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Hackathons: the benefits to sports businesses from staging them

Over the last five years the hackathon has been adopted by several major rights-holders. Kevin McCullagh discusses the impact of hackathons on sports businesses.

Over the last five years the hackathon – competitive product development and problem-solving events originating in the software development industry – has been adopted by several major rights-holders.

The NBA hosts its third annual hackathon this month [September]. The first #FCBayernHackDays took place in January 2018. Adidas ran a hackathon across five cities in Europe this year, culminating in a grand final at its global headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

The hackathon concept emerged around the turn of the millennium as a series of small challenges for groups of coders to solve computer programming problems. They quickly caught on within the tech industry, and companies and venture capitalists began hosting hackathons to solve business challenges, forge links with the tech community and generate startup ideas.

The most common set-up sees participants formed into teams and sequestered in a venue with a day or two to solve the hosts’ challenge. Variations on the format seen in the sports industry include Euroleague Basketball’s Tech Challenge, in which the competitors are existing startups; and Tennis Australia’s inaugural Tennis Hackathon in 2018, a data science challenge hosted online and open to entrants working remotely from around the world.

Rights-holders and other sporting organisations told SportBusiness that hackathons could help:

  • Solve real business or sporting problems
  • Forge links within startup and tech communities
  • Identify tech talent to hire
  • Import tech industry processes and thinking, such as Agile software development and Lean product development
  • Increase ‘speed to market’ for digital products
  • Companies position themselves as tech-savvy brands.

They don’t always produce workable solutions, but for most rights-holders this is only part of their goal.

Adidas uses the hackathon concept “as a tool to accelerate speed to market, improve team collaboration and bring know-how to the company”.

Hackathon goals

Tennis Australia’s January 2018 Tennis Hackathon was a refereeing challenge using hawk-eye tracking data. Driven by Tennis Australia’s Game Insight Group, a data science collaboration with Victoria University, the goal was the automatic recording of forced and unforced errors by players during games.

Solving the problem is considered part of the GIG’s mission to “revolutionise the sport of tennis through science”. It also has a commercial impact, says Tennis Australia head of innovation Machar Reid: “There’s a cost associated with having that human sit courtside. If you automate the labour force, that’s dollars you can spend otherwise.”

The competition was a way of getting a larger group of scientists working on it. “We’ve got some in-house data science acumen, but…it’s a limited resource so we wanted to go out to the wider community to seek a bit of support,” explains Reid.

Brand positioning was one of Euroleague Basketball’s goals in hosting its Tech Challenge, which is being run again in 2019, after a successful first iteration in 2018.

“We’ve always tried to make technology part of the EuroLeague brand,” says Stephen Dobson, director of digital and content marketing. “Basketball is quite stats-heavy and quite a technologically progressive sport…so it’s a nice way to showcase that we’re out there doing interesting stuff.”

The Tech Challenge has already become part of the league’s sponsorship inventory, Dobson explains: “There are a lot of brands out there that want to be aligned with that technological innovation story…we do some of these [technology] projects already and they don’t always have a nice, easy PR angle beyond a press release. This was a way to generate even more exposure around what we do.”

Euroleague was also seeking to strengthen links with the sports startup community. “It’s about putting Euroleague on the map in the tech community as one of the first meetings to have when you’ve got a cool new product,” Dobson says. “Let’s say there are 100 per year and five are amazing, you want to be in the first couple of meetings that those five have so you can get the opportunity and get it first.”

Euroleague was also keen to get innovative people and companies thinking about its business challenges. In the first iteration, it asked startups to come forward with technology and solutions that would enhance one of three areas:

  • Business (ticketing, event management, arena management, smart venues)
  • Marketing and communication (fan engagement, communication platforms, apps and gamification, social media tools)
  • Sports performance.

“We wanted to look at some of the business challenges we’ve got and get some of the cool companies and startups out there to think about how to tackle them,” Dobson says.

Challenges set by other recent hackathons in sport range from exploring ways to make car journeys part of the fan experience – a challenge run in partnership with club sponsor Audi from Bayern Munich’s 2018 hackathon – to creating “a new digital shopping experience” in Adidas’s 2018 European hackathon series.

The NFL’s first hackathon, in February 2016, gave participants access to the league’s Next Gen Stats Data and asked: “What information or patterns can you surface out of the data that can provide new insight into the game, educate the fan, or demonstrate the game in ways never-before-seen?”

Running the perfect hackathon

  1. Set objectives

“Be really clear on your expectations, really realistic, and clear on the problem,” says Reid. “If it’s a PR play, that’s fine – you’ve got a clear set of expectations, and a way forward to measure ROI. If it’s more genuinely aligned to an advance that might help you from an operational or performance point of view, again just be realistic with your expectations and clear on what the problem actually is. If you’re not realistic, then on either account I think you’re probably set up for failure.”

San Francisco-based BeMyApp is one of the companies that has sprung up to organise hackathons for corporate clients. Its EMEA head of communications Maria Duloquin said the company recommends would-be hackathon hosts prepare with a workshop that gathers all arms of the organisation to decide what problems the event should tackle:

“We will go to the client’s office and run a meeting where we list all the potential objectives on coloured Post-it notes, and then the client chooses just one…by analysing with stats which would have the biggest impact, or by deciding which is the biggest bottleneck.

“By having different business units involved…they can be sure it’s a global decision, not just one taken by the innovation department. There may be other business units that may be really interested in taking part.”

  1. Logistics

Venue size will depend on the number of participants – some hackathons have over 100. BeMyApp advises a large space with workspaces for the hackers, a conference-style set-up for talks and presentations, adequate electrical power and sockets, and fast Wi-Fi – ideally 50-100Mbps per participant.

“There’s nothing worse than budgeting for a certain speed, then some hackers come with two or more devices and it all crashes,” says Duloquin.

A hackathon’s location will to a large extent dictate who enters it. To broaden their geographical reach, some hosts contribute towards travel expenses and accommodation for competitors.

This is one advantage of online, remote competitions like Tennis Australia’s hackathon, in which there were 750 participants from 55 countries – including 223 from India, 78 from the US and 51 from Australia.

Juries can be simply composed of relevant staff from the host. Euroleague Basketball went further, inviting an international jury of sports business experts to sit alongside the league chief executive Jordi Bertomeu. These included executives from its agency partner IMG; sports trade publisher and networking event organiser iSportConnect; and event partner the University of La Salle-URL. Manchester City Football Club’s 2017 hackathon featured club chief executive Ferran Soriano on the judging panel.

Cash prizes are typical. Manchester City’s 2017 hackathon offered £10,000, plus VIP tickets to a game and signed jerseys. Tennis Australia’s offered US$5,000 for first place, US$2,500 for second and US$1,000 for third.

Where the host wants a workable solution or product, jobs or contracts may be on offer. The prize in the Euroleague Tech Challenge was the opportunity to run a trial with the league. Of the nine firms that attended the live event, the league is running pilot projects with three and has signed agreements to work with two more in the 2018-19 season.

Many hackathon entrants give up their free time to take part. Understanding why they do so is useful in attracting them and running a successful event. Duloquin says: “Taking the example of developers, they are often curious-minded people who have moved from a hobby to a job, and their developer job may contain a lot of monotonous tasks…a hackathon gives you the freedom to create something.”

The social aspect of hackathons is a big attraction, as well as the intense, competitive burst of work that will hopefully produce a product or a solution that the teams can be proud of. Other attractive factors include opportunities to work with new hardware, software or data, to network with tech staff at interesting organisations, and to get a peek inside those organisations.

To keep competitors going during the hackathon, Duloquin advises that plenty of healthy food and drinks are made available for competitors – not just pizza and beer – as well as spaces on-site where they can break away from the work to relax, socialise and even sleep if they are working overnight.

BeMyApp advises that engaged mentors from the organiser are on-hand constantly during the event to speak to competitors, guide their ideas and make sure they aren’t going down blind alleys with their solutions.

  1. Agenda

Who is going to introduce the challenge to the competitors? Will there be a speech to introduce the host? Are there technical partners or technical aspects of the challenge to be introduced and explained?

All these elements need consideration, as does the social aspect: BeMyApp recommends ice-breaking and team-building events on the first day (so teams can be formed and get to know each other); workshops for competitors (a common feature is a training workshop to make sure teams are able to  pitch their ideas effectively on stage); conducting the pitches (typically, teams will have five minutes each to present their solution to the jury); Jury deliberation time; presentations to winners; and a celebration to finish and reward competitors for their hard work.

A typical three-day agenda might look like:

Day 1: hackers arrive; introductory speeches and presentations; hackers organised into teams and start work on challenge; social events in the evening.

Day 2: full day working on solutions and preparing pitches, interspersed with workshops and coaching sessions.

Day 3: teams prepare demos for mid-morning; conduct pitches, the jury deliberates; winners are announced; social event in the evening.

  1. Resources and cost

Hosts can expect to spend in the region of €30,000 for a typical event with about 60 individuals taking part, with the event lasting about three days. Tennis Australia’s online hackathon cost less at around $12,000 (€10,000). At the very top end, larger hackathons with more than 100 entrants, followed by an incubation period of several months to develop the winning product, can cost over €100,000.

Costs include: promotion; venue hire; travel, accommodation and entertainment expenses for entrants and jury members; and prize money.

  1. Partners

Few organisations have the resources and know-how to run a hackathon themselves. This is where specialist agencies come in. There are also specialist online data science competition hosts – Tennis Australia used Crowd Analytix, although the biggest in the space is Kaggle, which hosts challenges on behalf of major corporations and government agencies, with prizes extending to over $1m.

Other types of partner may be desirable. Sports hosts may want to involve their sponsors. Leagues may want to involve their teams. Euroleague Basketball’s Stephen Dobson says its partner La Salle University – which is next door to the league in Barcelona, has a big focus on technology and is well-plugged into the tech and startup communities – was critical in delivering the Tech Challenge, in particular attracting entrants.

Dobson adds that, for the next Tech Challenge, a media partner may be sought: “I think that helps with exposure in the B2B community and also you’re more likely to get higher quantities and an even better quality of applicant as well.”

  1. Intellectual property

There are various intellectual property issues that hosts must navigate, including who will own the ideas generated at the hackathon and protecting valuable IP that competitors have access to during it. These are often handled in participation agreements signed by competitors. There are different models for addressing these challenges, and hosts should seek professional advice in doing so.

Outcomes

Both Euroleague and Tennis Australia were happy enough with their inaugural hackathons to the point where they are planning second editions. Neither produced complete solutions to the challenges set, but this was always understood by the hosts who nevertheless derived enough value from the events.

“We always knew that this was step one in what would be, probably, a three-step process,” says Reid. “Step one was let’s get this group of experts to do a large amount of work and compete against one another to advance a prototype. From there, we take that, using our in-house expertise, and improve the model, moving it closer to implementation.”

Tennis Australia hopes to test the model against the current, human-powered method of marking forced/unforced errors in the game within the next two years.

The organisation saw other benefits from the project, including becoming aware of a pool of potential talent. “You are forever interested in those people that are (1) passionate about the area and (2) have the expertise,” Reid says. The International Tennis Federation has since hired the third-place finisher from the Tennis Australia hackathon.

It also generated kudos for Tennis Australia as a forward-thinking organisation. Reid says: “It kind of surprised me how much interest we got, not only from the machine-learning community but also from the sport of tennis. It was kind of like, ‘Wow, look what you guys are doing’.”

Euroleague Basketball came out of its first hackathon with two agreements on joint work in 2018-19 and three ongoing pilot schemes. The agreements covering 2018-19 are with Content Stadium, which helps editorial teams create graphics for social media; and another, as-yet-unnamed firm with a product based on blockchain technology. The pilots are with NFC Sound, which enables notifications to mobiles inside arenas to be transmitted via sound waves; Couch Coach, an in-play fantasy coaching game; and Pico GP, which also enables in-arena communication with fans via mobile devices.

“We were really happy,” Dobson says. “The pilots are still running, we’re still assessing those…but I don’t think we expected to have nearly 50 per cent of the finalists taken to the next step.”

Even the process of choosing the finalists from the 62 entrants was useful: “You go into these things and you’re never really sure what you’re going to get back in the first year. But there were some really interesting companies in there, and it opened our eyes to some new things we could do with our sponsors.”

Euroleague also of course gained a new piece of sponsorship inventory and another strand to its technology innovation story for conversations with potential sponsors.

To really capitalise on the work coming out of a hackathon, BeMyApp recommends an incubation period of up to three months afterwards to properly develop the winning solution. In this scenario, the winning team works with the host, on a temporary basis at least, to finalise the solution.

“Usually in a hackathon the final product is an ‘MVP’ – a minimum viable product – the simplest version of the solution that you want to make,” Duloquin says. This means further development, feature-building and testing before it can be rolled out.

Though hackathons are still novel in sport, the positive experiences of Euroleague and Tennis Australia – and the growth of the sports tech sector – suggest they will become more common in the next few years.

While they are logistically challenging and unfamiliar undertakings for sports organisations, hackathons nevertheless promise a range of possible benefits – including real answers to business challenges, new partners and brand positioning – at a relatively low cost.

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