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Volume 21 No. 30
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Smart court maker PlaySight helps push boom in tennis tech

Down a long, winding, leafy private road in New Jersey, just 16 miles from Manhattan, is the 48-acre estate of perhaps the world’s wealthiest tennis coach, Gordon Uehling. Here in Alpine, N.J., one finds his private field house, where Novak Djokovic famously spends time during the U.S. Open in an egg-shaped hypobaric chamber, perhaps his edge in winning two titles in Flushing.

And now there is a new addition to Uehling’s tennis stable, one that could change the sport, and perhaps others: the smart court.

COMPANY WATCH

PlaySight Interactive

WHAT THEY DO:
Manufacture smart courts for tennis, squash and basketball
LAUNCHED: 2010 (entered U.S. market in 2014)
HEADQUARTERS: Kfar Saba, Israel
NO. OF EMPLOYEES: 45 (located primarily in Israel, the U.S. and the Ukraine)


LATEST EQUITY RAISE: $3.5 million last year, with a low to mid nine-figure raise ongoing
KEY INVESTORS: Novak Djokovic; Billie Jean King; Bill Ackman, founder of Pershing Capital; Ray Benton, CEO of Tennis Center at College Park
KEY EXECUTIVES: Chen Shachar, CEO; Yuval Bar Yosef, general manager, PlaySight USA; Evgeni Khazanov, co-founder
KEY CLIENTS: University of California, USTA, Virginia Tech, Duke, Courtsense, Wimbledon, French Open, BNP Paribas Open

Equipped with six HD cameras and an interactive kiosk, the court is programmed to train tennis players, call lines, and even stream matches (Uehling actually has three of them, two outdoors and one in the field house). The kiosk courtside controls the action. Want to practice crosscourt forehands? The system beeps to let players know if they missed where they were supposed to hit the ball.

The system uses image processing and analytical algorithms to record strokes, ball trajectory, speed and spin shot data, as well as player movement.

PlaySight Interactive, the company that manufacturers the court, is staffed by Israeli military veterans, who have adapted technology used to train their country’s fighter pilots. Investors include Uehling, Djokovic and Billie Jean King.

Currently a few hundred smart courts are scattered around the globe, but PlaySight CEO Chen Shachar predicts that number will hit 6,000 courts by 2020, buttressed by the company’s low- to mid nine-figure equity raise underway. Given that the International Tennis Federation estimates there are between 750,000 and 1 million tennis courts globally, the market could be far greater.

“We just completed our first installation in China, in Beijing. China is going to be huge,” Shachar said during a Skype interview from his company’s headquarters outside Tel Aviv. “Tennis used to be behind other sports in adopting technology. Last year we launched our smart courts, and Babolat digital rackets. Tennis is becoming — it is not behind, it is a leader in the adoption of new technologies.”

Smart courts produce performance statistics and even stream matches.
In the U.S., a handful of colleges and universities have begun buying the courts, which cost $10,000 and carry a monthly fee of $750. Virginia Tech assistant coach Stephen Huss credits the courts with allowing his players to improve on skills and scout opponents’ tendencies from previous matches that had been captured by the system’s data analytics.

Currently, only a few smart courts reside in the U.S. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has one, about a dozen colleges and universities have bought in, and some private clubs, like Uehling’s in New Jersey. But the company is ramping up, with its 45 current

employees expected to expand into the hundreds in the next few years.

Mark Ein, an investor in the company who also owns the Washington Kastles of Mylan World TeamTennis, said he wanted a smart court for this past summer’s WTT season, but the company was too busy to accommodate. He hopes to get one for next summer.

“There is no doubt that this type of technology is the future,” he said. “What PlaySight has done is bring the technology down to a level it can be used at a much broader level.”

FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: U.S. Open champ Novak Djokovic at a PlaySight kiosk; the company is expanding into basketball; the company envisions its courts spreading among tennis centers and academies.
Photos: COURTESY OF PLAYSIGHT INTERACTIVE
On the professional level, electronic line calling is handled on a few courts by Hawk-Eye, which can cost upward of $80,000 per court for three weeks. Data analysis is handled by separate deals that the tours and Grand Slams strike with companies like IBM and SAP.

PlaySight has been used on practice courts at pro events, and the company has discussed with the tours about expanding its use.

“Next year we will see more and more smart courts at pro events, but it is still not our main market,” Shachar said. “Our vision is PlaySight is the future of tennis. You will see PlaySight in every

tennis center, all the universities and academies.”

The plan is not to make a push into line calling at the professional level, at least not yet. That market is controlled entirely by Hawk-Eye, but cost has limited the reach so only one tournament in the world, the BNP Paribas Open, has it on every court (that event is owned by billionaire Larry Ellison).

“The line calling is not there yet,” Ein

said.

The main market is recreational and colleges. The system also provides live streaming, so parents, for example, can watch their college kids play matches.

PlaySight also is expanding into squash and basketball, and envisions the system as key to many sports in the future.

“It can be used for basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, martial arts,” Shachar said. “The capabilities are essential for many sports.”