Issue No. 210: Sports x Psychedelics

Illustration: Courtney Powell

Opening up about personal experiences, pro athletes are changing the perception of psychedelics.

Big Business

As we detailed in Issue No. 174, the mental health crisis is fueling a psychedelic renaissance.

  • 50+ psychedelic companies are listed on US exchanges.
  • The global psychedelic drug sector is set to reach $10.7B by 2027.
  • Psychedelics startups raised ~$2B from public and private market investors last year.

Despite looming legal hurdles, and recent cooling of the market, psychedelics continue to show promise in treating depression, addiction, PTSD, and more.

Athlete Advocates

Grappling with life in the spotlight, athletes have become mental health advocates.

Instead of suffering in silence, superstars like Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps have spoken publicly about their struggles. A step further, athletes are partnering with mental wellness companies to increase awareness.

  • Soccer champion Megan Rapinoe and Vikings’ Eric Kendricks backed mental healthcare startup Real.
  • Osaka, an investor in Modern Health and Hyperice, teamed with both companies to launch meditation content.
  • NBA star Kevin Love invested in emotional fitness startup Coa and launched a mental health program for high schoolers.

Signaling a broader shift, mental fitness has become essential to elite performance, with athletes honing mind and body in pursuit of greatness.

Running on Fumes

A multifaceted issue, the athlete mental health crisis impacts everything from general well-being to pain management and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

  • 35% of elite athletes suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression, and/or anxiety.
  • Mental health concerns among NCAA athletes have doubled in recent years, with only half believing mental health to be a priority to their athletics department.

Leaning in, the NFL and NBA require every team to employ a mental health professional. But, the MLB and NHL don’t have similar mandates. And nearly every pro league receives criticism for failing to provide adequate resources.

Among NFLers, fear of judgment or retaliation breeds a “play-through-it” mentality. As Packers QB Aaron Rodgers puts it:

“There’s a stigma around talking about feelings, struggles and dealing with stress. There’s a lot of vernacular that seems to tag it as weakness.”

Similarly, a study of current and former NHLers revealed a culture of “silence and suspicion” surrounding mental health, discouraging players from seeking help.

Open Minded

Taking matters into their own hands, sports stars are turning to psychedelics.

Among active players, Rodgers regularly talks about using ayahuasca (a DMT-laced tea) and its “healing” effects. And free agent wide receiver Kenny Stills was vocal about using ketamine-assisted therapy during the 2021 season.

After using psilocybin to treat his post-concussion syndrome and traumatic brain injuries, retired NHL player Daniel Carcillo co-founded Wesana Health. The psychedelic therapy company has raised nearly $17M to date, including backing from Mike Tyson.

Making inroads into the sports realm, Wesana partnered with the World Boxing Council to study the effects of psychedelics on TBIs. Similarly, the UFC is reportedly working with Johns Hopkins University to explore the use of psychedelics on fighters’ brain health.

Zooming out: As the mental health crisis intensifies and athletes seek out alternative treatment options, the use of psychedelics will present a host of new challenges — from efficacy and drug testing to performance enhancement and sponsorship deals.

Some leagues have already eased restrictions on marijuana use, while the NFL invested $1M to study cannabis and CBD for pain management. Elsewhere, athletes have invested in CBD companies like Beam, while Kevin Durant partnered with cannabis marketplace Weedmaps.

Takeaway: Sports have always pushed the limits of human potential, and psychedelics may be the next frontier. Helping move the conversation into the mainstream while espousing the benefits, taking a trip could soon become the latest trickle-down trend from elite athletics.

⛺️ Reaching new heights, the outdoor economy tops $862B

By the numbers: The US Bureau of Economic Analysis said GDP from outdoor recreation grew 18.9% from 2020 to 2021, creating 4.5M jobs.

After taking a hit during the pandemic, the outdoor industry contributed $454B to US GDP last year, reaching $862B in gross economic output.

Growth drivers. The report includes figures from recreation to tourism to construction. But, the impact from conventional activities—like hiking, biking, and boating—were significant.

  • Core outdoor activities accounted for $239B, the largest contribution in five years.
  • Boating/fishing ($27.3B), RVing ($25.1B), and hunting ($10.8B) were the largest of activities.
  • Value added from the climbing/hiking/tent camping segment grew from $3.7B to $5.05B.

Tracking participation trends, a record 164M Americans engaged in outdoor activities last year, according to an Outdoor Foundation survey. That’s a 26% increase from March 2020.

Cashing in. Leveraging tech to make the great outdoors more accessible, startups and investors are taking notice.

  • REI formed Path Ahead Ventures to invest $30M into outdoor startups.
  • AllTrails, a platform for discovering hiking and biking trails, secured $150M last fall.
  • Camping platforms Hipcamp ($57M), The Dyrt ($11M), Tentr (U/A), and Sēkr ($2.25M) raised capital since 2021.

Takeaway: With demand growing, and the market becoming more lucrative, a sustained interest in adventure sportsrecreation, and simply being more active in nature could keep the outdoor economy booming.

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🏆 Return of youth sports boosts physical, mental health

The latest: According to The Aspen Insitute’s annual State of Play report, youth sports participation isn’t great, but it’s improving.

  • Children aged 5–18 averaged 16.6 hours of sports activity per week, up from 7.2 in 2020 and 13.6 pre-pandemic.
  • 37% of youth aged 6–12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2021, on par with 38% in 2019 and 2020, but down from 45% in 2008.

Highs and lows. Of note, 72% of parents surveyed said their child’s physical fitness levels had “improved greatly or somewhat” by fall 2022, compared to a year prior, when 24% believed levels had deteriorated.

But, 27% of parents say their child has lost interest in playing sports altogether.

Making matters worse, the Physical Activity Alliance said declining sports participation is contributing to poor health.

  • BMI for children doubled in the first year of the pandemic vs. pre-pandemic.
  • The US received a D- grade for participation in physical activity in the school setting, ranking 51/52 of developed nations.
  • 41% of kids engage in weekly unstructured free play (recreation or sports outside practices and games), drastically falling from 55% in spring 2021.

A bright spot. Participation in youth sports provided a significant boost to mental and emotional health:

  • 58% of parents say their child’s mental health has greatly improved.
  • 65% report improvements in emotional control.
  • 71% cite improved social well-being.

Takeaway: Sports and recreation can play a major role in improving our collective health. But first, we have to make sports fun and fair for all, from breaking down cost barriers to revamping gym class to adults leading by example.

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📰 News & Notes

  • The FDA greenlights lab-grown “chicken.”
  • Ergatta strikes retail-distribution deal through Best Buy.
  • HumanCo Acquisition Corp cancels healthy living SPAC.
  • MasterClass enlists Michael Pollan to teach healthier eating.
  • Fiit debuts connected biking content for Concept2 and Keiser.
  • Fitt Jobs: curated openings with top health and wellness brands.
  • Startup Q&A: Swerve Fitness CEO Eric Posner on scaling boutique content.
  • Glucose monitoring company January AI launches gut health supplement.

💰 Money Moves

  • Aescape, creators of forthcoming AI-enabled massage therapy tech, raised $30M in a Series A co-led by Valor Siren Ventures and Valor Equity Partners.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Spa Industry Evolves
  • AI-enabled performance training platform Volt Athletics received a ~$200K grant from the US Department of Homeland Security.
    More from Fitt Insider: Our conversation with Volt Athletics CEO Dan Giuliani
  • Ayble Health, a virtual care platform for gastrointestinal illnesses, secured $4.6M in a seed round co-led by Upfront Ventures and M13.
  • Visible, an activity tracking platform for those with Long COVID, secured $1M in pre-seed funding.
  • Sportstech investor KB Partners closed a $127M fund for early-stage startups.
    More from Fitt Insider: Investor Insights, Sportstech Edition
  • AIM7, a personalized fitness platform, raised $1.3M in a seed round.
  • DispatchHealth, provider of urgent in-home care, landed $330M in a funding round.
  • Greek yogurt bar maker Clio Snacks added undisclosed funding from Alliance Consumer Growth, tennis star Maria Sharapova, and the NBA’s Jayson Tatum.
  • UK-based nonalchololic beer company Big Drop Brewing raised £2.3M ($2.7M) in crowdfunding.
  • Mental healthcare platform SonderMind acquired mental fitness app Total Brain.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Mental Health Gym
  • Biocodex Group, a French pharmaceutical company, acquired natural supplements brand Hilma.
    More from Fitt Insider: The State of Supplements
  • Media company GOOD Worldwide acquired Kristen Bell’s gluten-free snack brand This Saves Lives.
  • Resilience Lab, a mental healthtech company, raised $15M in a Series A round co-led by Viewside Capital Partners and Morningside.
  • Freight Farms, a tech-enabled vertical farming startup, pulled in $17.5M in a Series B3 round.
  • DTC performance eyewear brand SunGod raised £2.99M ($3.5M) in crowdfunding.
  • Nymbl Science, a balance training platform for older adults, secured $12M in a Series B round led by Cobalt Ventures.
  • Better-for-you hazelnut spread maker tbh added ~$42K in crowdfunding.
  • TeamSnap, a management platform for youth sports, acquired LeagueSide, a community sports sponsorship platform.

Today’s newsletter was brought to you by Anthony Vennare, Joe Vennare, and Ryan Deer. 

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