Meridith Unger delivers her startup's elevator pitch at least 10 times each week. She usually gets filled with excitement in the minutes before she gets up to explain Nix, her wearable hydration tracker company, but as she sat reciting her lines to herself in a hotel meeting room in Houston Wednesday morning, things were a bit different. Unger was as nervous as she was excited.

"I've never presented to a room full of athletes or retired athletes before," she said. "It was a balance in adjusting our pitch to make sure it was interesting and exciting for the investors but also something that was really going to intrigue the athletes."

Unger was the first entrepreneur to pitch the OneTeam Collective, a new effort launched in December by the NFL Players Association and various venture capital firms. The OneTeam Collective is intended to connect up-and-coming entrepreneurs and startups with business-savvy active and former NFL players.

"What does the retention look like over a period of time for some of your use cases?" Russell Okung, NFLPA player representative and offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos, asked Unger about her product.

"That's a great question and one that none of us will know until we start beta testing," Unger replied before diving into the details of her device.

Though the NFLPA has been around since the 1950s and has experience working with the likes of Nike and Electronic Arts, working with young startups is a new and relatively uncharted territory for the union.

Over the past few years, the venture-backed startup market has exploded, and more and more players have started investing their own NFL fortunes on these kinds of businesses. The OneTeam Collective pitch day, held in Houston during Super Bowl week festivities, is an answer to that. For the NFLPA, the OneTeam Collective is a formal way for it to engage with startups in a manner that can benefit both its players and entrepreneurs.

"Our business has done very well, but we wanted to push the boundaries," said Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc., the for-profit licensing and marketing subsidiary of the NFLPA. "What are the new frontiers?"

Aside from Nix, the event featured pitches from local sports news site The Athletic; Whoop, a wearable and data analytics startup; ActionStreamer, a first-person video streaming service; and PureCarbon, a Bay Area wearables startup. The event was attended by several active and retired NFL players. Hosting the pitch day was Eddie George, a retired NFL running back who now dabbles in anything from film and broadway to wealth management and investing.

"You've got to take this opportunity, your football platform, and build," George said to his fellow players at the pitch day.

The players union has never done anything like this before, and that showed from time to time at the pitch event. At one point, for example, one of the entrepreneurs pitching was not sure if the OneTeam Collective would be picking a winner or if there were any prizes or rewards involved with the pitch day when asked by this reporter. There were no winners, but participating companies hoped for benefits ranging from pro athlete endorsements and NFLPA licensing rights to monetary investments or partnerships that can leverage the NFLPA's marketing prowess.

Despite the union's inexperience in entrepreneurship, the NFLPA has nonetheless lined up a who's who of partners for the launch of the OneTeam Collective. It includes venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins, BlackRock, Madrona Venture Group and others. Also present were Intel and Amazon as well as the Harvard Innovation Lab. Through the OneTeam Collective, entrepreneurs can get access to an array of investors, academics, corporations and athletes, said KPCB Partner Rouz Jazayeri.

"When you put us all in the same room, these are relationships that I can make in one day and good partnerships that I can build that will be long-lasting just from this one event," he said.

The group has its origins in a meeting that took place last year during the lead-up to Super Bowl 50 in Silicon Valley. Jazayeri was meeting with NFLPA President Eric Winston and Nassar. What was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting at Jazayeri's KPCB office in Menlo Park turned into a three-hour brainstorm for what would become the OneTeam Collective, Jazayeri said.

"It was centered around how can the NFLPA do better business with startups," Jazayeri said.

Expanding on these kinds of business opportunities and partnerships in an effort to increase revenue has been a high priority during the tenures of NFLPA CEO DeMaurice Smith and Winston, who was voted into his role in 2014 and re-elected last year.

"Historically, guys come to pay in the NFL, they get paid and they're on their way," Okung said. "The shift we're seeing now is ... people are using this platform to create businesses to further their opportunities, further their lifestyles and do things with real longevity."

The NFLPA plans to hold more of these pitch events throughout the year in various parts of the country; the next event will be held at Harvard on Feb. 16, with a second pitch day to come sometime in May in Los Angeles. The union is encouraging startups that are interested in working with them to reach out.

It's not quite the first time the NFLPA has explored this type of partnership. In 2015, the union teamed up with actress Alyssa Milano to license player's names, numbers and autographs for her Touch fashion brand, which caters to women. Rather than taking the tired 'Pink it and shrink it' approach, Milano created products specifically for female fans.

"In that context, the players are benefiting not because they use the product but because they're generating revenue based on product sales," Nassar said.

Aside from creating more business opportunities, the NFLPA is also hoping the OneTeam Collective can create a channel where NFL players who are interested in working with startups can get their footing before diving into the risky world of business. As many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists know, there are thousands of failed startups for every Facebook. Though there is much to be gained, players also stand to lose quite a bit. This issue remains particularly top of mind for NFL players after seeing one of their own recently exploited.

In November, Inc. reported that retired NFL superstar Patrick Willis was suing his former business partner, alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Willis is seeking at least $3 million in disputed real estate damages, but Willis's attorney anticipate that additional damages sought at trial will be significantly more.

"It's about making sure I understand what I'm getting into," said Kelvin Beachum, offensive lineman and NFLPA representative for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "For me it's how do I limit the mistakes? How do I limit the risk and create the highest yield?"

It'll never be possible for NFL players to invest without risk, but through the OneTeam Collective, the NFLPA is hoping to find better, more efficient avenues to bring athletes and entrepreneurs together.

"It's always exciting when we invest into a company, but if we have any sort of failure, it's magnified. As an investor, you're required to do a high level of diligence no matter what happens," Okung said. "The onus falls on you."

Published on: Feb 3, 2017