If stereotypes are to be believed, techies and athletes do not always have a lot in common. But thanks to the emergence of a new segment of technology, known as sport tech, they are increasingly playing for the same team.
“The sporting industry doesn’t typically understand tech and tech companies don’t understand sports,” says Oren Simanian, a former top league soccer referee who founded Colosseum Sport, an international sport tech innovation group, headquartered in Tel Aviv. “But there is huge disruptive potential coming from areas of technology such as AI, electro-optics, machine learning and the Internet of Things, and we see that teams are more exposed and open to them, especially in the US and Europe. We are entering exciting times in the sports industry.”
Mr Simanian says sport tech still lags behind other hi-tech industries such as fintech, but is gathering pace. “The advantage is that we all like sport one way or the other,” he says.
James Massing from the National Football League’s (NFL's) London office, who also strategically advises the Israel Trade and Economic Mission on sport tech, agrees. “Tech companies are starting to understand the challenges that sport faces, whether that is the changing consumption from traditional TV to multi devices and streaming, how you maximise the experience, how you engage them for a longer period of time, and how you can monetise the consumer journey more and more. It’s how you can integrate tech into that seamless fan experience,” he says.
There are three main areas where sport and tech intersect to create value: performance management (wearable technologies to monitor athlete performance and health and help mitigate injury), fan engagement (new, better and more interactive ways to follow the action on the field) and security (technologies for crowd safety and the identification of problem fans or security risks).
While technology can certainly enhance many aspects of the sporting world, the bigger opportunities exist in applying sport tech to other fields and in using the sporting arena as a test lab for innovation. Sport as an industry is worth $700bn a year globally, according to consultancy Deloitte, so it is already a valuable market. But there are only so many professional sports leagues. What if technologies trialled in the hothouse environment of professional sport could be extended to other industries? That is where almost limitless opportunities lie.
“Internationally the NFL is a great way for tech companies to test, build and advance solutions, both from developing business opportunities through high-profile case studies and leveraging expertise, and world-class stadia,” says Mr Massing.
More than $5bn was invested globally in sport tech between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2017 report from Deloitte, but this figure is expected to grow as the investor community and big tech players wake up to the massive untapped potential of the sport tech market. One of most notable sport tech success stories is Israeli start-up Replay Technologies, which developed immersive viewing technology and was acquired by Intel Sports in 2016 for a reported $175m.
“Ours was one of the first and biggest acquisitions in the industry, but I’m certain we’ll be seeing more,” says Jonathan Levene, a former vice-president at Replay who is now managing director, strategic business development, at Intel Sports. “There is increasing recognition of the potential of sport tech and the role it will play in the broader evolution of sport, entertainment and content and how they are consumed.”
Creating personalised viewing experiences for sports fans is the wave of the future, according to Preston Phillips, CEO, Americas, of sports marketing cloud platform Klip Desk and previously an executive with Replay and Intel Sports. “We’ve been looking at sports the same way on television broadcasts for 60 years,” he says. “Through augmented and virtual reality technology we now have the ability to provide something unique and different and allow fans to watch the game from any angle they want and control how they view it.”
Real-time data underpinned by AI technology is also helping to change the live sports landscape, as it allows for instantaneous tracking of revenue, performance and outcomes (for betting), Mr Phillips adds.
Israel gets ahead
The need to catch up with, and get out in front of, changing viewing habits is a key driver of sport tech innovation. “You need to adapt technologies to your consumers. Right now we sit and watch a soccer match for 90 minutes; in 10 years I’m not sure Generation Z will be wanting to do that,” says Noa Avrahami, manager, digital media technologies, at the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, which is helping to promote Israel’s sport tech cluster.
Israel is quickly rising to the top of the international league tables as a hub for the development of sport tech. While not known as a sporting nation, it is a well-honed tech machine with a thriving innovation ecosystem and a knack for translating military applications into technologies with commercial uses. The number of Israeli start-ups entering the sport tech arena has been growing rapidly, doubling from about 50 to some 100 in the span of just two years. To date, a total of $380m has been invested in 41 Israeli sport tech start-ups, according to Deloitte.
“Executives from top teams and major sports leagues are visiting Israel all the time. They are coming to us and saying: ‘These are our problems, these are the issues we are trying to solve, can you bring me relevant solutions?’ And we do,” says Ms Avrahami.
Tel Aviv-based start-up Minute.ly is one of the many looking to harness AI to increase audience engagement in sports, news and entertainment through unique proprietary video technology. Having recently secured an additional $8m funding round, the company has its sights on international expansion. “The more consumption of content the higher the engagement of the fan with the brand and the more revenue that is created,” says CEO and co-founder Amit Golan. “It’s an interesting and vital loop for everyone.”
When tech meets sport to enhance the customer experiences while simultaneously testing applications for untold other industries, that is as close to a win-win as there is.