NFL, Super Bowl, Olympics, and more
Never before has technological innovation had such an impact on how fast, far and high virtually all sports, and athletes can go. Driving the innovation is the world’s universal passion for sports, and the growing global market and revenues, that the industry supports. A recent Forbes article cites, Real Madrid – the Spanish soccer franchise – as the world’s most valuable sports team valued at $3.44 billion. The New York Yankees are valued at $2.5 billion and the Dallas Cowboys come in at $2.3 billion.
With so much at stake, the industry as a whole has amped up its focus on using innovation to push the participant and spectator experience beyond expectations. From global access to professional events to individual athletic performance, technology is shaping business strategies and delivering increasing value across the industry.
Trainers use augmented reality – once relegated to Star Trek rather than a football field – to sharpen athletes’ reactions. Biometrics measure players’ vitals and energy levels to determine when they can return to play after an injury. These are examples of how the sports industry is looking outside itself for innovations that provide a competitive advantage. Medicine, information technologies and lightweight materials from the space and aviation fields– all are making their contribution to the sporting industry, too, often through the process of Open Innovation.
Looking at three segments within the industry shows just how great the innovation opportunities are. These segments are Sports Delivery Services, Sports Products and Equipment, and Sports Requirements*. [i]
Sports Delivery Services & Products
Sports delivery services connect sports to participants and fans. Professional sports leagues like the NFL and NHL, amateur leagues, and organizations that manage and support them, like the NCAA fall into this group. So do the Olympics and outlets for consumers like fitness clubs, ski areas and golf courses.
These organizations bear responsibility for the very future of their sports, working to grow participation with new ways to engage fans and athletes. They solve issues including athlete health and well being, and develop innovations to enhance the fan or athlete experience.
Open Innovation gives us the power to effectively address an issue that we simply couldn’t impact on our own.
For example, The National Collegiate Athletic Association is currently working with NineSigma to leverage Open Innovation for addressing athlete safety and head health at the college level. John Parsons, Director of Sports Science for the NCAA states, “Open Innovation gives us the power to effectively address an issue that we simply couldn’t impact on our own. Our first step was to convene those from a variety of industries to narrow the scope of the problem. We continue to work with those partners and collaborators toward the pursuit of a solution.” The partners he refers to include major universities, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.
Sports products range from equipment and apparel to satellite television — any goods or technologies athletes or participants use to experience sports. Today, technology also plays a growing role in performance and marketing of new products.
Sports manufacturers are now accustomed to adopting innovation from far outside the industry.
For instance, basketball shoes are one of the most competitive athletic shoe categories. This is because professional players consider them equipment, and unlike other sports footwear, the shoes worn by pros are highly sought after and worn by fans. Nike has maintained brand dominance due in large part to its basketball footwear.
In fact, Nike turned to NASA when it developed its “Elite” series – a limited edition playoff design. Basketball players need light shoes that allow them to move and jump with speed and agility. And, they need support and stability. Strong yet light, carbon fiber was originally developed for air and spacecraft. It also makes an ideal heel counter and thin, light, durable footplate.
Another example of a sport that OI has advanced is skiing. The European ski industry has embraced wireless Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems to improve the experience. RFID chips embedded in ski passes mitigate the nuisance of lift lines for downhill skiers. The chips send signals to a reader to validate the passes, instead of an attendant manually checking them. So skiers to move quickly through lift lines, and reduce labor costs.
The systems also give these European ski areas a competitive advantage over North American resorts, where wait times can be longer. The roots of RFID technology trace not to sports, but to World War II, and really developed in the 1970’s when the U.S. Government at Los Alamos created a system for tracking nuclear materials.
In terms of equipment, Under Armour teamed with NineSigma to innovate their Armour39 monitoring device. Fitness tracking has come a long way from the days of measuring your heart rate with your wrist and a stopwatch. With so many wearable athletic technologies like the Fitbit to the Nike+ Fuelband to the UP by Jawbone, everyone from professional and casual athletes alike are embracing new ways to track performance.
This sparked the Armour39 Challenge, a multi-phase contest aiming to improve Under Armour’s own performance monitoring system, the Armour39. The contest incentivized innovators from around the world to develop new technologies in four categories: competitive analysis, exercise identification, heart rate profile and assessment, or other novel applications.
Sports requirements cover products and services to produce and enhance sports. For example, sports medicine, fitness trainers, governing bodies, sports officials and sports education are all included. Like sports delivery services, those in sports requirements put the participant front-and-center. They introduce athletes and fans to new training, emerging education and techniques to enable a healthy sporting experience.
Sports requirements organizations are taking advantage of real-time or near real-time feedback technologies spawned by social media to continuously adjust to fan and athlete preferences. For example, during the 2012 London Olympics, the Emoto project funded by The British Arts Council scanned Twitter accounts for tweets about the games, filtering words that convey emotion. The results were displayed in a swarm visualization of ribbon-like pennants. Warm colored pennants confirmed a favorable response while cool colors such as blue indicated a negative one.
Commercially, Emoto and similar instant research technologies can measure sports enthusiasts’ reactions to particular players, coaches and commentators. Given revenues at stake, especially in professional sports, these are akin to likeability tests and inform critical decisions regarding which athletes to keep, trade or pursue, which commentators to assign to primetime games, and even impact salary negotiations.
Sports Innovation & Safety
Sports organizations need to create a safe environment and standards. Keeping players healthy is an ethical responsibility, and good for business. There is also a trickle down effect. Parents are more likely to encourage children to play sports when they know safety is a priority.
The NFL, in partnership with General Electric and Under Armour, is using Open Innovation to address the issue of head health and establish guidelines and protocols for avoiding traumatic brain injury.
Their first Head Health Challenge invited proposals for scanning technologies and biomarkers. Among winning submissions were a blood test to rapidly identify and measure mild traumatic brain injury; a brain imaging technique to identify connections broken in the brain after a traumatic brain injury; and an electroencephalography (EEG) that may serve as an on-field imaging test. The second Head Health Challenge invited proposals for solutions that produce advancements in preventing, measuring and detecting brain injury, innovative brain protective materials and devices, and training methods that result in behavior modifications.
Winning submissions included a prototype medical device that can screen and assess concussions in near real-time; a revolutionary helmet that boasts a novel impact absorbing structure; and an under layer for synthetic turf systems designed to make fields safer for those who play on them.
A Glimpse of the Future
As innovation pushes the limits of the sports industry and athletes, scientists and biomedical engineers are developing technologies of the future – from hyperoxic masks for athletes to breathe higher levels of atmospheric oxygen to train harder and more efficiently to space-age prostheses to enable amputees to effectively compete in the regular Olympics.
As more organizations feel pressure to meet expectations, Open Innovation will drive more aspects of sports forward and shape the future of the industry. Don’t just be a spectator – get in on the action of OI and contribute to the future of one of our greatest passions on Earth, sports. You will be surprised at where it can take you.
 *Segments are described by Leigh Robinson in a chapter on “The Business of Sport” within the book, Sport and Society, A Student Introduction, edited by Barrie Houlihan, Loughborough University (Sage Publications, 2008).
image credit: o.canada.com
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Andy Zynga is the CEO of NineSigma, a leading global open innovation services provider that helps companies develop and maximize value from their innovation programs. He joined NineSigma in 2008, establishing and growing the European company presence rapidly and in 2009 he was appointed the Global CEO of NineSigma, expanding business across all regions.