For me, the name Blaise Matuidi always brought back fond memories of that evening in July 2018 when all of France deliriously celebrated the country’s football World Cup win.
But I didn’t meet the former French national team midfielder to ask him about his exceptional football skills or what it was like being on the pitch when David Beckham played his last minute of football. In 2021, he launched Origins, his very own VC fund, with investor Salomon Aiach and entrepreneur Ilan Abehassera. The fund backs early-stage consumer startups in Europe and North America — and has just opened an office in Paris.
Now retired from the pitch, Matuidi says he is part of a first generation of athletes in Europe who are starting to reinvent themselves as tech investors — a trend already well-established on the other side of the Atlantic, where the ex-footballer is based to oversee Origins’ US operations.
“When I arrived in the US, I saw a difference between European athletes and US athletes,” says Matuidi. “European athletes are entirely focused on their sport, while North American athletes learn how to do business.”
“That’s why we have fewer athlete investors.”
Life after sports
NBA veteran Kevin Durant, for example, has invested in open-source company Hugging Face through his fund 35 Ventures, while Serena Ventures, the VC firm of ex-tennis player Serena Williams, backs businesses ranging from crypto to healthtech. Malcolm Jenkins, a former NFL player, was an early investor in Airbnb and Instacart thanks to investment company Broad Street Ventures, which he cofounded.
Matuidi says professional players in the US are more likely to see the opportunities beyond their sports careers because of a key difference in the educational system: the vast majority of athletes practise their sport alongside a college degree.
The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) effectively delivers almost $3.5bn in athletics scholarships every year. And huge sports organisations like the NFL and NBA usually draft new players only after they have completed college.
In Europe, athletes usually start training full-time before they even finish high school. “It’s a completely different sports system,” says Matuidi.
“In the world of sport, there is often this problem of focusing only on sport. “The message we wanted to spread with Origins was: ‘You’re not only an athlete.’”
Europe’s athlete investors
Things are changing, with an increasing number of athletes in Europe now making angel investments. Earlier this year, a £40m VC fund called The Players Fund launched in the UK, led by a dozen high-profile sports players such as cricketers Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, and ex-footballers Chris Smalling and Héctor Bellerín. It’s not clear how much of the fund has actually been raised.
With Origins, Matuidi hopes to make younger sports players in Europe more aware of their options. The fund’s LP base is largely made up of athletes, including 28-year-old footballer Presnel Kimpembe and 26-year-old rugby player Antoine Dupont.
“A [sports] career is short and after it there is a whole life,” says Matuidi. “With Origins, we wanted to enable athletes to open themselves to something else.”
From athlete to investor
It remains that learning the ins and outs of venture capital after years of ultra-intense sports training is no easy task. Matuidi says he started with small angel investments and essentially learned everything he knows by doing, taking in lessons from the inevitable mistakes he made as he went along.
“Of course, hard skills don’t come overnight. But then again, I won’t make Ilan a footballer overnight either,” he says, laughing in the direction of his cofounder.
And although he hasn’t gone to business school and doesn’t hold an MBA, he’s never been made to feel out of place, he continues.
That’s likely down to what he can bring to the table together with Origins’ other famous LPs — a combined following of 160m people across various social media platforms. For the consumer-oriented startups that the fund backs, that kind of visibility can make a big difference.
Each investment comes with the promise of a tailor-made marketing campaign led by Origins’ most high-profile investors. Three have already launched out of 13 portfolio companies. They include a three-episode contribution to a podcast series on mental health in sports published by Moka Care, which provides mental health services for businesses — each attracted more than 20k listens.
For electric bike reconditioning startup Upway, Matuidi and several other athlete LPs recorded short Instagram clips talking about cycling. Upway saw its Instagram following grow by 8% in the first 15 days of the campaign.
With footballers’ head-spinning salaries often associated with glitz, could fame ever play to his disadvantage in the tech world? Matuidi seems fairly confident that won’t happen. “It’s a consequential advantage,” he says. “It actually gives us the chance to get into really good deals.”