SBJ/July 1-7, 2013/Media

Omnigon’s path to sports relevance

There is a simple, unofficial mantra operating in the halls of many major sports properties and networks.
“In Igor, we trust.”

Igor is Igor Ulis, chief executive and co-founder of Omnigon Communications, a digital media agency with offices in New York, Toronto and Kiev, Ukraine. Among sports fans and general consumers, the Omnigon name is basically unknown. But in less than six years of operation, the firm has become a vital, behind-the-scenes cog in the sports industry, servicing varied clients that include NASCAR, the PGA Tour, MLB Advanced Media, the U.S. Tennis Association, MSG Sports, Fox Sports, Sporting News and the Westminster Kennel Club.

For those and other clients, Omnigon has built mobile applications, helped develop and articulate overall digital media strategies, constructed online content management systems and large-scale databases, and created a wide variety of second-screen experiences.

“They’re essentially part of the family with us now,” said Marc Jenkins, NASCAR vice president of digital media. Omnigon aided NASCAR’s recent efforts to bring its digital operations in-house and developed several mobile applications for the property, including “NASCAR Mobile ’13.”

“They answer their phone at a moment’s notice, and it’s one of those things that they’ve been so important to us and
In less than six years, Omnigon has built an impressive client list including the likes of Fox Sports and NASCAR.
they’re so accessible that if you try to reach them and can’t, you immediately get worked up and start to worry,” Jenkins said.

The ironic thing is that Ulis is not necessarily a rabid sports fan and does not have an initial history working in sports. Rather, his professional background before Omnigon lies primarily in biometrics and hard-core database and software development work for Something Digital, a New York-based technology firm he helped create.

But in 2007, he crossed paths with David Nugent, who in addition to working on sports marketing for RDW Marketing & Media in New York, was involved in several grassroots ice hockey efforts, including the Got Skills youth program supported by the NHL. Volunteering at another youth hockey event in Harlem, Nugent met a colleague of Ulis’ and learned that both he and Ulis were ready for the next challenge in their careers. Omnigon formed the following year.

“There was a basic notion around taking data and creating new sports products, and we were both ready to do something else,” said Nugent, a firm partner and head of business development and client management. “That was still sort of a new idea back then, and we had this systems and software background we believed would lend well to the needs we saw out there.”

But deep technical expertise alone was and is far from enough to build a viable business, particularly in an industry as insular as sports where relationships are a lifeblood.

Ulis
Enter Doug Perlman and his media consulting outfit, Sports Media Advisors. Perlman, a former NHL media executive, had a tangential connection to Nugent through the latter’s grassroots hockey efforts, and was in the process of building out his own embryonic practice.

While at a barber shop with his three sons, Perlman received a seemingly random call from Nugent, but a clear fit quickly emerged. Perlman was looking for clients to help, and Omnigon needed Perlman’s Rolodex and access to sports industry leaders. Sports Media Advisors is now an equity stakeholder in
Nugent
Omnigon.

“From a technical perspective, they’re total rock stars,” Perlman said. “It’s not just Igor and David, either, though the yin and yang between them is pretty great to see. There’s a really deep, strong team behind them. And they’re not just great theoretical technicians but have real business savvy, too.”

Omnigon’s work with NASCAR has taken on several fronts, including the development of the mobile apps, the overall migration of the property’s digital operations from Turner Sports, and the development of a site for its conservation efforts, the Green Innovation program. And very little of it arrived without some sort of drama.

There was the high-pressure presentation of the new NASCAR mobile apps in January during Qualcomm’s show-opening keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show. But that white-hot spotlight from the tech community paled compared to the divergent fan reaction that same month to the graphics-rich, SapientNitro-designed website that veers sharply from the largely homogenous look and feel of other league sites.

“When you do something different from the norm, you’re going to get a polarizing response. But there was and still is a much bigger vision,” Ulis said. “And the thing with that entire project is that every single detail in the migration to the new system was completely detailed and scripted. It was the complete opposite of a free-for-all.”

The PGA Tour provided a similar, if perhaps less publicly debated, process. Like NASCAR, the PGA Tour was looking to forge its own digital path after a long period with Turner and utilized Omnigon as a systems integrator helping lead the conversion. The tour flipped the switch to its own digital platform late last year after more than 18 months of preparation.

“This was a huge job,” said Luis Goicouria, PGA Tour vice president of operations and business development. “It was a major step for us to migrate our site onto our own platform. It’s sort of like fork-lifting a house, or changing the engine of a race car in the middle of a race. But Igor’s one of those guys who gives you an immediate sense of comfort. He just totally knows what he’s doing.”

After the company’s humble beginnings, Omnigon now has more than 70 employees, and like many other digital outfits is eyeing the European and Asian sports markets. Already, the company is working on relaunching the CONCACAF website in advance of next year’s World Cup.

The company did not disclose specific financial results. But annual revenue has already quintupled since its formation, and individual projects are routinely billed in six and seven figures each, a marked change from the “$25,000 projects we did back in the old days,” Nugent said.

“Overseas is a really big opportunity for them,” Perlman said. “Their expertise applies to both the property side and to media entities, and there are still a lot of folks in these other, emerging markets that haven’t yet maximized themselves.”

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