How SA’s MatchKit is helping athletes make money in era of COVID-19

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South African startup MatchKit, co-founded by a Rugby World Cup winner, has developed a platform that helps athletes make money, regardless of the status of sporting events in the COVID-19 era.

Founded in 2020, MatchKit is a DIY website builder that enables athletes or their agents to showcase their sporting pedigree and sponsors, with sites going live within minutes.

It integrates into existing social media channels – including TikTok – to show potential sponsors the scope and quality of an athlete’s influence, and also provides athletes with a hassle-free, plug and play e-commerce store where fans can purchase everything from bespoke branded merchandise to personalised video and audio shout-outs.

It allows them to accept payments for their foundation or charity.

The idea for the startup came about when chief executive officer (CEO) Mike Sharman learned from 2007 Rugby World Cup winner Bryan Habana, now also active in South Africa’s startup space, about the lack of website adoption by athletes – rugby players in particular.

“Post-Japan 2019, a domain name search for some of the most valuable Springboks will return figures of more than US$100,000 just to acquire “namesurname.com” for some of our Rugby World Cup winners,” Sharman told Disrupt Africa.

Sharman and Habana – the latter now MatchKit’s chief relationship officer – joined forces with Ben Karpinski, Shaka Sisulu and Andy OG (the latter using a pseudonym) to solve this problem for athletes.

“The reality is that, with social media, most athletes don’t have a website because it’s neither easy nor cost effective to create one – there’s design, development, hosting costs, templates that aren’t geared purely to an athlete’s needs. The problem with a pure social media play is that your personal brand lives across the internet in an extremely fragmented way,” Sharman, who is also the co-founder of digital agency Retroviral, said. 

“If a fan or brand is looking for you, they first need to know who you are, and then guess your handle on the various social platforms in order to find you to follow you. Lastly, because of the way in which social media algorithms distribute your content to your timelines, not all of your followers or fans see all of your content, all of the time. This is a problem for your sponsors as they are never exposed to your entire audience – the universe that defines the value of your digital presence.”

MatchKit, then, provides athletes with one destination to house their social media and key statistics, and a place to showcase their sponsors, as well as sell merchandise and raise money for charities. The platform went live in June last year, a launch that happened more quickly than originally planned given the effects of the pandemic.

“We fast-tracked our MVP due to the impact of COVID-19 on the sporting world and those athletes in particular who are the journeymen and women – the ones who rely on physical sporting fixtures in order to make a living and to pay their bills,” said Sharman.

MatchKit aims to help these athletes get back in the game and turn on the gears of their earning potential. The startup has been self-funded by its founders, and has enough early global deals to ensure it is funded until at least early-2022. The US Olympic swimming team has signed on until at least Tokyo 2021, Red Bull South Africa has signed on 15 athletes for the year, and the full Uruguayan men’s rugby squad has signed on for a minimum of 12 months, with other South American unions to follow suit.

“We launched in South Africa, but leveraged a virtual PR launch to target global, rugby playing markets, by showcasing our co-founder’s tech and rugby prowess, as he is one of the most successful players to have ever chased the oval ball … he’s also a pretty successful entrepreneur in the time since he hung up his boots,” Sharman said of Habana.

Athletes pay a US$20 monthly subscription to have a MatchKit, while the startup is also recouping a fee on e-commerce sales made through its platform. Sharman said it also has some additional fintech and insurtech components it will be launching this year to unlock additional revenue streams. Key so far, however, has been building its user base.

“We are nearing 200 active athletes, with more than 500 athletes having provided us with contact details to learn more about the platform and the tech. Athletes connected to MatchKit to date have six million combined fans on social media, and there have been 40,000 views of our athlete MatchKit profiles,” said Sharman.

“Launching in a pandemic when sport has been paused across various touch points has been challenging, purse strings are tighter than ever and athletes are in some of the most precarious commercial periods of their careers.”

Inversely, however, MatchKit would never have been able to connect to the C-suite and other decision makers if it hadn’t launched during a pandemic, he said.

“We considered a drip play, but we thought about how we would launch this for a client and the answer was simple – burst or bust,” said Sharman.

So, far, MatchKit has proven far from a bust, and it is shaping up to be an interesting 2021 for the startup.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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