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The sports industry, like any other, moves ahead on the momentum of great ideas. And no flow chart, organizational diagram or spreadsheet can tell us when or where that next leap forward will come. It just happens.
In SportsBusiness Journal’s second edition of Idea Innovators, we again take a look at some of the people in sports who are there when the lightning strikes, when “What if?” suddenly becomes “Maybe we could …”
This crop of Innovators has done battle with a variety of questions — How do we best get streaming video to fans? How can technology help our athletes perform better? How can we make a postgame concert not sound like it’s coming through a drive-thru speaker? — and emerged with answers that gave properties, fans and even competitors something new to consider.
In addition to telling a little of their stories, we asked our Innovators how they do it. One way is to learn from the efforts that don’t quite reach the finish line. One recalled a project that was halted by a business decision but paved the way for successful efforts to come. Another found lessons in running a New York City restaurant that have transferred to a different discipline.
We hope you enjoy your time with our latest collection of Innovators. Perhaps reading their stories will help inspire the next flash of inspiration at your company.
Photo by:REPLAY TECHNOLOGIES
Oren Yogev, chief executive and co-founder of Israeli-based Replay Technologies, has a deep background in high-end military technology, spending more than a decade working on laser guidance systems, drone manufacturing and video recognition platforms.
But in his words, it was “helping armies kill people. And I want to entertain people.”
Enter Replay Technologies. The company developed an advanced panoramic replay system for TV sports that creates a 360-degree view of key moments and provides a deeper, almost 3-D viewing experience without the need for a special TV or glasses.
The technology has been used by the YES Network for New York Yankees home games after a trial run during the gymnastics competition in last summer’s London Olympics, and the company is nearing deals for several other deployments.
In each instance, multiple cameras are tied to proprietary algorithms to create a single, blended image, somewhat similar to how animation or computer graphics work. The resulting video appears as if there is a flying camera hovering over the field, but the camera positions are all fixed.
“I wanted to tap more into my creative side, and we see a lot of opportunity ahead with this system,” Yogev said. “There’s an immersive realism to these images, and we’re providing vantage points and views of the games not otherwise possible.”
— Eric Fisher
In the competition for attention and revenue in pro sports, Major League Soccer is trying to think differently. That’s why an innovator like Chris Bettin is vital to MLS as it strives to become one of the top sports leagues in the U.S. and one of the top soccer leagues in the world.
In just over three years at MLS, Bettin, 33, has made his mark running the product development and club services teams of MLS Digital.
While overseeing the league’s push beyond Web into social media and mobile, he is launching its new second-screen experience, Golazo, which is now in beta. Golazo leverages new technologies such as Web sockets and HTML5 to engage fans with real-time content during matches. MLS views Golazo as a digital leader in sports, citing its integration of statistics, commentary, social media comments, video highlights and photos.
Bettin is also creating new experiences in the fantasy sports realm for soccer, like 3 Goal Monte, where fans predict three players who will score a goal during a week.
“We want to put an emphasis on contact — how fans are able to connect with each other through MLS and how the league can connect with fans and win new ones,” he said.
Bettin, who earned his MBA in technology management from the University of Washington, oversees eight software developers at MLS. His objectives over the next year are straightforward.
“We want to build great products where people want to talk to other people,” he said. “We need to drive better television ratings because I’m convinced that the potential audience is there. And right in our wheelhouse at MLS Digital is statistics: How do we take soccer to the next level with statistics?”
MLS is counting on Bettin to come up with the answers.
— Christopher Botta
Photo by:AKAMAI TECHNOLOGIES
It should come as no surprise that a man at the forefront of streaming live sports via the Web and mobile is a mathematics genius with a long list of academic awards. Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai Technologies, is one of the world’s foremost thinkers when it comes to applied mathematics and complex algorithms. Before he founded Akamai in 1998, Leighton was a professor of applied mathematics at MIT.
In the world of sports broadcasting, Leighton could be the man who finally wrestles live sports from the clutches of television.
“We’d like to deliver all the major sporting events in ultra-HD quality to any connected device to any point in the world,” Leighton said. “Our goal is securing digital rights from the major players in that industry.”
Akamai has 40,000 servers around the globe. It does everything from oversee video delivery to manage e-commerce and security for team and league websites.
It has streamed major sports events for years, and it began streaming games for Major League Baseball Advanced Media starting in 2004. In 2009, Akamai streamed the PGA Championship, and in 2010 it won a bid with the NFL to stream games in HD via the league’s website. Akamai also works with the NBA to manage 45,000 streaming assets.
Leighton said the next step in the evolution of streaming is to increase the quality of video. He said ultra-HD-quality video will become the norm in the next few years. The higher quality and easier accessibility could make the connected device the preferred platform for sports viewing.
“There is an ecosystem around sports that is very important to us,” Leighton said. “There is a live delivery, there are VOD clips and commercial transactions, security to protect the websites. It’s an important component for our overall revenue.”
— Fred Dreier
Paul Gilman designs audio technology for major league teams to deliver a better listening experience at their stadiums — for both the fans attending events and the artists performing game-day concerts.
Gilman, a musician, producer and composer, owns GilmanSound, a Los Angeles company that produces computer software that reshapes sound waves and distributes them evenly in a stadium. It is a substantial upgrade over the often choppy distribution of sound at many stadiums.
“The technology itself evolved from mastering [a song] in the recording studio,” Gilman said. “In a studio, you do everything you can to make it the best you can, then send it to a mastering lab and they fine-tune it. We’re kind of like a mastering lab in a sports facility. We’re at that level.”
Over the years, Gilman has written numerous scores for television and feature films and produced recordings for Leon Russell and The Temptations. About five years ago, Paul McCartney was the first artist to “hear my encoding process and use it in a world tour,” Gilman said.
Gilman’s sports connection started about three years ago. A friend’s ties to former Dallas Cowboy defensive back Charlie Waters led to the Jones family testing Gilman’s technology through headphones during Keith Urban’s Thanksgiving Day 2010 halftime performance at Cowboys Stadium.
“We had Charlotte [Jones Anderson] literally jumping up and down wearing the headphones,” said Gilman, referring to the Cowboys’ executive vice president and chief brand officer and daughter of team owner Jerry Jones.
The NFL lockout put the Cowboys’ plan to implement the technology at their facility on hold, Gilman said. Down the street, though, the Texas Rangers caught wind of Gilman’s system and installed it for the start of the 2011 season to improve the ballpark’s audio production.
Starting last season, the Rangers expanded the technology’s capability to include plug and play for postgame concerts on the field. The system streamlines concert production by allowing bands to use the ballpark’s power system without having to haul truckloads of gear to the venue.
The acts perform on a stage that the team rolls out after the game. They plug into speakers providing audio exclusively to fans on the field. The park’s regular speakers feed the audio from the stage to all levels of seating.
The technology provides an acoustical mix on par with a concert hall, Gilman said.
For the Rangers, the GilmanSound system has helped eliminate many of the expenses tied to paying artists and vendors to produce concerts on the North Lawn outside the ballpark. Rob Matwick, the Rangers’ executive vice president of ballpark and event operations, confirmed that the team has saved a few hundred thousand dollars since those shows moved inside the park in 2012.
Elsewhere, the Houston Astros recently signed a deal with GilmanSound for plug and play concerts at Minute Maid Park.
In Arlington, the 75-minute concerts begin on the field within 15 minutes after the final out, a quick turnaround made possible by the plug-and-play system. This year for the first time, the Rangers allow fans on the field for the concert. The team sells 1,200 field passes for $10 apiece and generates revenue from postgame food, drink and merchandise sales.
The best indication of the superior sound quality is the thousands of fans who remain in their seats to listen to the concerts, including a large number of people sitting behind the stage. Those behind the stage have views to the video board broadcasting the performance.
“It’s a testament to what he has delivered for us,” Matwick said. “The nice thing about Paul is he’s been on stage and knows what the artist wants as well as the fans. It’s a nice balance.”
— Don Muret
Photo by:SARAH BRUNSON / USSA
“I look for pain, things that take a long time, and I just try to automate them,” Flanagan said.
That impulse and a brief meeting at a World Cup ski race with a USSA donor, Jim Chiasson, who owns his own software company, led to the creation of Amp Sport. The software system was designed by Chiasson’s designers, and it allows athletes to record everything from how much they sleep to how many sets they do in the weight room. The information is recorded in an app on their Sprint phones and shared instantly with coaches and the USSA’s high performance team. The system also assigns athletes a training regimen from 6,500 exercises, includes video that illustrates how to do various exercises and offers a social media tool to share strategies for skiing at coming competitions.
“Athlete management systems in the past have almost always failed because the technology wasn’t there,” Flanagan said. “But the time is right now to produce these analytic systems to enhance performance. Last year’s World Cup season was the first time I’d seen an amazing difference in the amount of data available to us. People were saying, ‘For the first time, I know what’s going on with every athlete.’”
Flanagan pointed to two examples of ways that Amp Sport improved USSA’s operations. If an athlete injures his shoulder, Flanagan can click a button and review his training log to determine what he did in prior weeks. Did he do too many sets? Was the weight too great one week?
“Boom, we see it,” Flanagan said. “We can figure out what didn’t work and change training programs with ease.”
Another example is the change in the way coaches analyze skiers. At any given time, the U.S. Ski team has data on the top 30 athletes in the world and information on how their rankings progressed from the age of 16 to where they are today. It compares those top 30 athletes’ progression to its own athletes to determine who is on track to be among the best in the world. Those calculations used to take coaches three months to compile, but the new system automated it.
Flanagan believes that saving time like that and improving the management of athletes’ training will position USSA for success at the Olympics.
“In Vancouver, we doubled our medal count,” he said. “These are developments that are going to allow us to keep doing that, and we’re going to see tremendous results.”
— Tripp Mickle
Photo by:JOE FARAONI / ESPN
Marina Escobar can thank an old-fashioned weather machine for her career as a graphic artist. The machine was state-of-the-art in the 1980s when the local broadcaster where she worked bought it.
“Before then, the weather was simply putting magnets on walls,” she said. “When the new weather system came out on the computer, it not only did weather, it did graphics, too.”
A broadcast journalism major from the University of Oklahoma, Escobar had spent the early part of her career in the news department, writing and even appearing on air. Escobar jumped at the chance to learn how to operate the weather machine when the station manager asked for volunteers to operate it.
“I run a group that’s a combination of technologists and people who have design skills,” she said. “When I interviewed for this job, I kept stressing, ‘You understand I don’t have a technology background.’ And the answer was ‘Yes. We have enough technologists. We’re looking for someone who can be more creative and package up what’s built.’ I was surprised when I got the job, and I think they were surprised when I took it.”
— John Ourand
Photo by:RAJAH BOSE
Sankar Jayaram remains a firm believer in 3-D technology.
Jayaram, a Washington State University professor of mechanical engineering and computer science, is the co-founder of 3D-4U, a company developing 3-D technology for mobile devices using sports as the key content. Last month, about the same time ESPN announced it would discontinue its 3-D channel, Jayaram was in Qatar capturing video of a World Cup qualifier soccer match for Al Jazeera Sport.
It was among several tests 3D-4U is conducting for potential clients around the world as Jayaram pushes the technology beyond the venue into the hands of the consumer.
It fits with the development of 3-D mobile Web browsers that do not require users to wear special glasses to view those images, Jayaram said.
The mobile piece follows an initial application at Washington State’s Martin Stadium. Last fall, the school rolled out 3D-4U technology in 21 new suites, folded into 47-inch HD TVs. Fans can choose the camera angle they prefer with the ability to pan, tilt and zoom in on the action.
The mobile version is the next step, allowing users to control the cameras, create their own clips from replays, and share those files with others through social media channels, Jayaram said.
Jayaram, 52, has studied 3-D technology for more than 20 years. The 3-D patents he filed as far back as 1994 went nowhere in large part because the system he developed was ahead of its time.
“I learned from that,” Jayaram said. “Just knowing that you can build the technology is not a good enough reason to do it right away. You have to make sure the market is ready for it.”
— Don Muret
Photo by:GOLF CHANNEL
Mike Lowe grew up as a golf nut. When he graduated from Providence College in 1997, he picked up a customer service job at FootJoy, something he described as a “dream job for kids in Massachusetts.”
Lowe moved through sales positions at the company, eventually becoming project manager for the FootJoy line of golf shoes. Then in 2001, company President Jim Connor told him traditional marketing — and Lowe’s project manager role — would change dramatically.
“This was exactly the time we were looking for somebody to run and manage FootJoy.com,” Lowe said.
Lowe knew little about the Web, but he decided that a move into interactive would be good for his career. He started managing what he called “content brochure-type” websites. By the time he left FootJoy, he oversaw 13 international websites involved with everything from interactivity to e-commerce.
Lowe joined Golf Channel in 2010 and manages the media side of the business and e-commerce-related products.
— John Ourand
Photo by:FOX SPORTS
“Our department is responsible for creating all of the graphic packages for every show on FS1,” Fields said. “It’s continuing to evolve some of the technologies that we use and have implemented over the last couple of years.”
Fox Sports Media Group has placed a lot of trust in Fields, who started as a production assistant for the network in 2000, just after graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The optical player tracker that Fox Sports implemented for football provides a case in point.
“We took a system that was only working for soccer in Europe and gave that capability for our production teams to point out players and track them in real time as the game is going on,” Fields said.
Fields and Mike Davies, vice president of field operations, approached co-President Eric Shanks with the idea, and Shanks agreed to roll it out to start the network’s college and pro football schedule. ChyronHego provided the optical player tracking while Sportvision provided the graphic interface and rendering.
“It was an ongoing development throughout last season,” Fields said. “At the end of the season, I think we gave production a great tool for their broadcast.”
— John Ourand
When digital media company NeuLion formed nine years ago, sports wasn’t an immediate focus. Rather, the goal was to more broadly form a global service to provide over-the-top digital video delivery.
But soon enough, Chief Executive Nancy Li and her colleagues learned that nearly all the major trend lines around digital video were converging around sports.
“This was just something, and still is, about live sports, and having that content live and in the moment that was tailor-made for what we do,” Li said.
Within a few years, the company held partnerships with nearly every major property in North American sports, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, UFC and dozens of major colleges.
Among the more innovative projects spearheaded by Li include the deployment of the popular All-22 coaches’ camera angle for the NFL GamePass package, and the UFC’s interactive video product that blends alternate camera angles, live scoring and social media integration.
Li and the company are now actively exploring how to harness the increased power of the forthcoming generation of video game consoles such as the Xbox One slated for release this fall.
“We’re still at the very beginning, and there’s still so much we can do,” she said. “These newer devices and their additional processing power give us a lot of additional ways to provide unique experiences.”
— Eric Fisher
Jonathan Wilner, vice president of product for digital video technology company Ooyala, remembers in the early 1990s watching primitive efforts in interactive television with Montreal Expos games and Quebec cable operator Videotron. Four dedicated camera angles were available, with a continual stream of on-field statistics and even player salaries.
The video quality was far from high-definition, it required a set-top box, and consumers often didn’t fully understand how to use all the options. But in many ways, the service was ahead of its time.
And in concept, it’s not much different than what Wilner and Ooyala now help dozens of sports properties and media outlets provide in a digital, high-definition environment.
“We’ve sort of come full circle from those early days of interactive TV, and the technological capabilities have now caught up with the interest that was always out there,” Wilner said.
Among Ooyala’s recent initiatives under Wilner has been to support the video efforts of the Pac-12 Digital Network, an ambitious initiative that had TV Everywhere squarely in mind from its very beginning.
“Perhaps the biggest sea change we’ve seen of late has been everybody is now thinking digital first and not having that be an adjunct,” Wilner said. “But it makes sense. There’s really nothing better than sports to have that dynamic where the viewer is fully in control.”
— Eric Fisher
Stats LLC for years has had a steady, successful business distributing scores and statistics to thousands of media outlets around the globe.
But Brian Kopp, head of Stats’ sports solutions group, was among those who felt the company could do much more, particularly in the fast-advancing area of motion tracking, in which players and the ball are monitored in real time.
That real-time data, in turn, has opened a vast new realm of sports analytics, radically altering how teams in many sports develop their rosters and expanding the content that fans receive.
Buttressed by Stats’ 2008 purchase of Tel Aviv-based optical tracking firm SportVU, Kopp has quickly built the company’s motion tracking business into an industry force. SportVU is now used by 15 NBA teams and a large number of European soccer clubs, and he is actively pushing the technology into other sports, including American football and hockey.
And Kopp was at the forefront of a more recent deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers in which SportVU data, almost always closely guarded by teams, is displayed for fans on the center-hung scoreboard at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We completely saw motion tracking as an important, disruptive force, and something that would bring about new layers of information,” Kopp said. “But just as important, this is something that completely fits into who we are as a company. This isn’t just something that sits aside our core business. It’s fundamentally part of our DNA.”
— Eric Fisher
Photo by:SCOTT HUNTER / NASCAR MEDIA GROUP
After rain postponed the 2012 Daytona 500, Brian France directed the NASCAR Research and Development Center to develop a system to dry racetracks so the sport’s biggest race would never be delayed from Sunday again. He wanted to reduce the time spent drying a 2.5-mile track by 80 percent, to 30 minutes.
Mike Horton and several colleagues had an idea for it. They wondered if they could develop a compression system that blew rain down the banks of a racetrack and onto the apron, where it wouldn’t be an issue.
“We discovered the more water you can get off the asphalt the quicker it will dry,” Horton said.
Pushing the water off the track, they reasoned, would make jet dryers’ job of drying a track easier. They collaborated with Ring Power, a heavy equipment company that makes air compressors, and developed a system of compressors that could be pulled behind a pickup truck, blowing water to the apron. NASCAR contracted Elgin, a company that makes vacuum sweepers for cities, to provide vacuum trucks that could collect the water on the apron.
NASCAR named the device the Air Titan. Its use during a rain delay in May at Talladega helped reduce dry time by an hour.
Horton said one hour isn’t quite 80 percent, but “we’re still in phase one.”
“Our goal is 80 percent,” he said, “and I feel we can reach it.”
— Tripp Mickle