How an Ex-Linebacker Is Trying to Reinvent Social Media for Athletes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s changing how your favorite athletes operate online.
In March 2013, Prince Amukamara was in Lincoln, Nebraska, relaxing in the city he starred in as an All-American cornerback, before winning a Super Bowl title and becoming an integral piece of the New York Giants. He was meeting with Blake Lawrence, a former linebacker and college teammate at Nebraska who had been consulting for Amukamara’s social media activity.
On this day, Lawrence had a new feature to show Amukamara: a widget to get paid.
Amukamara was making $1,000 per sponsored tweet at the time. But Lawrence plunked down a mere $10 for Amukamara to promote his new company, Opendorse, which connects athletes with social media sponsors.
With that, Amukamara pocketed his Hamilton and changed Lawrence’s life — and athlete social networking — forever.
The 30-year-old Lawrence’s journey to Opendorse started in Overland Park, Kansas, where he was ranked the No. 19 linebacker in the country for his high school class (NFL star Von Miller came in at No. 17). But concussions derailed his college career; Lawrence turned in his pads after suffering his fourth during his junior season.
Even before the concussions, Lawrence saw academics as his backup to the NFL. He got his bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, then went on to an MBA in strategic marketing while he and roommate Adi Kunalic started their first social media marketing agency, Hurrdat, catering to local businesses. At the time, Kunalic was still playing for the Cornhuskers. Luckily, then head coach Bo Pelini understood the duo’s entrepreneurial spirit and looked the other way when they had business meetings on the practice field. “Adi’s a kicker. It’s not like he was doing anything,” Lawrence cracks.
One of the players on that field was Will Compton, now an NFL linebacker in his seventh season. “He was always the smartest guy in the room,” Compton says of Lawrence. “And he’s got this outgoing personality to which he’s just shameless of what people think of him.”
While Hurrdat grew, so did the profile of Lawrence’s and Kunalic’s friends — particularly Amukamara. “As an athlete, it felt like he had superpowers,” Lawrence says of the engagement on his friend’s posts. “But getting him to use those powers, getting him to post, was damn near impossible. So we built Opendorse.”
Amukamara’s fateful 2013 tweet traveled on to fellow players represented by Creative Artists Agency and the NFL Players Association, which became the first major sports property to partner with Opendorse.
We want to be in the athlete’s pocket from high school to the Hall of Fame.
Sam Weber, marketing director, Opendorse
At first, Opendorse found success as a middleman. Advertising brands could connect with athletes through the platform, with Lawrence’s team doing the heavy lifting of generating paid content. The athletes’ job was — and still is — simply to review the post, and tap a green (send) or red (decline) button on Opendorse’s interface.
As the Opendorse client list has expanded — including the NHL and PGA Tour — the platform has evolved. For the past year and a half, Opendorse has allowed brands and properties to push content directly to athletes. If Nebraska Athletics wants to set Amukamara up with a tweet featuring his best moment as a Husker, it can do so through Opendorse, and he can just tap the green button. Twitter still forms the bulk of their work, but Lawrence says Instagram is fast catching up.
Today, Opendorse is used by more than 10,000 athletes, including golfer Tiger Woods, the NFL’s Odell Beckham Jr., women’s soccer star Julie Ertz and retired baseball star David Ortiz. Some have cracked $100,000 in earnings on the platform, and the take is growing: Athletes who joined in 2018 earned an average of $142 per month; athletes who joined in 2019 earned $577 per month.
Clients range from 79-year-old soccer legend Pelé to collegians and high schoolers. Lawrence won approval from the NCAA, surpassing its rigid guidelines to allow student-athletes to get social media content from their schools, which he calls “one of my proudest accomplishments.” (Opendorse clients include Michigan, Clemson, Oklahoma and the University of Southern California.) Student-athletes still can’t make money from the platform, though that could soon change with the NCAA considering whether to allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.
“We want to be in the athlete’s pocket from high school to the Hall of Fame,” says Opendorse marketing director Sam Weber, who started working at Hurrdat in 2012.
Compton, who now plays for the Raiders, not only uses the platform for his own social accounts but also to promote his podcast, Bussin’ With the Boys. “It’s not like athletes want to create their own [content] all the time. Yeah, we’re self-absorbed to a point,” he says with a laugh, “but we don’t want to continue to find our own content, make it, push it. We love when people make content for us.”
Indeed, Opendorse finds itself in an increasingly crowded business. Competitors like INFLCR, Maxletics, Athlete Interactive and Greenfly have arisen in recent years. And while Opendorse wants to shake itself from being deemed a middleman, it’s still an extra expense for athletes and brands. Sports agencies — including CAA, which helped Opendorse get started — continue to bulk up their own in-house social media teams.
Now with 40 employees and aiming for $10 million in revenue this year, Opendorse has an office in New York and one coming soon in Denver, while maintaining its home base in Lincoln — even if it has grown out of pitching clients at a Chinese buffet restaurant there. Lawrence spends most of his time in New York but at least one week a month back in Nebraska. The heartland vibe is critical to the company’s DNA; Lawrence says one employee takes his laptop onto a tractor when he has to help with the family farm.
As for what’s next, Lawrence plans on continuing to expand Opendorse’s partner network while setting the company up to work with the hundreds of thousands of collegiate and high school athletes who may be able to monetize their personal brands in the near future.
Not bad considering it all started with a $10 tweet.