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Ignition recap: Highlights from SportsPro’s all-new sports tech showcase

SportsPro selects its highlights from Ignition, the new technology platform for the sports industry which debuted last week, and honours the winner of the inaugural Ignition SportsInnovation Award.

31 January 2022 Steve McCaskill

Technology is changing every part of society and sport is no different. Digital innovations are changing the way sport is organised, played and consumed, opening up new opportunities and transforming existing processes.

Keeping up with the pace of change and understanding the sports technology landscape can be a challenge but it is essential. This is why SportsPro has launched Ignition, a platform that unites sport and technology through thought leadership sessions, product demonstrations and case studies featuring some of the foremost people and organisations in both industries.

The first Ignition was held last week, providing attendees with the opportunity to learn about trends, technologies and use cases that will inform their own transformation strategies around five key themes:

  • Commerce
  • Data  and analytics
  • Fan engagement
  • In-venue
  • Media and consumption

It was a packed agenda of world class speakers, cutting-edge innovation, and fascinating insight. Here are some of the highlights from across the two days.

Data drives the PGA Tour’s digital evolution

When Scott Gutterman first arrived at the PGA Tour back in 2005, the limit of the organisation’s digital operations was an official website. Fast forward 16 years and, in his role as senior vice president of digital operations, he is tasked with creating a digital experience that appeals to lifelong golf fans and newcomers alike.

“Since 2005 we’ve seen the greatest shift and decentralisation of content consumption we’ve ever seen,” he said. “In the past you would have watched on television or visited a website but now if you’re interested in sport you might be consuming it on five different platforms.

“There’s a lot of way for fans to engage with us and that has helped us reach new audiences.”

Data-driven applications and services are essential to serving these multiple user groups – especially for a sport that is difficult to watch linearly. One of these innovations is shot tracking, which provides insight into the type of shot a player is playing. The PGA Tour plans to expand on this significantly in the coming year to provide even more insight into what is happening on the course.

“We show shot trails from the tee to the fairway and then from the fairway to the green,” Gutterman explained. “We’re working on radar technology that allows us to do that all around the course. We’re going to reverse [the viewing angle] so you can see shots coming into the green and show the true putt path on the green [itself].”

Seattle Kraken and Cleveland Cavaliers use technology to create venues fit for the modern era

Attending a live sporting event is more than just about sport itself. Fans no longer turn up just to watch the game and then go home. They expect to be offered an experience that compares with other forms of entertainment, and they want it to be as easy and enjoyable as possible.

At Ignition we heard from the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Seattle Kraken and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Cleveland Cavaliers about how they are transforming their venues to meet this demand. The Kraken have the newest arena in the NHL (albeit with a roof that dates back to 1962), Climate Pledge Arena, while the Cavaliers elected to renovate their home, the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

“Back in 1994, the experiential aspect of sports wasn’t nearly as important as the event itself,” noted Michael Conley, the Cavaliers’ chief information officer.

Technology is critical to enhancing the fan experience at both venues. The Climate Pledge Arena in particular is a showcase for the latest retail and sustainability innovations, with the Kraken having looked to identify technologies that improve everything from security and ticketing to catering and bathrooms.

“We estimated that the average hockey fan spends almost an hour in line [at an arena] once they got on-premise,” said Todd Humphrey, the senior vice president of digital fan experience at the Kraken.

“One of the ways we’re tackling that by launching four marketplaces inside our arena that use ‘just walk in’ technology. These [marketplaces] are cashierless. You scan your way in using your palm if you’re pre-registered or a credit card [if you’re not] and cameras in the ceiling, sensors on the shelves and in other players that [detect] what you’re doing. If I pick up a bottle of beer and take it with me then I’m going to be charged.

“One of my favourite headlines so far has been: ‘I got a beer in eight seconds.”

Watch the full session here.

Tech disruption continues to steer Bruin Capital’s investment vehicle

“We want to invest in things that are changing the way people consume things.”

That line offered a neat summary of the investment approach employed by George Pyne, the former IMG and Nascar senior executive who, as founder of Bruin Capital, has since positioned himself as an astute investor in sports tech globally.

Speaking during his thought leadership session on day two, Pyne was in typically forthright mood as he explained some of the common threads that stitch together Bruin’s burgeoning portfolio of companies, including sports tech, data and digital-focused firms like Deltatre, Courtside Ventures, TGI, Full Swing, Oddschecker and Two Circles.

“We’re trying to innovate in every segment of the sports business,” he said. “Because, like technology is changing everybody’s life, it’s changing sport. I think people who are good at building a relationship with the consumer going forward are going to do much better.”

Pyne outlined some of the most attractive areas in sports tech for investors today, describing the rationale behind Bruin’s own investment priorities heading into 2022.

“One of the things we’re looking for is complementary businesses in some of the verticals we already have, and we’re also looking for a new platform to invest behind,” he said.

“What we’ve really invested in is technology. Why? There’s a tailwind, the margins are higher, and the growth fundamentals are very attractive. So we’ve really invested around the change. It’s working for us and the kind of returns we need to get for our investments, we find in technology.”

Content rules fan engagement in the eyes of Oracle

Oracle has long been one of the most influential players in the IT industry and is now increasingly involved in the world of sport, having partnered with the likes of the Premier League, Red Bull Racing and SailGP in recent years.

The company’s cloud-based infrastructure is helping these organisations manage and leverage their data assets to create new types of insight and content that engage fans during live broadcasts, on social media, and on other digital platforms.

The ability for sports organisations to aggregate, process and analyse disparate sources of data and customer touchpoints helps them create and deliver more relevant, personalised content for individual fans – strengthening and maximising the value of that relationship.

Toby McAuliffe, Oracle’s senior director of sports marketing and business development, and Amir Elrawi, director of sports marketing, were on hand at Ignition to explain the value of personalisation.

“Content is king,” said McAuliffe. “As you continue to build new and exciting content and continue to customise and personalise my experience, you’re going to continue to drive a deeper and broader fan engagement overall.

“Toby is not just a 49-year-old male, he’s a 49-year-old male with a wife and two kids who has attended two [Formula One] races in the past and is a fan of Max Verstappen and he normally watches 90 per cent of Verstappen-related content online, then you have more information to tailor the experience.

“I think that’s critical in this space.”

Technological innovation is essential for Wimbledon’s reputation

Every summer, the All England Club (AELTC) becomes the centre of the sporting universe for a single fortnight. Wimbledon has to ensure its technological infrastructure is robust enough and its content sufficiently engaging to satisfy that surge in demand, while also identifying ways to reach tennis fans in a sustainable manner for the other 50 weeks of the year.

Wimbledon’s overall strategy has one overarching ambition – to ensure that it remains the most prestigious of all Grand Slams. Its partnership with IBM is one of the longest and most successful technology partnerships in sport and has helped to elevate the tournament to new heights, bringing the Championships to life for fans who may never set foot in the grounds but follow eagerly on television and on digital channels.

“I think it’s fair to say that Wimbledon would not have the reach and relevance it does today without technology,” said Alexandra Willis, the AELTC’s communications and marketing director. “It’s a tremendous asset and something we value very highly.

“One of the most successful developments in recent times has been AI highlights. [Previously] we were running a manual process that was not particularly efficient and limited us in terms of how much we could invest in it and also in terms of what we could create.

“By applying AI, we can turn around highlights within four minutes rather than 45 and we’re able to create packages from every court rather than just the six or so that we had selected.”

Watch the full session here.

The Ignition Innovation Competition

The Ignition Innovation Competition, run in association with the German Football League (DFL), was one of the highlights of the whole event. It attracted entries from a host of startups across the five main Ignition categories, with the winner receiving a growth package of advisory support from SportsPro and its strategic partners to the value of US$100,000.

Tasked with deciding the winner of the inaugural Ignition SportsInnovation Award, a panel of expert judges had the difficult job of whittling down the entries to a shortlist of just five companies:

Buzzer: A mobile-first platform that provides curated short-form access to live sports content and alerts users via personalised notifications. This means they can watch moments as they happen and experience them live, rather than rely on highlights later on.

Sceenic: Social viewing software that combines synchronisation and video calling technology so fans can watch live sporting events in virtual chat rooms. It integrates with the broadcaster’s own application and powered BT Sport’s Watch Together feature.

Studio Automated: Computer vision software powered by artificial intelligence that helps any sports team organisation create content using relatively inexpensive cameras.

Slate: A content creation and asset management platform that allows sports teams and media organisations to create on-brand social media content within seconds. Its customers include the National Football League (NFL) and Manchester City.

Videocites: A video analytics and protection platform that tracks content across social media, including fan uploads, so professional sports leagues, broadcasters and brands can maximise the value of their content.

At the start of day two, Andreas Heyden, the chief executive of DFL Digital Sports, had the privilege of revealing that Slate was the winner of the grand prize and will receive their award at the DFL’s SportsInnovation22 event in Dusseldorf, Germany in May.

“Slate is a customer-centric solution, they really concentrate on solving customer issues,” said Heyden. “Slate helps you control quality and gain efficiency by managing a real-world problem.

“We all manage ten to 20 social media platforms and we’re always short on staff so we need to find ways to publish brand-safe content quickly. There are not many solutions out there and myself and the judges believe Slate is doing an awesome job.”

Congratulations to Slate, the four other finalists, and every sports tech firm that entered the competition.

Tech demos offer a chance to see innovation in action

Over the course of the two days, attendees were treated to demonstrations of some of the most exciting technological solutions in sports technology.

Conviva’s real-time analytics platform helps broadcasters unlock the full potential of streaming, providing insights to teams across the business. Marketing, advertising, technology, engineering, and customer care teams all benefit from a single source of truth, helping them to acquire, engage, monetise and retain audiences. Today, the platform processes nearly three trillion streaming events and supports 500 million unique viewers every day. At Ignition, Conviva showed off its Viewer Insight platform, explaining how the company helps broadcasters process nearly three million streaming events and supports 500 million unique viewers every single day – and why the likes of DAZN, ESPN, and Sky are customers.

Infront X launched last year, uniting the digital media and solutions business of iX.co with Infront Lab’s sports tech research and development unit into a single end-to-end digital solutions provider for the sports industry. Infront X is based in Zug, Switzerland and has nine offices across the world, serving customers like the PGA Tour, Verizon, Nascar, Fox , Chelsea, AS Roma, the International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Basketball Federation (Fiba).

LaLiga Tech was created as a means to commercialise expertise and innovations acquired through the digital transformation of Spain’s top-flight soccer league in recent years. The division provides customers with tried-and-trusted solutions that can be customised, scaled and integrated for customers of all sizes in the sport and entertainment industry. These solutions cover key areas like fan engagement, broadcasting, venue management, and performance analytics. At Ignition, LaLiga Tech shared its vision for sports technology and shared details of products it had helped create for customers.

Quantiphi offers artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered software for the sports industry, helping clubs, federations and broadcasters manage content, performance, and venues more efficiently and create new services for fans. The use of computer vision, natural language processing and other intelligent features make new services like automated content archiving, player tracking, and smart stadiums a reality. Although the company works with organisations across multiple sports, Quantiphi’s Ignition demo focused on how its intelligent, cloud-based portfolio could transform American football.

Sendbird creates cloud-based APIs that allow developers to integrate chat, voice and video capabilities to their applications. This might be for customer service purposes or to enable users to contact each other and increase engagement in an online community. Sendbird’s APIs are used to power the char capabilities in Dream 11, Reddit and Yahoo Fantasy Sports.

Singular Live allows rights holders to easily, quickly, and cost-effectively create on-screen graphical overlays for live and on-demand content, enhancing broadcasts and driving engagement. The platform doesn’t require dedicated or high-end hardware as it is web-based, meaning graphics can be added from virtually any device connected to the internet. This ease of use makes it possible to personalise streams for different audiences meaning broadcasts can be tailored for certain parts of the world or for fans of certain players. At Ignition, Singular Live showed the ease with which graphics could be made using only a web browser and how broadcasters were already using the technology.

The Football Company is building the ‘metaverse of soccer fandom’, creating a digital environment in which supporters can interact with each other and participate in digital experiences using 3D avatars. Fans can customise their avatars with officially licensed soccer kits (including from the German Bundesliga) and lifestyle items in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and can enter prediction games to win coins that can be turned into real cash. Attendees at Ignition were able to hear about the company’s vision and see the platform in action.

The world of sports tech in one place

There were plenty of other demonstrations over the course of the two days, covering the most important areas of sports technology. Here are some of the other companies that took to the virtual stage:

Thanks to everyone who participated in the inaugural edition of Ignition. SportsPro and the DFL hope to see you all again next year.

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