The postcard-worthy setting of the California Golf Club of San Francisco provides the idyllic backdrop as Jason Kidd, recently inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, explains his first tech investment.
"My passion is golf, and I want to get better," says Kidd of 18Birdies, maker of the fastest-growing mobile app for golfers, with more than 1 million users. "Am I'm interested in what tech is up to, especially in this area [San Francisco Bay Area]."
For Kidd, like a growing number of other retired and current professional athletes, the appeal of making a bet on tech is proving to be irresistible. He cites the two-time defending National Basketball Association champion Golden State Warriors, whose players are dabbling in tech startups while lending star brand-recognition to those companies. The team's proximity to Silicon Valley and ties to co-owner Joe Lacob, a partner at venture-capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, make it a magnet for tech executives such as Salesforce.com (CRM) Chief Executive Marc Benioff and Apple's (AAPL) Eddy Cue who are fixtures at home games.
"The Warriors have time to spend time with companies [in Silicon Valley], and they provide those companies exposure on a national stage," Kidd tells Barron's. "It's like a free commercial for the companies."
During a 19-year career in the NBA that included 10 All-Star appearances, two Olympic gold medals, and a championship with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, Kidd had plenty of chances to put his money into outside ventures. But he largely played it safe, reluctant to chase opportunities with minimal financial upside.
And, as Warriors' Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala have told me, putting money into tech sure beats investing in high-risk ventures such as restaurants, bars, and music projects.
This seems to be the prevailing trend in professional sports. Assisted by well-connected venture capitalists such as Ron Conway and Ben Horowitz, and an NBA off-court education program, more NBA stars are making a fast break for tech investments, partnerships, and startup equity. Kidd confers with some tech execs to see where the industry is headed.
Kidd discovered 18Birdies during last year's American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Lake Tahoe, Calif., when he bumped into company CEO Eddy Lui. "I was struck by how tech can make golf easier," Kidd says, referring to features on the app such as a digital caddie, automated scorecard, and statistics on the course (driving accuracy and average score on each hole, for example).
The two-year-old startup counts Kidd among investors that include Peter Gotcher, chairman at Dolby Laboratories (DLB), and four-time majors golf champion Ernie Els.Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, now part of Oracle (ORCL) and Conrad Ray, head golf coach at Stanford University, are strategic advisers to the Oakland, Calif., company. Company officials say their app offers more features and versatility than apps from competitors such as Swing by Swing, Game Golf, and Golf Game Book.
Of course, no investment is a slam dunk-and Kidd acknowledges as much. But he considers his bet on the golf startup, which he declined to disclose, as "safe."
"I understand what [18Birdies] is doing," says Kidd, who is eyeing his next opportunity in Silicon Valley. "I have no other tech investments, but I would like to."
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