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Opinion | European sports industry has ‘an antipathy’ to tech start-ups

Technology may be shaping the future of sport but SnapRapid CEO Russell Glenister thinks there is a deeply ingrained conservatism towards tech start-ups in European sports organisations.

There has been an interesting debate recently about why more or less all the world’s biggest tech sector companies are born, bred and based in the USA and why Europe has not been able to produce the 800 pound gorillas of the tech world like Google, Facebook or Amazon, let alone the near-ancient silverbacks like Microsoft and Apple.

Let’s narrow our focus to the world of sport where I have an interest through my business SnapRapid The company can no longer be classified as a start-up as it has clients, revenues and even suitors. But believe me, getting to that point has been an eye-opening process, particularly when compared to building my first tech company and selling it to a company owned by Bill Gates.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in sport both on and away from the field, court or track – so much so that it has spawned websites and competitions dedicated to promoting and discussing how technology is advancing sport from every conceivable angle.

One of these websites, www.sporttechie.com, has a regular focus on tech start-ups in sport and a glance through its archives is revealing. Of the first 10 start-ups covered on the website when I last looked, not one was headquartered in the UK and only two – in Valencia and Dublin – were from Europe. Of the remaining eight, five were from the United States, one from South Africa and two from Israel.

Now there are sure to be a number of reasons for this, among them the ease of obtaining funding, availability of the right kind of people and backing from educational research establishments.

But I am also beginning to think that, in the sports sector at least, there is a deep-rooted cultural reason – a nervousness about engaging with start-ups.

I’ve spent much of the last year in meetings with sports governing bodies in the UK and Europe and, in almost every one, the apparent antipathy to start-ups has been the first hurdle to jump.

To be clear, I’m hardly a novice at this game. I have started and retain interests in several successful businesses. I enjoy the first phases of developing a business but find the initially negative and non-responsive attitude to start-ups among the sports community in Europe more than a little frustrating.

The difference in attitude became clear recently in a meeting with an NBA team in California which was all of the things which most of my experiences in Europe were not.
In the US, the meeting was an opportunity for discovery, to learn something new and consider ways that could be turned to specific commercial advantage. They had done their homework beforehand and were willing and ready to discuss, ask questions and really engage. That meeting ended on a positive note with a brief for a project.

What a contrast to some of the meetings in the UK and elsewhere where people have often been disengaged and appear unprepared to probe, to learn and to be excited.  And all too often the first question is, why should we work with a start-up?

In Europe, the attitude I have most often encountered is ‘show us your medals’ and that the medal which is most valued is for long service.

They used to say that ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ a neat phrase which, in its day, spoke to a certain type of exec burdened by corporate responsibilities and expectations. But the subtext – stick with what you know, stay safe, don’t rock the boat – hardly reflects progressive, dynamic and entrepreneurial attitudes.

But remember, even IBM, which traces its origins to the late 1880s, was once a start-up as, more recently and more famously, were Apple, Facebook et al.  The difference is that in the US start-ups are celebrated – they even make successful movies about them.

At SnapRapid we’re now into post start-up phase, developing beyond our initial proposition to create new products and services. I’m glad to say that we’ve caught the eye of all the most established names in a marketplace which has evolved faster than they have managed to and who now want to work with us.

That’s not been down to luck. It’s because I have been here before and have refused to be disheartened by the initial response of those who won’t see beyond the fact that size isn’t everything.

But is has made me wonder how many other companies in the sports technology sector – companies with great ideas and fizzing with potential –  don’t make it past the first hurdle. It’s a real waste and a missed opportunity for all concerned.

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