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Measuring the Power of an Athlete’s Clout

Shawn Spieth and Kyle Nelson developed a way to find out which sports stars can best sell a brand.
By Tanya Rutledge |
Photography by Ben Garrett

Shawn Spieth and Kyle Nelson have both had their fair share of startup successes. But they never guessed that Shawn’s son’s prowess on the golf course would lead to their biggest out-of-the-gate business home run yet.

When golfer Jordan Spieth went pro and began preparing for his run on the PGA tour two-and-a-half years ago, his father, Shawn, made it his priority to help Jordan wade through endorsement offers. About the same time, Shawn Spieth sold his mobile app company, and his golfing buddy Nelson sold his sports marketing agency. In the background, social media had boomed and fast-become a powerful marketing tool for athletes.

“The stars aligned,” Shawn Spieth says. “We started asking ourselves if we could start a company around helping young athletes maximize their brand value. But then we realized it made sense to do this for the brands as well.”

After months of research, Nelson and the elder Spieth couldn’t find any other companies that had created a tool to measure athletes’ social media rankings in real-time. So they began transitioning their company, Dallas-based Stout Partners, from an agency model to focus on building a social media intelligence platform.

The partners hired a group of 20 programming contractors to build the platform based on proprietary algorithms built specifically for each sport. “We couldn’t believe that no one was measuring this,” Nelson says. “Brands were making decisions about who to sign just based on who they liked and who they thought was successful.”

“Athletes have become their own networks; they are producing their own content. This is opening the eyes of the brands.”

Kyle Nelson
Last March, Spieth and Nelson officially launched MVPindex at the South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin. The media/marketing and sports industries went wild, and high-profile brands such as Under Armour, SuperStroke, NASCAR, and Chip Gnassi Racing and their agencies signed on as subscribers or brand partners. USA Today, Bloomberg Sports, and STATS LLC also came on board as media partners. 

Just nine months later, MVPindex has 20 clients that pay a monthly fee—ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the level of data access—to tap into the platform’s real-time data. Spieth believes the number of clients could easily grow into the thousands.

MVPindex offers analytics that measure social media rankings—based on activity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and GooglePlus—for 20,000 athletes and 1,000 teams representing 35 different sports. 

Clients use the data to help determine which athletes have the most power to represent—and sell—their brands.

Spieth and Nelson would not disclose revenue. But, by the end of 2015, they expect to grow from their current stable of 15 employees (including contractors) to more than 40 in-house employees working from their office space above Dick’s Last Resort in Victory Park.

So far, funding has come strictly from family and friends, but the partners are working on bringing in their first round of formal investment with a strategic partner. The round, expected to come in at about $7.5 million, is scheduled to close in the first quarter of 2015.

Nelson believes the MVPindex model took off so quickly not only because it established itself as a crucial element within the $150 billion sports marketing industry, but also because it struck a chord within social media—a still-emerging realm that only now is realizing the level of power it has to influence consumers.

Nelson points out, for example, that while Nike has 2.5 million followers on Twitter, Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star LeBron James has 12 million followers. “Over the last five years, there has been a steady progression of people spending time socially interacting in different ways,” Nelson says. “Athletes have become their own networks; they are producing their own content. This is opening the eyes of the brands as they make decisions in choosing a brand ambassador.”

Jackson Jeyanayagam, senior vice president of digital strategy for Taylor, an MVPindex client that delivers digital solutions for brands that include Nike, Allstate, Capital One, and Procter & Gamble, says the industry was hungry for this sort of tool. He says MVPindex’s measurements have had a huge impact on the decision-making process for clients as they choose brand ambassadors, sometimes steering them to athletes that had not been on their radar screens.

“They are able to serve up something special and give us a context for the measurement, and a lot of times they come back with data and numbers that are different than what we thought,” Jeyanayagam says. “Before brands spend money on these athletes, it’s giving us the ability to do that with more research and data, so it’s not just a guess.”

The most impressive aspect of MVPindex is the potential for finding other uses for this type of data as social media continues to mature, Jeyanayagam says. “They are in a great position to take full advantage of that, especially given how they have already shown their adaptability.”

Nelson and Spieth acknowledge that MVPindex’s success is bound to breed copycat platforms. But they have an advantage, having carved out a head start. “We are doing what we’re doing, as fast as we can,” Spieth says. “Every day we wake up, we know somebody’s chasing us.”