Playing to Win: Aaron Hawkey and Robert Angarita, Co-Founders, BallerTV
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new Unusual Founder Spotlight series! The goal of this series is to introduce the technology founders in our portfolio who have the rage to master and are currently building the future across categories and industries.
With more than three-fifths of American adults (approximately 162 million people) claiming some relationship to sport-related activities — including 25% who are actively engaged in sports as participants, parents of children in sports, coaches, or volunteers — it’s safe to say that sports play a major role in American life. ESPN, America’s go-to stop for college and pro sports coverage, is worth $13.1B alone. But what about the amateur sports market?
Amateur sports make up a $15 billion market — one where parents will spend upwards of 10% of their income to give their children the ability to participate — and yet, a large majority of these games go uncovered. Any parent will tell you, it’s nearly impossible to be at every one of their childrens’ games, but that won’t stop American parents from feeling the guilt of not being there to support their kids should they have to miss a game.
Armed with this understanding, Aaron Hawkey and Rob Angarita, seasoned entrepreneurs, lifelong sports fans, and fathers themselves, set out to plug this gap. And so, BallerTV, the world’s premier live and on-demand streaming service dedicated to amateur athletes was born. The company’s mission? To connect families and communities everywhere through the unifying power of live sports. Since being founded in 2016, BallerTV has covered hundreds of thousands of games, with its crown achievement of covering 15,000 games over the course of 12 days at the AAU National Volleyball Tournament in Orlando earlier this year. And they’re just getting started, according to Aaron and Rob.
We recently sat down with the two co-founders to learn more about their entrepreneurial journey that spans twenty years and three startups, why they’re intent on changing the game of sports broadcasting for amateur athletes, and what it’s like to work with company spokesperson, Dwyane Wade.
Unusual: Can you give us a little background on yourselves?
Aaron: I was born in Ohio and moved to California when I was 13. Luckily, my family had CalTech housing for the summer and I quickly became a CalTech gym rat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was surrounded by some of the smartest engineers in the world. It is not a coincidence that five out of our ten founding team members are Caltech engineers. A couple of years after I moved to California, I met Rob at La Salle High School in Pasadena. I actually tutored him in computer science, but we were also friends outside of that. After high school, I went to UCLA and Rob went to USC, but we continued to stay friends. In 1998, we decided to partner and created our first of three startups, Intramurals.com. BallerTV is my first startup while raising kids (two boys under 3), and I’m very fortunate that my wife is cool with us living a block away from the office.
Rob: To add to what Aaron said, we have known each other for more than 20 years and we have built multiple startups together. We’re both chronic operators who roll up our sleeves and really do whatever it takes to win. On the personal side, I’m from the San Gabriel Valley and have two boys, an eight and six-year-old. I still play recreational soccer — I’m starting to feel it in my knees, though — and I’m a huge, huge Liverpool and USC fan.
Unusual: You two probably know this better than most, but entrepreneurship can be pretty grueling. So what keeps you coming back for more? What do you love and hate about being an entrepreneur?
Rob: I love the idea of creating something out of nothing. I also love that special bond that you form with the original founding team. Recently, I’ve grown to appreciate the life cycle of the startup — just seeing how it grows and changes. In terms of hate, I don’t know, I always tell my kids hate is a really strong word. I realize there are tradeoffs. There’s that time commitment and mindshare required to be an entrepreneur. And then as you get older and have a family, it’s really them who kind of get affected by that. That’s the dislike part for me.
Aaron: Rob hit the nail on the head. For me, the only thing that’s rough about being an entrepreneur is that I don’t get to spend enough time with my two kids, but I try to find balance. This is our first startup with kids. Our last two startups we didn’t have kids and we could sleep at the office and go on long trips to India. But now, it’s a little bit more difficult. However, it’s much more rewarding when you have a family to share it with.
Unusual: If you both had the chance to start your entrepreneurial journeys again, what would you do differently?
Aaron: I think one knock on us is that for our last startup we didn’t think big enough. Meaning, we had a very successful exit, but that exit became a massive business later. So if I had the opportunity to go back and give myself some advice, it would be to have confidence in myself and think bigger because that company, Cramster (acquired by Chegg), is now arguably a multibillion dollar company. But, I always like to say that’s why I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and it’s one of the reasons why we are hungry and motivated to create BallerTV.
Unusual: You both have said finding work-life balance with your families has been difficult this go-round. What were your families’ reactions when you told them you wanted to create another startup?
Aaron: From my end, it was kind of expected. When I met my wife in 1999, I was living in Rob’s kitchen and that’s because we set up a small office in the living room. My wife kind of knew what she was getting herself into from the very beginning and has been supportive since day one. I think Rob similarly met his wife around the same time. They both have never seen anything else, so when we wanted to jump back into another startup, it was just kind of assumed — there was never any doubt.
Rob: I think my wife is only half joking, but she says, “This better be the last one.” I think a lot depends on how it goes.
Unusual: What was the “aha” moment that led you to begin working on BallerTV?
Aaron: Unlike the first two companies where it was pretty clear what problem we were trying to solve, we kind of struggled to establish the direction of the company at the beginning. Rob and I generally like to solve our own problems, whether it be with Intramurals.com because we played intramural sports or with Cramster because we had just gotten out of college and wanted to solve for the lack of help we needed while we were students. With BallerTV, it didn’t necessarily start that way. We started by trying to solve our own problem, which was essentially live streaming our recreational soccer games. Turns out that nobody wants to watch Rob and I play soccer — not even us. It’s not pretty…no offense, Rob. It was through a series of pivots that we realized, “Hey, I get it — nobody wants to watch us play soccer, but parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles clearly want to watch their kids play in this massive youth sports market.” That was kind of the “aha” moment where the feedback we kept hearing was that parents would use this platform. That initial signal combined with the fact that our most senior founding team member, Sandeep Hingorani, had a strong network in grassroots basketball allowed us to scale quickly. So I would say this time around, this third startup, was definitely humbling because it took us a few pivots to get here. It wasn’t an “aha” moment from the get-go. It was more like, “Okay, let’s try a few things,” and then finally figured out the direction of the company over the course of a year or two.
Rob: If there was an “aha” moment for me, it was going through those pivots and finally reaching one that came back to our roots. With Cramster, we essentially built a big premium content subscription business and it was great to find that in the latest pivot of BallerTV. It’s still a mystery to me why it took us three years to reach that point, but it’s just part of the process.
Unusual: What do you think is BallerTV’s biggest opportunity?
Aaron: Right now 99% of all youth sports games go uncovered, yet it is a $15 billion market and one where many families spend upwards of 10% of their income to allow their kids to participate in these sports. Essentially, our opportunity is to connect families. You can imagine the pain that a parent or grandparent feels when they can’t be there for their kids — I know we are going to feel it when our kids get old enough to play sports. But the reality is you can’t be there all the time and the magic of BallerTV is that you can be at work or in line at the bank and you’ll get a text message that says, “Hey, your kid’s game just went live.” You tap on the link and there the game is, right on your mobile phone, live streaming in real time. That’s the magic of BallerTV — by providing this livestream, we’re connecting families and communities all over the country (and eventually the world) by covering content that has never existed before by leveraging our network of videographers and technology platform.
Rob: To give you a sense of our sheer scale and how many families we are connecting, we cover as many as 16,000 games on a given weekend. To put it in perspective, ESPN covers about 16,000 live events in a year.
Unusual: What have been your proudest and most difficult moments at BallerTV?
Rob: As Aaron mentioned, the product went through a few major pivots. Early on when Aaron and I committed a certain amount of our own funds to this, there was a week where money was running low and we needed to figure out what our next steps were going to be. At the time, we had a team of eight (not including the founders) and we had to ask them if they’d be willing to forfeit some of their salaries — or what we call “ramen salaries” — until we figured out what we were going to do. This lasted about six months. It was difficult and humbling, but I’d also say this was one of our proudest moments — every one of those people are still with us today. We internally refer to ourselves as the founding team.
Unusual: Dwyane Wade is your global ambassador — pretty big deal! How exactly did this come about and why was he excited to join the BallerTV team?
Aaron: Dwyane started as a customer first. We were very fortunate that he found out about BallerTV when his son was playing at an All-American camp in Los Angeles that we were covering in June of last year. He’s a dad and he feels the same pain that any parent feels when he can’t be there for his son. While his son was in LA, Dwyane was watching him play via BallerTV in Miami and tweeted about it. It was not a sponsored tweet — it was purely done based on his excitement to have the ability to watch his kid play across the country. From there, we were fortunate enough to have a mutual connection through one of our investors and we pinged him to ask whether he’d have any interest in working with us. Immediately, he and his team were super excited. It was a very clear fit from the get-go: he was a customer first and he’s an amazing father who tries hard to be there for his kids at all times. So, BallerTV really fit with the types of products he likes to use and his core values as a father. We’re fortunate to have him on our team and not only is Dwyane amazing, but the team he surrounds himself with is incredibly helpful and consistently goes above and beyond anything we could have ever imagined.