Sean Foley

Austin Sports & Entertainment

Thank you so much for sitting down with us today, we are really excited to be having this conversation. Would you mind starting out by telling us about your time at the University of Texas?

No problem! Eddie Reese, the greatest collegiate coach regardless of sport in the world, recruited me to swim at the University of Texas and while there I had the honor to be a part of an era of Texas athletics that was probably the greatest era in Texas history. During my time on campus, my swim teams won three national championships, baseball won one national championship, golf won once, and football won with Vince Young just a little bit after we left. We were on the cover of the Sports Illustrated back in 2002 as the best athletic department in the country and it really was a defining era for University of Texas Sports.

 

Wow, what an incredible time to have been a student-athlete at UT. Since then you have had an amazing career in the world of sports. Could tell us about how you got started and how your career has progressed?

I originally got into the sports business through a college friend of mine that was playing in the NBA, Chris Mihm. I badgered his agent my whole senior year and he ultimately introduced me to Michael Phelps's agent. They [Octagon] offered me an unpaid internship and off I went.

As an agent in Olympic sports, you need to be entrepreneurial.   Negotiating sponsorship deals on behalf of athletes is a significant component of the role, but as Olympians are not members, per say, of a league or team, you have to be more creative. While at Octagon I created a series of Michael Phelps swim camps, designed a traveling swim camp called Swim with the Stars and produced a documentary on Phelps and swimming. My boss at the time, Peter Carlisle, gave me the opportunity to create a bunch of little businesses inside of our agency. But there was a point that I felt I had tapped-out my opportunities at Octagon, so I decided to come back down to Austin and get my MBA.

When back to Austin, I called Lance Armstrong’s agent Bill Stapleton, who was also a former swimmer at Texas. I said “I just finished had four years with Phelps so there has got to be something I can do for you and Armstrong,” and he hired me part-time for two years while I got my MBA.  That was when the Livestrong brand was being commercialized and licensed, so I worked on a lot of licensing deals for Livestrong but also helped with the spinoff of C3 Presents from Capital Sports & Entertainment. A lot of people do not know that back in 2000, they started the Austin City Limits festival. Of course, it has evolved into this bigger and bigger thing, but the initial spinoff was something I spent a lot of time working on. To see that juggernaut grow as much as it has grown has been really interesting to watch. Now it is fully owned by Live Nation.

From there I started working for Raptor Capital Management.   At Raptor, there were about a half-dozen investment deals that I was really active in. I also served as the Head of Global Media for AS Roma.  On the investment side, we invested in Spartan Race and I produced a deal with NBC on their behalf. We worked a lot with a company called Eversport, which bought or rev-shared long-tail live sports media rights. They did not have events like the Final Four or the Superbowl but were major players in niche international sports like cricket in Japan and other unique markets.  I was also heavily involved with a company called Bedrocket, which was started by a serial sports media entrepreneur named Brian Bedol.

Brian started Classic Sports Network back in the early ‘90s and gobbled up all types of historic rights to matches and games. He then sold that company to ESPN who re-branded it as ESPN Classic. He then started a college sports network by cobbling together sports media rights in the different conferences, which became CBS College Sports. Most recently he moved into digital.

 

All of those experiences sound incredible and I am sure that you learned so much along the way. So now that we know your history, let’s talk about what you are up to now. You recently co-founded Austin Sports & Entertainment and are moving forward on some really cool projects, such as The East Austin District. What inspired you to start your own firm and how did you get connected with your new partner?

Andrew Nestor and I had been passively been throwing around the idea of having a professional soccer team in Austin and we had a bunch of synergies. He had started a professional team in Tampa Bay from scratch and led the acquisition of the Italian club Bologna F.C., and I had my Roma experience, and we were able to connect.

I told Andrew the strategy surrounding the expo center and rodeo, and early on in that process, we realized that with or without pro soccer, the Travis County Expo Center needs to be redone. The community deserves it and that specific area needs it. Services for this community as a whole need to be improved and projects like ours can help.  Outside of the East Austin District, we are also have an advisory business for a few sports media companies. 

 

It seems like you and Andrew are a great fit and the projects you guys are working on are super exciting. The East Austin District, which is proposed to be developed at the current site of Rodeo Austin, seems like a game changer. Why did you choose that site and how do you feel your development could impact the area?

The Rodeo is part of the fabric of Austin. It has been since the early parts of the 1900s. The current building has been there since 1983, and the rodeo organization, which not a lot of people know, is one of the most robust providers of scholarships to in-need young people in the Austin community. They were able to provide $2m in scholarships in 2017 and the Rodeo is a tradition that needs the same attention and TLC that Austin is giving elsewhere.

From a historical standpoint, we need to preserve our institutions as people from out of state continue to move here. Through the telephone game of life, Austin is considered ‘cool,’ but it is cool for all these historically relevant reasons that are being diminished as people continue to move here. That is pushing out what has historically made Austin interesting, what has made Austin entrepreneurial, what has inspired the ‘cool’ culture and what created the identity that is driving all of these new people here. But as this happens, what does Austin become? 

The Rodeo is a true Austin institution. People have muscle memory going out there from when they were children. Back in the day, it was far away, seven miles outside of the city center. But now it is an area that has recently seen $900mm in recent infrastructure/highway investments, is accessible from 290 to the north, 183 and toll road 130. You can also get there going down MLK. If you talk about big sports and entertainment complexes, and you talk about doing it here, the growth pattern of the city is that direction.  The only natural direction for this city to grow is east, not only considering the people moving in from out of state but contemplating those who have been here.  This project could help support general growth in the area through investment, housing, and jobs.

 

It seems like a super cool project that could really improve the area. You have worked all around the world, but somehow you keep coming back to Austin. Why do you like to call Austin home?

Austin is a great place to be an entrepreneur.  It is funny having gone back and forth living in different places over 20 years, as I have really been able to see how things have evolved. Five years ago there were dreams of becoming a big city, and today it is comfortable taking that step. You see this kind-of non-stop growth and people say that the city can’t grow anymore, but it can. It now has the ability to embrace all of the different components that a big city needs to embrace. 

 

That makes sense to me. In addition to your work on ASE, you recently founded and serve as the CEO of Nine Banded Whiskey. Given that you did not have any experience in the liquor business, what was your inspiration for founding the company?

Sports, media, entertainment, and consumer packaged goods are all the same business from fan and customer POV. There is a void for a whiskey that culturally connects with the community, and though there are other spirits here, we want to be the local alternative to national brands. We are not pretentious and we want you to drink it on the rocks, neat if you want it neat, mixed if you want mixed.

 

That makes sense and it seems like Nine Banded is really gaining some serious traction. As you know, FINRES is an organization that is centered on young people and many of our members are just starting out their careers. If you had any advice for someone just starting out, what would it be? Are there things you learned in the pool that have applied to your career?

The pool piece is easy. That just comes down to waking up at 5:30 am every day and realizing that excuses don’t matter. If you don’t show up, everyone else is showing up. That is ultimately what swimming has taught me. Showing up is 80% of the battle. Everybody has an excuse for not showing up somewhere.

In terms of advice try to develop meaningful relationships with people where you care about them and they care about you. I am a big fan of having friends and family introduce you to people because the world is the world and it is all about connections. And I don’t mean trolling LinkedIn all night, I mean real connections. The earlier in your career that you can start to create real connections with people, the fewer obstacles that will be in your way.