Sports is big business, which means athletes are always looking for an edge. Sometimes they go about it in, shall we say, less than honest ways. After all, you have to be pretty desperate to win if you’re using needles and you’re not even getting a good buzz out of it. Even the world’s best athletes are willing to deflate footballs cheat to come out on top. Why? Is it the millions in salaries and endorsements? The smoking-hot swimsuit model girlfriend? Preferential treatment across the planet, from restaurants to hotels? OK, maybe we might be willing to transfuse a little EPO into our blood as well for all that. Fortunately, there’s no reason to shrink your testicles in pursuit of athletic excellence anymore. New types of sports technology, using everything from virtual reality to big data to smart wearables, is helping the pros and the weekend warriors improve their strokes and swings on the field.
An oft-reported sports industry report by PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that the North American sports industry alone will be worth about $73.5 billion by 2019. The global sports industry market was worth about $120 billion a few years ago, according to one statistic. From that perspective, the startups that we found operating in various aspects of the sports technology market are working on the cheap. The following seven companies broadly fall into what market research firms call the sports analytics market. Currently, said market is worth somewhere around $125 million. That’s about all these research firms can agree upon. The most pessimistic say that in the next four or five years sports technology will be worth somewhere just north of $600 million. Optimists among these research firms project some big home runs down the stretch, with sports analytics technology worth somewhere between $4 and $5 billion dollars by 2021-22.
Those numbers would seem to be extremely optimistic, but as we already said: sports is big business. Some professional sports teams like the Dallas Cowboys, which is the most valuable franchise in the world at $4 billion, is worth more than the GDP of about the 10 poorest island nations on Earth. (We’re guessing the Marshall Islands got screwed on the whole coconut water thing.) There are even a few athletes worth nearly as much, and you can only spend so much more on hookers and blow.
STRIVR Labs completed a $5 million Series A last December, after already selling its virtual reality sports technology to a number of professional and college sports franchises, including the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Pistons. It provides an immersive VR environment for athletes, who never have to step on the playing field to get in a few reps before the big game on Sunday. The Silicon Valley-based startup claims that teams have improved recollection of key concepts by more than 30 percent. UploadVR reported that STRIVR is now focusing on unleashing its immersive training program on the corporate world. On-the-job training just went virtual. Just like our dreams of being a stud star athlete.
Synergy Sports Technology
Synergy Sports Technology is one of a growing number of sports analytics companies that fall into the subcategory that market research firm ReportsnReports calls sports coaching platform technology. Pegged at a modest $49 million in 2014, ReportsnRepots predicts some kind of Hail Mary pass in 2021, saying the market will reach $864 million. What Synergy and its competitors do is create big data analytics products with plenty of highlight reels to boot. The information is valuable to teams for scouting new players and developing game plans. (Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were forerunners of the concept, with a startup in stealth mood in 2007 called SpyGate.) The NBA is a strategic partner—not entirely surprising given that Synergy CEO Garrick Barr was formerly a coach with the Phoenix Suns.
Named one of the most innovative sports companies by Fast Company in 2017, PlaySight is an Israel-based company that has raised $5 million, the most recent a $3.5 million Series B in 2014. Its main sports technology is the SmartCourt, which varies depending on the sport. Its flagship product is a SmartCourt for tennis (we’re told it’s an official sport), which includes a camera-and-kiosk system that offers livestreaming, instant multi-angle video replays and detailed statistics for every shot. The system uses advanced image processing and analytical algorithms to capture and log stroke type, ball trajectory, speed and spin, in-depth shot data, player movement and more. The company says there are more than 600 SmartCourts worldwide, most in North America and Europe, with a smattering in Asia. See the video below if you need to work on your backhand:
Another favorite of Fast Company, FocusMotion leads off our review of several sports technology wearables geared more for the consumer market. The Los Angeles startup, from what we found, is pretty modestly funded at $170,000. What the company is actually proposing to do is far from modest. It says it can apply artificial intelligence, through machine learning, to any wearable device on any operating system. Its market is actually developers, who download FocusMotion’s software development kit to make their own applications. Pricing is also modest.
FocusMotion doesn’t make any money for the first 10,000 users. After that, it collects a shiny quarter for every new user of the application developed with its powerful SDK, which even includes a pose analyzer module for yoga. Our downward dog could use some work.
Another sports technology wearables company, French startup PIQ raised $5.5 million in a Series A round in 2015 to back its multi-sport wearables technology. Its platform consists of an AI system called GAIA that it claims was the product of 50 engineers—all to understand human motion in sports like boxing, tennis, golf and kiteboarding (yes, really, kiteboarding). The retail part of the operation is the PIQ robot, a sensor and nano-computer that sells, contingent on your sport, from $79 to $269. The athlete gets real-time analysis of how well he or she is carving up the double black diamond moguls run on Mary Jane with a special app. And, of course, you can share that with your Facebook friends.
Zepp is PIQ’s better-funded competitor from Silicon Valley. The startup has raised $20 million, with the most recent round a respectable $15 million Series B in 2014. Its wearables sensors, retailing from $99 to $149, are made for baseball, golf, tennis and soccer. For example, the baseball sensor attaches to the end of the bat handle, and provides statistics on each swing, such as bat speed at impact and attack angle. It provides analysis and goals for improvement, and it also includes video lessons from Major League Baseball players and coaches on improving your swing. Zepp is even endorsed by all-star slugger Mike Trout. Who can argue with a .315 batting average and 29 home runs?
An Irish startup with offices in Cambridge, Orreco is a mashup of different sports technology analytic techniques. With total funding of just over $3 million, Orreco is just coming off a $2 million Series A funding round in February. Orreco applies artificial intelligence through IBM Watson to “map structured and unstructured data from athlete biomarkers, performance, diet, sleep, weather and travel plans” against the backdrop of all the world’s collective knowledge about sports science. The ORRECO app sends recommendations to a coach’s mobile device on everything from what an athlete should drink before going to sleep to what to eat after a game. It can also identify players who are at risk from injury or fatigue. The company has worked with more than 2,000 athletes, including about 40 Olympic medalists.
Well, that was quite a workout. We think some of the more interesting companies to watch in sports technology are those in the wearables sector, which is still evolving. Consolidation is under way—Fitbit recently bought Pebble Watch—and the sensor technology is improving at exponential speeds. We’re not far from moving beyond understanding our golf swing to understanding our mood swings with AI and some of the technology we’ve just highlighted. And that will be big business someday.
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