TCB Q&A: Brian Bell Takes the Top Spot at SportsEngine
There’s been a major leadership shakeup at SportsEngine Inc., a Minneapolis-based software developer focused on youth and amateur sports services. Last month, the 11-year-old company announced the departure of its founders Justin Kaufenberg and Carson Kipfer, along with chief technology officer Greg Blasko.
Meanwhile, Brian Bell was chosen to replace Kaufenberg as CEO. The changes come just three years after NBC Sports Group acquired SportsEngine.
Bell is taking the helm amid “record growth,” according to the company. Since 2016, SportsEngine has tripled its number of active customers and expanded its workforce. Today, the company counts 35 million monthly users. The company specializes in providing software applications and services that help sports organization with various management elements, including connecting with players, families, and fans, and developing training programs.
Bell first joined SportsEngine as its chief revenue officer in 2015 and was promoted to president last year. Prior to joining SportsEngine, he served as president and chief operating officer for enterprise software company Code42. Before that, he was an executive director for Dell, which acquired Compellent Technologies, where Bell had served as a vice president.
Bell recently sat down with Twin Cities Business to discuss his latest role as SportsEngine’s new CEO, along with his vision for the NBC-powered company. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q | What drew you to SportsEngine?
A | One of the investors in my previous company Compellent Technologies was also an investor in SportsEngine and introduced me to Justin. As I learned more about the business of where sports and tech meet, I realized it was kind of right up my alley. I met the team and better understood the market and the mission of the company around getting more kids involved with sports. Everything about it got more exciting as I learned more about the company, the market, and the customers they serve.
Q | You joined SportsEngine just before it was acquired by NBC Sports Group in 2016. What were your initial thoughts on that deal?
A | With most high-growth tech companies, you often think, “What’s the next step?” Typically, it’s an IPO, a strategic investor, or acquisition by a large organization. For us, becoming part of NBC Sports Group actually was a good match. It’s an awesome place to be as a forever company: 90 percent of all families in the U.S. interact with NBC Universal on a monthly basis, and they have a big commitment to the Olympic movement, which is kind of a core stakeholder for us. They have Olympics broadcast rights through 2032. So, there’s just a lot of connections to youth, amateur sports, and families. And it was also a way for us to have access to the resources that really allow our organization to thrive.
Q | You consider SportsEngine a pioneer because it came out when the sports tech market wasn’t particularly well-rounded. But recently, there seems to have been an explosion of sports tech companies, especially in Minnesota—SportsDigita, Fanball, Sportradar, to name a few examples. Why do you think the industry is suddenly booming?
A | Families are looking for other areas to get their kids more involved with things outside of screen time or sedentary time. I think leveraging technology as a path to do that just makes a lot of sense.
Q |Why has Minnesota become such a hotbed for that activity?
A |Well, there’s access to capital. You look at companies like Rally Ventures—and the success of companies like SportsEngine, others you mentioned, and you begin to understand the market. There’s more willingness to invest in it when people see companies being successful. That drives awareness that this is an area or marketplace that’s worth investors’ money and time.
Q |Is there pressure to not mess with the founders’ legacy?
A |I have a tremendous amount of respect for the founders of SportsEngine. I would say now the focus is on the team and our customers, around making sure we take what we have done until now and look to the next chapter for SportsEngine—to continue to invest and ensure that we leverage all the talents and resources of our team and this dynamic marketplace. That’s exactly what the founders would want me to focus on.
Q |Do you have any specific goals you want to accomplish as CEO?
A |Every year we lay out next year’s plan, then we take a peek at what the next five years are going to look like. We’re going to focus on a few things: Remaining a top company to work for, not only in Minnesota, but in the U.S.; being an employer of excellence; delivering our mission around getting more kids involved in sports; keeping sports safe for athletes; and aligning around what we call sport relationship management. Those stay as our North Star in terms of what our strategy is, and we’re just building on that.