Why Sports Startups Are The Next Big Thing

Sports are increasingly looking to smaller, more agile companies


Technology has caused huge disruption in almost every industry imaginable over the last decade. Sport, however, has managed to get by relatively unscathed. In terms of team performance, things like wearables and data analytics have been widely embraced, and these have undoubtedly provided a boost to the fitness and skills of participants. But given the money in many sports, innovations in other areas have been few and far between. This is finally beginning to change though. Sports organizations and broadcasters are increasingly looking at tech startups to improve every facet of their operations, from ticket sales to their digital media output.

Digital media, in particular, has a number of start-ups looking to make a mark. Millennials consume their content in very different ways to previous generations, and online companies that target them are having great success. Organizations like Whistle Sports and Bleacher Report, for example, are producing a range of sports-related videos, which are often both funny and viral, for every platform. In less than two years, Whistle Sports’ subscriber base has swelled to 131 million, growing at a rate of 2 million per week, according to the company. Whistle also works with 320 channel partners to reach its target demographic of 14-30 year-olds. The Consumer Technology Association has even named Whistle its startup of 2015, and it has now partnered with European sports broadcast giant Sky in September to launch a new collaborative social media channel.

The advantages for startups looking to break into the industry are many. Sports teams come with a ready-made, loyal, and attentive user base. This is especially good for companies looking to build sports apps, as it means return users for apps. A recent study found that 20% of apps are opened just once, and only 39% more than 11 times — which means an astounding 61% of apps are opened 11 times or less. For sports apps, on the other hand, user retention, is 67%, only beaten by weather and reference. BT has recently launched a contest to discover the next ground-breaking technology for deployment in sports broadcasting, with the winner receiving six months’ support from BT’s research and innovation teams as well as six months’ membership of TechHub.

There are also easy and clear marketing opportunities with sports. Games like the Superbowl are programmed into the brains of every football fan, and startups can exploit such big games by planning special promotions, contests and offers around them.

The Los Angeles Dodgers Accelerator program is another initiative that has recently been launched. Startups can use the scheme to apply for funding and support for their technology products, and there are similar projects popping up at teams across the US. Ben Shields, a lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry, notes that: ‘I firmly believe we're in the era today where sports teams are media and technology companies at their core. Partnering with startups in accelerator programs or one-off arrangements provides teams with potentially valuable sources of innovation that they may not be able to develop internally’. Such innovation could see teams that may have been previously uncompetitive, teams with little money, maneuvre themselves to join the top table, and it is likely to be an exciting few years.


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