<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-P36XLWQ" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

WSC Sports, the NBA and starting the personalised video evolution

Custom highlights is a string many sports properties and broadcasters want to add to their bow. Aviv Arnon, co-founder of Israeli technology startup WSC Sports, reveals how a chance meeting with the NBA in 2013 helped put the company's automated content solution on the map.

5 March 2020 Steven Impey

Similar to many startup technology firms in Israel, the origins of WSC Sports can be traced back to a time when a group of ambitious engineers, having written algorithms for the country’s military, left the army with a desire to do something altogether different with their training.

Originally envisioning a coaching tool for basketball, and then a platform to give sports fans control of their viewing experience, university friends Daniel Shichman, Aviv Arnon, Shmulik Yoffe and Hy Gal went about developing their own automated solution for tailoring sports highlights to the user’s unique preference.

Founded in 2011, WSC Sports’ idea has since been adapted for 15 different sports and federations around the world. In October, the Tel Aviv-based company was selected to work with European soccer’s governing body Uefa as part of its startup programme, a clear indication that the world’s largest sports organisations are exploring ways to integrate cutting-edge technology into their content production and delivery processes.

“It was something that we originally built for the coaching space and the performance side,” recalls Arnon, who is now the company’s chief business development officer. “When we decided to look at whether this could be a sustainable business on its own, we tried to figure out how we could turn it into a scalable opportunity and what we could bring to the market that didn’t already exist.

“We started out with a lot of naive aspirations for what we could do, but later on we learnt how the market operates. At its core, the technology itself was built to give every fan what they want to see, and basically let the fan control what interests them. That’s when we began thinking about taking this to the fans.”

University friends (left to right) Shmulik Yoffe, Hy Gal, Daniel Shichman and Aviv Arnon founded WSC Sports in 2011

In the autumn of 2013, at a time when few sports entities gave too much thought to machine learning, the WSC team found themselves knocking on the door to the National Basketball Association's (NBA) New York offices.

One of the earliest adopters of WSC’s integrated technology, and among the first to buy into a digital content strategy built on artificial intelligence (AI), the NBA has become something of a beacon for innovation in sport, investing in technology it believes will help attract new fans.

“At the time, we were also part of an accelerator programme managed by Microsoft, and we had just found our first investors,” Arnon continues. “We were asked who would be our dream customer; let’s say we succeed and we build this, who would that be?

“As fans, we all immediately said the NBA. You have to remember that they have hundreds of these kinds of pitch meetings every year, so you never know whether something like this is going to happen.”

Their first contact came through the NBA’s Development League, which has since been rebranded as the NBA G League. It serves as a testbed for new ideas before successful candidates are drafted into the production suite for the NBA proper.

After we had just found our first investors, we were asked who would be our dream customer who would. As fans, we all immediately said the NBA.

Amy Brooks, the NBA’s chief innovation officer, told SportsPro during the 2019 off-season that the “personalisation” of content was the next big step for the organisation, an area that WSC has been working on for the best part of a decade. But it was Bob Carney, the NBA’s vice president for emerging media and formerly director of digital products, who arranged the meeting with Arnon’s little-known startup that was dreaming of making it in the big leagues.

“He was the one who identified the opportunity,” Arnon adds, “but he kept laughing about how poorly designed our presentation was. At that time, we showed how our system could break down the game and allow every fan to create their own highlights, but we also said that it could be automated.

“They then said, ‘Wait a minute, did you say this whole thing can be automated? Can you prove it?’ We said yes, and about a couple weeks later they started giving us the streams to the Development League, and we never looked back.”

Innovation is a common, and almost innate, characteristic built into Israeli culture, which goes some way to explaining WSC’s tall ambitions, says Arnon. “Everybody has an opinion about something and everybody thinks they can build something on their own,” he expands. “There are high aspirations, and every other Israeli has a startup in their mind.

“I think Israel, as a whole, is sort of a startup itself. If you think about it, in 70 years it has had to invent itself and has now, while a small country in a hostile environment, become one of the most technologically advanced western societies.

“Therefore, a lot of the technology came from a necessity [to innovate]. In the past, there has been a lot of security-driven innovation that has led the industry, but now Israel is fertile ground for young, ambitious kids to start developing their own thing.”

Israel may be a small market but it punches well above its weight when it comes to business enterprise. With a population of around 8.5 million, it has the largest number of startups per capita – approximately one for every 1,400 people – than any country in the world. Those unique market conditions generally mean entrepreneurs must look internationally if they want their business idea to gain traction.

“Israeli companies are looking global first,” Arnon goes on. “They are not built for the domestic market, though sometimes the domestic market can be a great testbed. So while we have that ecosystem and culture to help each other, one of the key things for us to be successful was to nurture those relationships over time. You begin by trying to tell your story, and to prove to people that your idea sticks.

“There were early adopters, like the NBA, but we had to wait for the right timing, for the media rights landscape and the operational side to fit to [the technology]. The NBA has been sort of a design partner for what the market actually needs from the technology, so if we can say that AI-generated highlights is one thing, today our system is using the technology, with the AI in the background, to generate a lot of different content experiences.”

In addition to the NBA, WSC Sports’ wide-ranging client base now includes Major League Soccer (MLS), Germany’s Bundesliga and Japan’s J.League, as well as golf’s PGA Tour and Cricket Australia. Its technology has also been adopted by major media companies, including WarnerMedia, Discovery and Bleacher Report, while Uefa will use it to customise footage for different regions and younger, digital-first audiences.

In December, too, WSC struck a deal with Amazon to create bespoke content alongside the US technology giant’s debut as a Premier League broadcast partner in the UK. Leveraging its AI-based software, the company facilitated the automated production of live highlights and an interactive replay function during Amazon Prime Video’s streamed coverage of 20 matches from English soccer’s top flight.

Having identified sports media as a gap in the market, WSC started out by building relatively simple software that highlights individual moments and storylines within a game of basketball. As part of its evolution, the next step was to adapt the technology to different sports, and to create algorithms that would essentially enable its software to differentiate one sport from another.

“You never start out successful,” Arnon says, reflecting on the company’s early years. “Our company started out small but, ever since, we have continued to expand. The US has been a very progressive market, so we started out by travelling a lot between the States and home, and what we have been trying to do ever since is to keep a really high level of service and let our customers know that we will do whatever it takes to succeed.

“We are now powering a lot of different touch points where fans meet our customers. It started with the NBA, but we are now supporting 15 different sports, and the technology is very specific to each sport. You could say that it is all based on AI, but it’s multiple algorithms, machine learning, information analysis, and data technologies all mixed together into a very content-specific solution to understand what is an actual event in each sport and the meaning it bears within the game.”

In demonstrating WSC’s technology, Arnon explains how its software can be adapted to identify key plays within a specific game or event within different sporting codes; whether it is a fallen wicket in a cricket match, a tee shot during the Masters, or a three-pointer in the NBA, the software is designed to understand a sport’s individuality.

He refers to “the narrative of sport” that sits beyond run-of-the-mill match highlights. While live sport naturally isn’t scripted, he explains how machine learning and AI can be wired to compile a series of clips that tell the sub-plot of any game. The system, he says, has proven to be a powerful tool for rights holders on the lookout for peripheral and engaging content to serve to their fans.

WSC created bespoke content for Amazon’s debut as a Premier League broadcast partner in the UK

“It can identify the story,” he says. “In the system, we have tried to facilitate ways to tell different kinds of stories that aren’t simply a game recap, but a certain narrative – goalkeeper saves, or perhaps a comeback in tennis from two sets down – which is more complicated.

“Every time we’ve ventured into a new sport, people are then asking whether we can do this for something else, let’s say cricket or golf. We know that we can because we have done it 15 times before, but in the beginning it did take a little bit of a leap of faith for everybody to jump in.

“We’re not replacing any of the existing workflows. What we really do is give editorial teams ‘super powers’ to multiply what they used to do and create new experiences. Then, by working with our partners, we can facilitate opportunities for their sponsors and partners to engage their fans in a way that matters; whether that be for a fantasy game, a betting opportunity, or signing up to an OTT service.

“What happens today, whenever our partners have a new initiative or requirement for video, instead of building a new content team to facilitate that, they can set our technology to their system to generate the content unique to their brand.”

While a pioneer for automated content delivery, WSC has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Though inspiration can be drawn from its story – of how an upstart emerged from a non-traditional sports market seeking to change the way global sports properties engage with their audiences – Arnon says the company must continue to adapt, too, especially as demand grows for content that is personalised to the consumer.  

Originally developed for basketball, WSC Sports' platform is utilised by at least 15 sports globally

“We’re not going to slow it down,” he continues. “As a startup, you start as hard and as fast as you can, and, while from the outside it looks great, we know there is so much more we can do, so we approach every new challenge knowing that the stakes are much higher.

“The military was perhaps the fertiliser for the Israeli industry, but the industry has a character of its own now. It has a great ecosystem, including all those investors looking for something new, whether it is some of that new talent, or a billion-dollar company.

“So to keep succeeding, it means you have to do double what we have done over the last eight years. We are building a sustainable business that can offer more and more services, so when you consider that [entrepreneurial] culture we have in Israel, we are trying to nurture that into the culture of the company.

“It started with us four founders, but with everyone who joins the company, we want everyone to come with their own ideas. I think we all benefit from that.”

While the density of the Israeli tech market might be seen as a barrier in other territories, Arnon says there is now a greater willingness among investors to inject capital into new businesses in the country.

Minnesota Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf are investors in WSC Sports

Overall, WSC itself has raised US$39 million in funding to date, including a US$23 million round in August, split between 23 venture capitalists, that will be used to further its exploration around AI-powered video creation.

Among its investors are WISE Ventures, a company owned by Mark and Zygi Wilf, the billionaire owners of the Minnesota Vikings National Football League (NFL) franchise; Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise and Quicken Loans; HBSE Ventures, the venture capital arm of HBSE, owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers; and Rio-based Go4it Capital.

In 2019, the company grew to more than 100 employees, and now operates across three offices, with satellite teams situated in Sydney and New York. As the company continues to expand and attract new investment, Arnon says there is no time for WSC to rest on its laurels.

“Coming into the office is a surreal experience,” he says. “The company is based on about 70 per cent engineers and is very technology-focused, including our business development teams, because you need to be able to relay the solution and its challenges to sports properties and media broadcasters.

“We have doubled the business and people over the last four years. We just surpassed 110 people and recently we expanded office space in Tel Aviv. We are expanding on many fronts, but the opportunities within sports are still vast.

“There are many other territories and sports that we want to work with. We are also looking at how sport consumption is changing and how our technology, while everything is delivered in real-time, can facilitate new experiences and create new market opportunities.

“People do laugh at me sometimes because they say that we’re not a startup anymore, but there is no doubt that we are. This is still a high-pace, no-sleep environment where the stakes are much higher.”

1 / 1insight articles read

You’ve reached your article limit for this month. Please create a free account to continue enjoying our content.


Have an account?