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New business cluster diversifies local economy

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From its founding in 2008 to the 91 members it has grown to today, the San Diego Sports Innovator has come quite a long way, but it’s still a young trade organization that is evolving.

SDSI was created when Marco Thompson, an action sports entrepreneur and board member at Connect -- which acts as a catalyst for growing innovative entrepreneurship -- recognized the need for a sports trade organization to foster the culture of collaboration that the other industries in San Diego enjoy.

Initially, it focused heavily on action sports companies, but as it grew and Connect brought in new people like Bill Walton -- the basketball legend and sportscaster -- to head the cluster organization, it has begun to reach out to entities in endurance sports, team sports and sports apparel and gear.

Housed within Connect’s offices in La Jolla, the nonprofit continues to be the only one of its kind in the United States. While there are organizations focused on specific sports, there are none that focus on a region’s comprehensive sports industry.

“We’d like to become a resource for talent, acquisitions and sports lawyers. We can help companies grow, even mature companies, to get to the next level,” said Executive Director Lisa Freedman, a veteran sports event management executive who was previously involved with the London Olympics before joining SDSI.

SDSI members include companies that make lifestyle shoes, watches, all-natural protein bars, a mouth guard that also measures body temperature for lacrosse and football players, sports clubs, event registration company Active Network and innovative sports training products brand SKLZ.

Active lifestyle companies focused on surfing, wakeboarding, camping, hiking and endurance sports that tap the beach communities and represent a portion of its members.

In all, 40 percent of members are service providers and 60 percent are manufacturers, retailers, consumer brands and technology/fitness crossovers.

Freedman said the diverse mix represents the growing sports cluster in San Diego.

“We’re sports and active lifestyle. We’re looking to target the intersection between sports and lifestyle technology,” she said.

Its most successful program is the springboard, a business mentoring program for which startups can apply any time. The 17-week program matches the entrepreneurs with experts who offer guidance and help them figure out a game plan. Springboard also serves as a vetting board, weeding out long shots.

John Sarkisian is founder and CEO of Pro Performance Sports, the Carlsbad company that owns SKLZ. As an SDSI board member, he is very involved with the organization’s efforts to reach out to innovators in the sports realm.

“Sometimes there are people that come through whose ideas or plans are not so good, so we talk to them about whether changing their life is a good idea based on this -- so helping someone retool their path may also be a big benefit, with the deals that didn’t happen,” Sarkisian said. “You don’t want to kill someone’s dreams, but you also want to make them realize their potential.”

SKLZ has also done business with several successful springboard applicants whose innovative products fit in with its product mix, which Sarkisian said was one of the ways established companies benefit from organizations like SDSI.

“Our company is about innovation, so we’re constantly looking for a pipeline of products and that’s what SDSI promotes.”

San Diego is well-positioned in terms of weather, geography, Carlsbad’s golf companies -- including Callaway (NYSE: ELY) and Taylormade -- and the actions sports groups, so the synergy plays out well, Sarkisian said.

He recalled how decades ago golf was played with wooden clubs, but because of technology, metal clubs happened and some of the biggest golf companies now call San Diego home. Later, the region helped promote the triathlon, which was created in Mission Bay. Today, San Diego is helping spread stand-up paddle boarding, from the ocean to rivers and lakes.

San Diego is also home in the off season to many Olympic and endurance sports athletes, which works to the cluster’s advantage, he said.

Sarkisian sees the cluster as a promoter of San Diego’s sports economy and a healthy lifestyle for the region.

“We’re in a world where sports is playing an ever-active role in people’s healthy lifestyle,” he said. “SDSI is going to provide a multitude of resources to innovate and improve sports and healthy life styles.”

SDSI’s goals are to increase the funnel of companies it can assist, grow the sports economy through industry events and provide networking for the industry insiders.

Its regional focus spans from Southern California to Orange County, Riverside and the Inland Empire.

But because it’s one of a kind, Freedman said companies from as far north as Lake Tahoe and all the way in New York have also heard of its springboard program and reached out for help.

Sarkisian expects SDSI will become a go-to hub for sports entrepreneurs and startups, as well as the established ones.

“If we can get involved in promoting and helping people realize their dreams, whether we benefit or not doesn’t matter, because everybody benefits from it.”


-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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