Technology has transformed how sport is organised, consumed and played. But early next year, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy’s TMRW Sports venture will offer a glimpse of how technology can be used to create entirely new formats that blend the digital and physical worlds.
TGL’s hybrid format will necessitate the construction of a purpose-built facility, but the competition’s digital initiatives will be just as important as the product itself – and that’s where Next League comes in. The company’s partnership with TMRW Sports will see it deliver the TGL’s official website, mobile app and other digital experiences, while it is also fulfilling a consultancy role to help ensure tech is infused into the dedicated arena.
Many organisations and individuals claim to be at the forefront of the sports industry’s great digitisation, but Next League and its chief executive David Nugent have a stronger case than most. And now it will have a front row seat for what could be a landmark moment in the history of tech-driven innovation in sport.
“TMRW Sports is going to possibly shape the way all of us think about what’s possible for a sports event – especially with regards to technology,” Nugent (right) tells SportsPro.
It’s an exciting prospect that the entire industry will be keeping its eye on, but Nugent is eager to stress that Next League’s credentials are stronger than just a single project.
He, along with founding partners Mike Grushin and Bora Nikolic, started Next League 18 months ago, believing a new business could help rights holders navigate an increasingly complex technological landscape and adopt digital innovations that can identify efficiencies, engage and expand the fanbase, and achieve sporting and financial goals,” Nugent says.
“We can see the way these technologies are being leveraged and what [rights holders] should be thinking about now and what you should be thinking about in 12 months or 18 months’ time.
“We’re talking to our clients in real-time about what they’re focused on and part of our value proposition is that we’re in lots of rooms and we’re hearing things from others who are thinking about technology.
“A lot of the conversation [at the moment] is about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and venue technologies are always at the top of everyone’s list. But then there’s less sexy stuff like cloud computing or next-generation networks. We go as broad as possible.
“It’s a really complicated ecosystem right now but we’re technologically agnostic so we don’t have a [vested interest]. Our job is to deliver a return of investment on behalf of these organisations and help them determine where their investments [in tech] should be and what they can easily integrate with.”
Omnigon and full circle
To strengthen its mission, Next League acquired Infront X’s professional services and digital product business at the start of 2023, a move that brought Next League full circle. Infront X was largely built on assets acquired through its 2016 acquisition of sports technology agency Omnigon – a business which Nugent co-founded, along with Grushin, Nikolic and others, in 2008.
Nugent says the takeover by Swiss-based Infront was a “great experience” that opened his eyes to the diversity of sporting cultures. In return, he believes Infront learned a lot about the role technology can play in sport, but its priorities were not best served by Omnigon’s strengths.
“I think [Infront] got to a point where they realised the things they needed to focus on as a business were not the things [Omnigon] was great at. [Omnigon] was great at the relationships and service side of technology, whereas [Infront] wanted to focus on technology products.
“We maintained a really good relationship with Infront over the years and I think they eventually decided that Next League taking back some of that business would be a good idea for both sides. It was fast by acquisition standards as it was concluded within a matter of months.”
The key difference, Nugent says, is that whereas Omnigon would help clients build out a pre-existing plan, Next League works with the rights holder to identify the optimum strategy to achieve its goals. It was with this in mind that Next League recently announced that industry veteran Juan De Jesus has joined the organisation as chief strategy officer.
“If you’re going to build a house you go to an architect first,” he says. “You can’t just hire a builder because they’re going to ask you a lot of questions you don’t have the answers to. Having Juan join our team is a complete game changer for us in terms of helping our clients focus on broader business outcomes.
“We help sports organisations understand what they should do and what they could do and help them [articulate] that for a builder to understand it. Then we’re the programme manager who assembles the required pieces of technology in order to fulfill that vision.
“We don’t own a product. We’re assembling [the plans] based on the client with an eye on ROI. How can you get 90 per cent of the functionality at 50 per cent of the cost? Because we’re technologically agnostic we have existing relationships with vendors and we can leverage those to ensure that the ROI comes out the other side.”
Next League says it won’t adopt new technology for the sake of it and will work to leverage existing investments where it can. And, Nugent adds, there is the option of a commercial partnership that includes technology alongside sponsorship revenue: “How do you combine those sponsor dollars with the technology we need?”
The XFL spring football league is among Next League’s growing portfolio of clients
Figuring out what’s next
Technological roadmaps are rarely static, however. The only constant in technology is change and what is cutting edge today is out of date within six months. Nugent says the challenge is seeing through the hype to see which technologies are actually going to drive their business – and there is no shame in being a fast follower.
“A year ago, [we were all talking about] how blockchain-based technologies were going to change the world,” he recalls.
“Blockchain will [eventually] become critically important…but there’s been an adjustment and a rethink the way that some of the technology will be deployed. You had some organisations who were way out in front, and some who were a little more thoughtful and wanted to see how it was going to unfold.
“If you’re culturally set up to be a leader then it’s OK to get a black eye because you’re still going to be viewed as innovative. The bigger you are the less of a reason you have to invest in bleeding edge technologies. You often see the greatest innovations coming from startups and smaller sports properties because they have to…gain attention.”
“I don’t think either [approach] was wrong but if you’re an executive in one of those organisations, you’re going to be very mindful of the folks in the C-Suite and what they think about the investments you’re making.”
Another key difference between Next League and Omnigon is social commitment.
“One of the nice things about being a bit older and being able to start over and start a new business is that you think about the world a little differently,” Nugent explains. “So one of the things we wanted to do with Next League from the very beginning was to give back somehow.
“When we onboard a client, we say we want some portion of the investment that’s going to be made in the partnership to eventually have a social impact. Often a sports property has a vehicle for that, and while we do encourage them to think outside a traditional foundation [model], the main objective is to align that [ambition] with something meaningful for them.
“[For example], the sports business has not always been the most diverse environment and we want to do what we can to change that. What we do varies [from partner to partner]. The initiative will be different for a motorsports organisation than it will be for an international federation.
“But the people behind the business have to believe it – it can’t just be tacked on. The authenticity part of this is critically important.”
Next League has been working with golf’s TMRW Sports on the TGL
Planning for TMRW
Next League has been assembling a broad portfolio of clients that now includes the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), Nascar, the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, and the XFL, each of which have their own digital ambitions. However, it is TMRW Sports and TGL that will continue to attract significant attention.
TMRW Sports hopes this digital innovation, combined with a shorter format and the participation of some of the leading players in the sport, will appeal to a wider audience and provide further earning opportunities for golfers.
TGL events will take place in primetime and TMRW Sports has already started construction of its tech-forward venue in Florida. In each event, players will make their initial drive down the fairway using a simulator powered by a giant screen, with the ball placed on an actual green (or rough) in the middle of the venue.
The green will rotate and has hundreds of pistons underneath the surface that can create hundreds of different golf holes. Chipping and putting will take place right in front of the fans and players will be microphoned, giving further insight into decision making and unlocking new content possibilities.
“[TMRW] is building something that doesn’t exist,” says Nugent. “It’s combining something that’s virtual with something that’s not really virtual at all, in an arena setting. We spent months working on the strategy.”
Nugent says TGL is “hugely interesting” from both a technological and sporting perspective, especially when it comes to pursuing a younger audience, and believes it offers a glimpse of the future of sport.
“The hybrid approach to sport, where you’re leveraging an existing sport to create a completely new experience will be fascinating,” he says.
“TGL could be a precursor to a whole number of new types of sporting experience and golf probably isn’t the last sport they take a look at.”