Tennis star Serena Williams’ tech investment firm Serena Ventures, which launched its inaugural $111 million early-stage venture capital fund last month, is getting into sports sponsorships with a seven-figure investment in digital endorsement deals marketplace OpenSponsorship. Further financial details were not disclosed.
Brands including Walmart, Foot Locker and Levi’s have used OpenSponsorship to partner with athletes. The tech platform had facilitated more than 10,000 deals across 400 brands worth $5 million in top-line revenue through 2021 and currently has more than 12,000 athletes in its marketplace, many of whom are the “non-top 1% of athletes” in terms of earnings, founder and CEO Ishveen Jolly said.
Williams is a longtime angel investor, and her firm already has a portfolio of 60-plus companies including Masterclass, Billie and Daily Harvest. Her new fund was established with a particular focus on diversity—76% of founders in the Serena Ventures portfolio come from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Women comprise 53%, and 47% are black, compared to the 2% and 1.2% of venture funding typically received by female and black founders, respectively. Latino founders make up 12% of founders in the portfolio.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion is one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world—sitting at No. 2 on Sportico’s list behind fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka—with a robust portfolio of endorsement deals that accounted for $34 million in earnings in 2021. (Osaka and Williams are both also among the top 100 highest-paid athletes regardless of gender, though they are the only women to crack the list).
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“Sometimes you feel like there’s a tendency that the top athletes might not ‘get it,’ because sponsorships aren’t a problem for them,” Jolly said in a phone interview. “They have agents and a team that’s focused on them so much. But Serena did understand it, especially for college and female athletes, where there isn’t as much opportunity. Just because she gets [opportunities] doesn’t mean everyone else has the same access to sponsorship dollars.”
Serena Ventures joins David Blitzer (co-owner of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and Premier League football team Crystal Palace, among other sports properties), Alex Killorn of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Eric Stern (son of late NBA commissioner David Stern) and others in Open Sponsorship’s latest funding round. In addition to the company’s seed round, Jolly said Open Sponsorship has raised around $5 million to date.
“Brand sponsorship is vital to an athlete’s career and Open Sponsorship is giving them more control and ownership over that process,” Williams said in a statement. “But this is also something that businesses will benefit from. I love the fact that this platform puts supporting athletes at the core of its business.”
Open Sponsorship said it plans to use the funding to continue expanding the athletes it reaches across the globe, with an emphasis on expanding its tech platform in the U.K. (Jolly is British, and points to an increasing number of trans-Atlantic ties in sports like soccer).
About 70% of the athletes on its platform are American, Jolly said, with name, image and likeness (NIL) in NCAA athletics only increasing its U.S. deal flow. But she sees an opportunity for growing the business with the 30% of its athletes who are international.
“London, in particular, is a great hub, because you get a lot of international people passing through,” Jolly said. “So even though it’ll be in the U.K., it feels more international than just the U.K.”