Angela Ruggiero and Josh Walker led Sports Zone at the Consumer Electronic Show last week. Their company, Sports Innovation Lab, looks at where sports and technology intersect and uses data to help the technology and sport industries be more competitive in today’s complex environment. Angela was named one of Forbes Most Powerful Women in US Sports in 2018. I sat down with them to get a sense of the “why” behind their entrepreneurial passion in sports, and how sports organizations can leverage tech to stay ahead of the game.
Sanyin: Angela, you’ve had a storied career that started with breaking records—records in ice hockey and sports, and then on to L.A. 2020 as Chief Strategy Officer and the IOC. Tell me a little bit about your journey and how it relates to sports technology.
Angela: My journey started on the field as an athlete. My first career was getting to play sports for a living; getting to be a role model for thousands of people; getting to inspire America. That was something I had a huge passion for. But I always knew there was a career after my first career. I went back to school—back to HBS [Harvard Business School]. And my aperture widened even further when I was on the IOC [International Olympic Committee], getting to interact with 205 national Olympic committees, getting to see global sports, and understand the business of sports.
Within my experience on different committees over a period of time—with Los Angeles, or the Olympic Channel, and some of the big investments we were making on the IOC—I kept seeing how technology was shifting in the sports industry and shifting the sports industry altogether.
My journey started with curiosity: “How do I get better as an athlete?” Now, technology has helped us to ask, “How do we continue to improve the experience for athletes and keep costs down?” I wanted to explore the impact of technology on my world.
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Sanyin: What I hear in that story are your values and what you care about. When you were playing, it was about inspiring America and being a role model for others. And I love that you also talked about broadening your aperture—there’s that innate, constant curiosity to learn more. And another interesting thing is that, previously, you were in the public sector, a more social sector with IOC and sports more broadly, but now you’re going into the private sector. Those are so different, so was there any fear at all before jumping from public to private?
Angela: There’s always fear, also excitement. I love to challenge myself. I love to get better. I launched into something I didn’t have much background in, and it ended up being an opportunity to bring new knowledge back from the private sector to the social sector. If sports stay analog, for example, and if they don’t evolve and leverage new technologies, all the good things about sports I mentioned—the inspiration and connection—won’t have as much impact.
Technology is a necessary piece of the equation for bringing the private and public sectors together. Billions of dollars are being spent in industries that understand measurable impact is necessary to stay relevant. But a lot of sports organizations have a monopoly. They’re nonprofit. They’re the only show in town. However, competitive forces are showing that sports can be disrupted by Netflix, or e-sports, or other forms of entertainment. And if we don’t wake up and leverage the private sector—the technology sector—then all the good things that come from sports, like their global impact, will not be as great.
So, that exciting “Aha!” moment for me was taking the analytical mindset of my business background and applying it to the sports industry. I wanted to be able to help sports leverage the best of what technology had to offer to amplify sports’ impact.
If you understand that technology will help you to access more people, and that new platforms are shifting us away from broadcast media and towards digital and social media—younger people are consuming in different ways—you could have the best content in the world, but if it’s not being seen, then the world loses out. If you can bring together sports and technology, you can empower more people.
Sanyin: I heard that sports cannot stay analog because the world is now going digital. And then there’s this idea of amplification: it’s about empowering, but it’s also about amplifying the reach of sports because of technology. Everything in your answer right now is more about amplification through media, and we haven’t even talked about the quantified athlete and analytics! Can you tell me about whether you see Sports Innovation Lab more as a sports company, or more as a tech company?
Angela: First and foremost, we’re a tech company. We’re trying to fit in the middle of the sports and tech industries to make the market better
We’re a combination of sports and technology, trying to fit in the middle of those two industries and help the market better understand the power of technology (media, data analysis, and market research, to name a few).
Sanyin: If you look back in history, the rapid adoption and scaling of a technology often starts in sports. For example, radio and TV really became adopted because of people’s interest in, and passion for, the consumption of sports entertainment. Sports can be a gateway to the adoption and scaling of technology used in other fields, too.
Josh: That’s right. And when Angela and I talk about what our technology is designed to do, we talk about how it’s designed to help scale and amplify what’s happening in sports. We look at where we can apply our technology to find what’s having the greatest impact on sport. We think about how our technology can find who the most innovative leaders are: who’s immersing themselves into virtual reality, and who’s actually thinking about stadium sustainability, for example. The third thing we focus on is best practice. You can find the best technologies. You could be working with the most innovative leaders. But if you’re not really focused on best practices, it won’t work.
Sanyin: The questions you’re answering are the “who,” the “what,” and the “how.” The “how” are the best practices, the “what” is what they do, and the “who” are the best and most innovative leaders. So, Josh, tell me a little bit more about your story.
Josh: I spent most of my career at Forrester Research as a technology executive running their software and data business. When I met Angela, it was really about the next journey: How do I take a lot of different skills—a lot of different business experiences—and apply that to an area that I love and am passionate about because of my experience as an athlete growing up. I saw the opportunity to do different things through the lens of sport: children’s education, transforming media, reaching and expanding what it means to be a fan into different areas of people’s lives.
Most tech CEOs say they have an “Aha!” moment. I got an “Aha!” introduction through Angela, which opened up my eyes to a whole new opportunity here.
Sanyin: What did Forrester do? What was their superpower?
Josh: They worked with Fortune 1000 companies and helped demystify how technology was changing the world. Forrester and Gartner and those types of companies do something on the surface that sounds really boring: market research. But at its core, it helps executives think about their decisions with more information. They get more data. They get more feedback on what’s working. If you provide executives with insight and visibility into other markets, they can think with better clarity and competence.
Forrester did that at a time when the Internet was being created. I was there during those years, ’97 to 2004. It was the height of sock puppets, and eBay, and Amazon, and all of those scary business models that everybody was trying to figure out. I worked at the lowest levels of the company and made my way up to be a VP of several different practices.
Angela: And when we met—again, with my background sitting in the sports industry, seeing how slow it was to adopt change because even though there are hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s not pressurized like other industries—I saw a need to move more quickly and better understand the role of, and possibility of, technology. I think taking Josh’s experience and combining it with mine was the “Aha!” moment because the sports industry is as quick as other industries if they actually have a trusted, objective resource to better understand shifting forces.
Sanyin: So, you guys came together to start Sports Innovation Lab. What is Sports Innovation Lab and what does it do?
Josh: The power of the business itself is that we’re not reinventing a business model. We are a research, data, and advisory firm that’s very similar to Gartner or Forrester. We have research, we have events, and we have consulting. What’s completely novel is that, if you take your amplification theme, we are doing this with technology. So instead of hiring a bunch of analysts, which is very analog, we are building software and technology that can track, analyze, and predict what’s happening in the sports industry globally.
Angela: How we distribute content is also growing. In the future we want to create more video content and web series that will allow our users to interact with us. What are the different ways we can take this information—this research, data, and advisory services—and push it into the next generation?
Sanyin: One of the things I’ve learned about the Sports Innovation Lab is that you actually take quarterly dives into specific topics in sports and technology. For example, one quarter you looked at quantified athletes. What are some of those topics that you guys are exploring that you’re seeing as major trends in the sports industry?
Josh: Specifically, we are tracking innovation in e-sports to see how the competitive video gaming world is changing the way that the next generation interacts with media.
We draw that connection very concretely between an emerging trend like e-sports and the traditional sports that’s been broadcasted in a stadium of 80,000 people. But what if it’s not an 80,000-person stadium? What if it’s a distributed virtual community? What if the video game experience allows you to control aspects of the game live, like a soccer or football match? We believe it’s our job in this industry to take the data we’re collecting and connect it with the way people are operating today and show them the path forward.
Angela: But we’re fairly flexible in our model because while we’re technology-powered services, there are still services we provide on top of the tech. Today our business retainer model means we have an intimate relationship with our clients. They tell us what they need help with, and we can build data sets and provide advice based on their particular needs. We connect the dots across all the trends, and across sports and tech. We translate the market from sports to tech and from tech to sports.
Sanyin: From my understanding, you have software technology that can rapidly generate insights from the data. And that’s one product. But on top of that, people may not know what to do with it, and that’s where you’re consulting services come in. Am I on target?
Josh: Perfectly. For the last year and a half, we’ve been working with all these different brands. There’s over two dozen—the Verizons, the Googles, the Intels, the NBAs—and we want to learn how they use our innovation, too.
We think our clients fall into three personas. The first persona is the explorer. The explorer needs to learn about a new industry. They may just be exploring an industry and need information to get smart about it quickly.
Then there are the evangelists. These clients have a real stake in the game and need to sell internally and build momentum for what they’re trying to do. They might want to be evangelizing externally at an event or dinner to put their ideas out there and network.
The final persona is an accelerator. These are companies that’ve already made investments. They’re already knee-deep in this space, and they need us to act as an extension of their team. They might need us to build a business model, or a pitch deck, or help position themselves. Those accelerators can’t hire fast enough in this space, so they turn to the Sports Innovation Lab to make sense of the data and help them apply it to their business.
Sanyin: Talk to me about the partnership with CES [the International Consumer Electronics Show] and how it fits into your strategy and what the company is about.
Angela: CES is our main partner. They had the largest conference in the world focused on technology. They saw the need to consolidate and define a space that would allow all these sports/tech companies to come together in one location. They partnered with us to create the Sports Zone, which provides a showcase and networking platform for all of the major sports and tech companies.
One of the big differences with CES is that it’s primarily a tech conference. There are lots of sports conferences that are adding innovation arms or a panel around technology, but CES is all about technology first, sports second. We’re partners with them to map that space out, to drive the conversation, and to create research.
It’s powerful because sports are moving away from being an analog business and becoming a media business. It’s not just the athlete anymore—athletes are enhanced through technology. The fans demand better engagement, more interaction, and more lively stadium experiences. The whole industry is shifting away from this analog model to a digital model. We believe CES is a great partner to showcase that shift and trend, and they brought us in explain that to the market.
Sanyin: So, it’s a flip: traditionally the sports conferences are sports first, and then technology is secondary. This is really about technology and its application in the sports industry, and the feedback loop of how sports are amplified by or powered by technology.
Angela: The big shift here in my head is that the sports industry is being disrupted. It’s changing more quickly than any point in time. The sooner the industry as a whole understands that we should be talking tech-first rather than sports-first, the more likely we’ll survive.
- Technology has a twofold role to play in the future of the sports industry: amplifying its reach and intensifying the effects of its empowerment.
- Sports Innovation Lab connects the sports industry with data they need to move forward when the tendency has been to stagnate. The sports industry is moving from an analog model to a digital model.
- Tech and sport are in a feedback loop with each other: tech amplifies the impact of sport, and sport then drives the tech field forward.