- UniqFEED believes its software-based virtual advertising solution is ready for significant growth in sports like baseball and football in 2021
- New CEO appointment will help to steer strategy over critical months ahead
- Company could consider strategic partnerships to drive expansion
The virtual advertising space is heading into a critical phase, and Switzerland-based uniqFEED has a battleplan to fight its way to the front of the queue with a software-based solution that it hopes will become the sports industry’s preferred option.
The company’s proprietary AdApt product allows virtual content to be inserted or overlaid onto existing perimeter boards in a broadcast feed, allowing rights-holders to present different advertisements to different audiences in different regions simultaneously.
As opposed to the more established hardware-based approach, which typically requires a significant physical presence of cables, wires and on-site technical support staff, uniqFEED’s offering relies on the receipt of camera signals and the “final cut” programme signal.
Between 50 and 60 frames are captured every second, with the software identifying exactly where each camera is looking whilst taking into consideration other factors – including weather conditions and the possible presence of athletes and officials in front of the boards – to ensure a seamless viewing experience.
However, whilst sports executives have long been convinced of the concept of virtual advertising, uniqFEED is acutely aware that the sector has a history of “over-promising and under-delivering”, according to Professional Sports Capital chief executive and founder Jamie Cunningham.
Cunningham is on a six-month secondment at uniqFEED, leading a project management office on behalf of the company’s board of directors and investors until the arrival of a new chief executive after founder Lukas Gysin stepped down in October to concentrate on “his strategic focus” on the board.
Having overseen a review of uniqFEED’s business and the broader market alongside former IMG colleague Doug Billman and ex-Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis, Cunningham is convinced that the right foundations, expertise and financial firepower are in place for the business to succeed.
“There are already hardware solutions for virtual advertising, but in terms of an artificial intelligence-powered software solution, there is a race to be the first,” Cunningham says. “Everyone agrees that the software solution will win out eventually versus the hardware option, but it’s just a matter of when the rights-holders adapt their models.
“Rights-holders will increasingly be looking towards a uniqFEED-type solution as that is the direction the industry is heading, so everyone is trying to get into software rather than hardware. You need the finance and a world-class team in place though, and we have both of those.”
Founded in 2015 as a spin-off of ETH Zurich, a public research university in Zurich, uniqFEED was buoyed by a Series-B funding round that concluded in February 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced rights-holders to pivot to more creative solutions – especially in terms of their digital strategies – has propelled its software-based proposition to an increasingly interested audience of rights-holders who “come in all shapes and sizes”, according to Cunningham.
Peter Baumgartner, chairman of the board of directors at the firm, adds: “It was clear when I got involved that there was a solid financial footing in place.
“Although we didn’t see Covid coming and the situation has made it difficult in some respects, it has also highlighted to the industry the value of remote working and a purely software-based solution, which has so many advantages over hardware. We can work with a rights-holder with a very lean and efficient team.”
Baumgartner, a former chief executive and chief commercial officer at Etihad Airways, joined the uniqFEED board in November 2019, at the same time as Severin Lüthi, a former tennis professional and long-time coach of the legendary Roger Federer.
Alongside Gysin, the board also comprises Andreas Sarasin, who has been with the company since 2015, and Ronald Strässler, the co-founder of banking software provider Avaloq. Baumgartner describes Strässler as “a very successful entrepreneur who knows how to start from scratch and scale up” and someone who reinforces the leadership team’s complementary skillsets and experience.
The firm has also brought in talent, hiring aggressively to bolster its headcount to 53, up from 12 just two years ago, with the majority of new arrivals coming in 2020. Thirty-seven members of the team are “scientists”, illustrating the focus on technological development.
The technology itself has been deployed successfully via various partners in racquet sports so far, although the company is well aware that significantly greater returns are possible in other, more lucrative sports.
Over the coming months, the focus will be on commercialising its offering in baseball first, and then in football in the second half of 2021, while potential strategic partnerships will be explored.
However, that does not necessarily mean that the next chief executive, set to be appointed in the first quarter of next year, must arrive from an exclusively commercial background.
When asked whether the new chief executive needs to offer leadership expertise in technology, media or commercial operations, Baumgartner says: “This is a very active conversation we are having internally.
“Ideally it would be someone who understands all of these areas, with perhaps a slightly stronger emphasis on the commercial side. We are looking for someone with experience of establishing sports marketing and media relationships. It will be a top-level industry executive.”
Although outdoor sports like football and baseball bring their own challenges due to possible weather interference in the action captured by the cameras, chief technology officer Dr David Hasenfratz is confident the uniqFEED software can perform when faced with these variables.
In fact, such is the focus on providing a seamless solution, he claims the resolution of virtual advertising often has to be diminished slightly to ensure it has a consistent and authentic appearance on the screen.
Hasenfratz says: “Our work in sports like tennis, badminton and table tennis has reached hundreds of millions of viewers, and no-one has noticed the virtual elements. There is absolutely no room for error, and we need to know exactly where each camera is pointing at all times.
“In addition, we have to distinguish between the foreground and the background, so that if someone passes in front of the board, they do not disappear. With every sport, the requirements are different.”
The company also sees major opportunities in television, as well over-the-top (OTT) streaming which, until now, has been considered as the natural home of a customisable viewing experience.
“The key opportunity for commercial revenue in sport is regional, local and eventually personalised advertising on both TV and OTT,” Baumgartner says.
“This will be a software-based solution. We need to focus on the right strategy to make this a reality. This solution will reshape revenue models for both rights-holders and media owners.”
More broadly, the company’s next strategic steps will be vital – and various options are on the table, including mergers and acquisitions (M&A), as well as other collaborations.
“We are going to be looking into strategic partnerships, especially when it comes to people who sit behind content distribution and rights,” Baumgartner adds.
“We want to bring a winning product to the market, and we need to be able to test it out with the best in order to do so. Perhaps we have clients who could ultimately become stakeholders in the business in some way, whether that is through strategic partnerships, joint ventures or M&As.
“That sort of process is part of the evolution of every business. You need to be part of the ecosystem in order to win, and you need to have strategic alliances.
“We want to go beyond just being a provider of tech to these guys. We want to drive incremental revenue for them and be true partners in the future – and we are very bullish about our future.”