things you can do when it comes to fan engagement with blockchain, above and beyond NFTs or tokens, and we’re pretty excited about that. When we talk to our athletes as well as our fans, there’s this idea that data is something that one can own. There’s a startup we’re talking to right now that’s looking to basically mobilize data for the athletes and have them have ownership over it. Consider this: You’re a tier-one athlete, you perform on a certain level, and you have a history of how you got to where you are. That data can be used for so many things, above and beyond field performance, and into the mass market. We’re looking to build up their athleticism on many fronts.
HOW DO WE PACKAGE DEALS IN A WAY THAT ALLOWS ATHLETES TO MONETIZE?
There are a host of issues we need to figure out, like ethics, data breaches, all that kind of stuff. But once you figure that out, you need to be sure every athlete owns our data. But the fans’ data is also important. For example, the data tracked shows I go to this many Rams games, and that I’m the biggest consumer in my household. They know I buy milk and yogurt every month. There are many interesting things in the data space that can benefit the athletes and their fans, but we’re probably not there yet. However, we’re starting to scratch the surface.
Matilda Sung is a General Partner at Ludis Capital, an investment management firm that invests in early stage companies operating at the intersection of sports, technology and media & entertainment.