Stock market for sports? Ranney grad's Mojo offers new kind of athlete bets

NEW YORK - Vinit Bharara was leading his media company in late 2020 when Marc Lore, his best friend from their days at Ranney School in Tinton Falls, called him with a proposal. It was time to dust off a 20-year-old idea, a stock market where people could invest in athletes.

The two tried a similar idea in the early 2000s with baseball cards, but it didn't work quite the way they wanted. Since then, though, the missing pieces — the smart phone, legalized sports betting, a track record with start-ups — had fallen into place.

"'I've been thinking, this idea we had 20 years ago, the sports stock market, this could be huge,'" Bharara's pal Lore told him. "'We can potentially do it the way we always wanted to do it.'"

Bharara is onto that next venture. He is co-founder and chief executive officer of Mojo, a company that allows investors to invest in the careers of athletes like companies on the stock exchange.

Vinit Bharara, co-founder and CEO of Mojo, a sports stock market that allows people to invest in individual athletes, at the office in Manhattan Sept. 16, 2022. The company has started offering its service in New Jersey.
Vinit Bharara, co-founder and CEO of Mojo, a sports stock market that allows people to invest in individual athletes, at the office in Manhattan Sept. 16, 2022. The company has started offering its service in New Jersey.

It is the latest stop on a journey for Bharara that has taken him from growing up in Eatontown to building million-dollar companies with his friends from Ranney and his brother, Preet, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Bharara has big ambitions for Mojo. The company has found a new business model that combines sports betting with the stock market. Eventually, it is expected to add more states and more sports. But it is starting in New Jersey, which has emerged as a hotspot for sports gaming companies.

As an early adopter with access to large population centers, New Jersey is attractive for operators entering the U.S. sports betting market, said Jane F. Bokunewicz, director of The Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism, School of Business at Stockton University in Atlantic City.

While Mojo's first stop is New Jersey, Bharara, 51, lives in Manhattan with his wife, Veenu; daughter, Kareena, 17; and son, Kavi, 15.

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Bharara set up Mojo's headquarters in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, where 90 employees, including engineers, designers and data analysts have launched the company with the help of $100 million in venture funding.

Mojo's analysts set the price for football players in something of an initial public offering, taking into account things like age, speed, draft position and their team's offensive system to quantify how they expect the player to perform during their career.

If the player does better than expected, the stock goes up. If the player does worse, the stock goes down. Investors buy and sell, with Mojo taking a 1% commission on each trade. Investors need to be 21 or older and, for now, physically in New Jersey. They can trade each day or hold on long term, cashing out at the end of the player's career.

Take quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Ocean Township High School grad was drafted as the eighth pick in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and his stock traded a week ago, when he was toiling on the bench, at $12.71. After a recent anemic performance by the Steelers' offense under starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, Pickett's stock rose to $17.91 by Tuesday, a sign that investors think he might soon see the playing field.

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If he does, will he surprise and rekindle memories of former Steeler Ben Roethlesburger, who led the team to three Super Bowl appearances and two championships? Will he get injured and miss the rest of the season? Fans can decide by buying stock in Pickett.

Players can lose value, too. Mac Jones, the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, outperformed conventional wisdom his rookie year, sending his stock from $25.13 to nearly $50 a share. But Jones was down 12% this week on news that he suffered a severe ankle sprain that could keep him out of the lineup for multiple games.

Mojo, a short-and-to-the-point name that is a hallmark of companies operated by Bharara and Lore, has been approved by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, which will regulate the company. It will need to get similar approval in each additional state.

But it has resolved one obstacle. Among its investors is the NFL Players Inc., the licensing and marketing arm of the NFLPA, the players' union.

“We see a huge opportunity for Mojo to transform sports fandom by bringing fans closer to the players they know and love,” Steve Scebelo, president of NFL Players, Inc., said in a statement.

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Homework in the back of the family restaurant

Bharara grew up in Eatontown, with his father, Jagdish, a pediatrician who had an office in Asbury Park; his mother, Desh; and Preet, older by three years.

His parents immigrated from India, harping on their sons about the importance of education. Not that he spent all of his time studying; Vinit, a big New York Yankees fan, pitched and played shortstop for his Pony League team, the Eagles. He liked the team's name enough to root for the Philadelphia Eagles in football.

He watched his parents work hard. His father, uncle and a family friend opened Himalaya, an Indian restaurant in Shrewsbury, before moving to Atlantic Highlands, where Vinit and Preet spent plenty of time, often doing their homework in the back of the store.

In hindsight, the experience might have helped Vinit develop an entrepreneurial streak.

"To come to the U.S. with nothing and then start on your own, that's pretty entrepreneurial," Bharara said.

The brothers went to Ranney School, a private school, where Vinit formed lifelong friends, including Marc Lore and Lax Chandra, and they excelled. Preet graduated as valedictorian and went to Harvard College; Vinit graduated three years later as salutatorian and went to the University of Pennsylvania.

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Preet went to Columbia Law School, and so did Vinit. Preet joined a prestigious law firm after he graduated, and so did Vinit. But then their paths diverged. Preet would become a U.S. Attorney. Vinit joined Lore and Chandra to start their first business.

The thrill of the internet and sports

In the late '90s with the dot-com craze in full swing, the trio started the Pit.com, an online market for collectors to buy and sell baseball trading cards. It was a precursor to Mojo. And to Bharara, who would leave his steady, well-paying corporate law job, it was a risk.

"I think I was OK with what I was doing as a lawyer, but it wasn't like I woke up every day and was super jazzed," Bharara said. "But if I had the opportunity to work with my two best friends in a space that I thought was super interesting — sports — and the promise of being a pioneer with the internet, all those things combined? Looking back, it was a good decision."

What followed was a string of successes. Bharara and his partners sold Pit.com to Topps for $5.7 million in 2001. He joined Lore to start Diapers.com, a diaper delivery service, and sold the parent company to Amazon for $545 million in 2010. He then launched two media companies, Some Spider Studios and CAFE.

Joining him at CAFE was Preet, who had been fired as U.S. Attorney by President Donald Trump after refusing to resign. Preet started a podcast called, "Stay Tuned With Preet."

Working with Vinit was like the opposite of "Succession," Preet said in an interview, referring to the HBO show about a family business empire consisting mainly of louts who seek to undermine each other. The Bhararas didn't quarrel. They didn't posture. They didn't disagree on hiring or compensation or decisions.

"I really respect him a lot," Preet said of Vinit. "He's really, really good at executing. He's really good at being rigorous. And he would tell you he's a better entrepreneur and business person for having gone to law school."

Bharara would sell his media companies, too, to dive into a new business, Mojo.

In late 2020, Lore called him. He'd been thinking. When they ran the Pit.com, they ran into a sticking point. The value of baseball cards wasn't always based on the players' skills. Sometimes it was set by external factors, like how many cards the manufacturer made.

They could give it another go. This time, the players could have an intrinsic value based on their performance and what fans thought of them.

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And the landscape had changed. Fans can now invest through smart phones. States are opening legalized sports gambling. And Bharara and Lore have met influential people along the way. Among the investors in Mojo is Alex Rodriguez, who co-owns the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves and WNBA Lynx with Lore.

Mojo takes its place in a growing industry. Americans wagered $57.22 billion with commercial sportsbooks in 2021, up 164.8% from 2020 — with New Jersey emerging as the nation's biggest sports betting market, according to industry statistics.

One more outlet makes some people nervous. The Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey Inc. has seen calls increase by 225% since 2016 — a jump it attributes to legalized sports gambling, said Felicia Grondin, executive director.

"If you want to play it's fine to do so, but set a dollar limit on what you're willing to lose," Grondin said. "Bet for the purposes of entertainment, not as a means for income."

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For a sport-obsessed nation, Mojo offers fans a chance to play general manager, not with their team owner's money, but their own.

And it gives Bharara the chance to work with his Ranney friends once again. Lore is off doing his own things with his basketball teams and Wonder, a mobile restaurant company, but they talk often. And Chandra, another Mojo investor, works there as a vice president.

"That's what I say to anybody, even now," Bharara said. "If you can make work as close to your regular life as possible, I think you've achieved something."

Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at mdiamond@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Mojo: Stock market for sports created by Ranney School graduate