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Garth Shephard: ‘The sports tech market feels like it’s going through an early adopter phase’

Garth Shephard, a partner at recently-launched sports tech investor and adviser Sightline Ventures, discusses how technology is driving sport in response to generational shifts and how swifter adoption of new technologies will keep significant new revenue within sport and not in the pockets of third parties

Bradley Beal #3 of Team LeBron demonstrates Verizon's 5G technology as he shoots a free throw at the Verizon Up Arena at LACC. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

What excites you about the relationship between technology and sport?

Sport is unique – sports organisations and athletes benefit from millions of self-proclaimed, highly loyal and passionate fans located around the world.

The sports technology sector is in its relative infancy, so I’m excited to see how it can both learn from other industries’ successful application of technologies as well as create new technologies to improve athletic and corporate performances, generate better fan experiences, increase sustainability, and turn more fans into customers.

What’s driving innovation in the sports space?

Many things but the most powerful driver is the emergence of Generation X, Y and Z, as they have different values and habits compared to previous generations. They are highly mobile and social, prefer short-form to long-form content, video to text, have a strong gaming culture, prefer user-generated to professionally-generated content, and are being influenced by non-traditional factors resulting in reduced brand loyalty. They have expectations of freemium models, micropayments, privacy and personalisation.

This generational shift is forcing the sports sector, like many others, to drive innovation across the board from fan engagement, distribution/broadcasting, content, marketing and sponsorship. The increasing popularity of short-form games (e.g. T20 cricket) and the rapid emergence of new sport formats (e.g. esports) has been driven principally by the emergence of Gen X, Y and Z.

Garth Shephard

Conversely, what are the forces/factors which stifle innovation and create obstacles?

The cost of new technologies is prohibitive to many smaller sports organisations. Whilst there is an interest to adopt new technologies they simply can’t afford to do so. This may just be a timing issue. We have seen in other industries that the cost of technology reduces rapidly over time. Innovative sports technology companies should be thinking how their pricing models should be structured to appeal to most of their addressable market, not just a small part of it.

The lack of tangible ROI from many sports technologies is also a factor. Currently the sports tech market feels it’s going through an ‘early adopter’ phase for many technologies – customers are investing in new innovations because they’re new and cool. This period doesn’t last too long and is soon replaced by a need to demonstrate ROI. Again, I think this is a function of time, strong investment cases will start to become more widespread and with that, barriers to adoption will be broken down.

Let’s not forget the human barriers. The pace of technological change is increasing. History is littered with examples of failed industries and companies who have not understood, reacted quickly enough, or have even blocked innovation and technological change. Many sectors of the sports industry have enjoyed significant funding from long-term, linear broadcasting rights and traditional sponsorship models. Whilst those revenue streams are extremely lucrative, it may inadvertently create obstacles for technological innovation (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”).

Finally, there are a large number of sports organisations who are currently sitting back and taking a more risk-averse position, letting others take the adoption risks while they wait for the winners to emerge.

What was the inspiration for Sightline Ventures and what are your ambitions for it?

Each of our partners – Rebecca Hopkins of the STA Group and Cardiff Blues director, Martyn Ryan, formerly of Genesis Investment Management, as well as myself – have been watching the sports technology ecosystem evolve over the past few years. During that time there have been a number of dedicated incubators and accelerators emerge but not much else which really helps sports technology companies continually grow their business. Accelerators are good at helping start-ups get on their feet by applying a predominately ‘one size fits all’ proposition, but what they can’t do is deliver a full-service proposition designed specifically for each company. It’s not their business model.

We aim to help accelerate the growth of the world’s best young sports technology companies and create a portfolio of complimentary, high performing businesses which are recognised as the ‘go to’ solutions for key aspects of the sports sector.

You make a point of being ‘stage agnostic’. Why is this important and how does it distinguish you from others in the space?

Being stage agnostic means that we are able to add value continually to our clients throughout their life cycle, from start-up to scale-up and beyond. We call that ‘growth partnership’. That’s unique in the market. Our partners have significant experience advising and adding value to early stage companies with no revenues, to companies generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue (and everything in between).

In what particular areas of sports tech is transformational work taking place?

Every single facet of sport is being affected by technology at the moment so it’s hard to narrow it down. If pushed, I’d cite data and its ever-increasing applications within the sector, from improving athletic performances, to managing a team’s tradeable assets, to delivering highly personalised and localised fan experiences, and the use of AI and ML technologies to deliver predictive game, asset, and management applications.

More specifically, what recent technological developments have particularly impressed you?

I’m excited about the potential of immersive technologies within the sports sector. This technology has the potential to dramatically transform how fans interact and engage with live experiences, how sponsors and marketeers connect to those fans, both inside the stadium and at home.

360-degree experiences are becoming more commonplace within broadcasting, but the real game changer could be the growing adoption of AR or MR delivering touchline experiences for the masses, and eventually being able to consume live sports in real-time through the eyes of their favourite athlete.

In the medium-term, how will technology change the consumer/fan experience of live sports events and the way they are viewed by a wider audience?

In the medium-term, technology has the potential to deliver more exciting, engaging and personalised live experiences. That may include real-time, personalised fan engagement experiences, the use of immersive technologies, food and beverage orders delivered quickly to your seat. Underlying all of these is the need for smart venues with super-fast connectivity. Without this infrastructure being in place, the live fan experience won’t change that much.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the live fan experience. Crowd management technologies, contactless ordering and payment will all have a part to play in the future.

What new commercial opportunities will technology create?

Technology will help deliver a range of new commercial opportunities, ranging from the use of holistic fan data to sell highly personalised products at the right time and right place; to new distribution platforms and services to engage and monetise new audiences; new tools for clubs to manage their tradeable assets more effectively; immersive technologies to grow audiences and deliver experiences that can be monetised in different ways.

The sports industry as a whole can learn a lot from how other sectors have implemented technology successfully to deliver compelling commercial outcomes, directly or indirectly. The sports sector is the envy of most other sectors – it enjoys an international and extremely loyal fanbase, but the sector has been generally slow in monetising those assets which others have taken advantage of.

Increasing the speed of technological adoption within the sports sector, and the resulting commercial opportunities that will bring, will result in significant additional value being generated and kept within the sector.

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