The combination of technology and data to fuel fan engagement, drive the commercialisation of sport and to gain a greater understanding of athletes is evolving rapidly.
Fans are now presented by broadcasters and sporting leagues with smarter athlete and performance data, delivered in enhanced ways, to create bigger opportunities and experiences.
At the head of this shift is global sports technology provider Genius Sports, one of the world’s leading sports data collectors and distributors. They have built partnerships with the majority of global basketball leagues and federations, providing sophisticated technology solutions to unlock the power of official data and maintain sports integrity. One of the company’s assets FIBA LiveStats is the standard for basketball stats collection around the world.
Its leadership of the basketball data market has been propelled by a philosophy of having the best technical sports people build technology products that match client needs to unlock the power of their official data.
Genius Sports was launched in 2016 after a merger between two technology businesses, betting software provider Betgenius and SportingPulse International. SportingPulse cut their teeth as a grassroots technology provider in Australia. Its local arm was sold to News Corp in 2012.
In a wide-ranging interview, Bullpen talked to Genius Sports Director of Sports Partnerships Ben Turner about his multifaceted background in basketball and why sports data matters.
Bullpen: We’ll start by going back into your past. What is your background in sport and how did that lead you to Genius Sports?
Ben Turner: “I grew up in a country town (Healesville, Victoria) and I was involved in one of the smallest basketball associations in Australia. We had just 30 teams competing on a weekly basis, I was a referee, coach, player and eventually ended up on the committee. With my passion for coaching I moved to coach with the Kilsyth & Mountain District Basketball Association, which was ironically the largest basketball association in Australia with over 1100 teams playing each week.
“I undertook a sports coaching and administration degree at Deakin University and during my undergraduate I worked with Basketball Victoria and was responsible for developing programs for athletes with disabilities. This gave me a great grounding in sport participation and development which helped continue my love for the sport further.
“In 2006, I was invited to complete an honours degree and over 12 months completed a thesis on coaches’ decision making with respect to timeouts in basketball. We compared novice and expert coaches on when they called timeouts and what factors drove their decision. After my honours year, I completed my second degree, a bachelor of commerce and spent five years working for Kilsyth & Mountain District Basketball Association as their business development manager, where I remain involved as a director and secretary for the past 10 years.
“During my time at Kilsyth we worked closely with SportingPulse. We used their products including FIBA Organiser, and their websites, and through our shared outer Eastern Melbourne location we were one of the first associations to embrace what they were doing.
“I started working closely with them to see how we could revolutionise grassroots basketball and we developed a courtside scoring application called Stadium Scoring. It effectively replaced the scoresheet in basketball with an electronic version that captured all results and in-game statistics. These were then made available on the association’s website instantly after the game. Together we rolled Stadium Scoring out at Kilsyth, it was the first association to use it and it’s now used in over 100 associations around the country.
“Through that relationship I got the opportunity to meet the CEO and founder of SportingPulse, Nick Maywald. In 2011 Nick recruited me as one of the first employees with SportingPulse International.
“He recruited me to oversee their project with FIBA, and being a massive basketball fan with a passion for technology and improving how the game is played, I jumped at the opportunity. That was 2011, and since then I have worked alongside FIBA to drive the global take up of FIBA LiveStats and FIBA Organiser products around the world.”
BP: One thing I’ve observed speaking to people within the sports business and sports tech fields is a lot of people have backgrounds in coaching and officiating which has added to the desire to seek out efficiencies within sport.
BT: “Nick as a sport tech entrepreneur knows what it takes to build a business and one of the things he has done well is recruit the best sports administrators, coaches and referees and match them with the best sports tech team, anywhere in the world.
“It is important to have a team who deeply understands sport and are able to put themselves in the client’s shoes.”
BP: As the size of the sports analytics market compounds in value, how will Genius Sports position itself as the industry matures?
BT: “As the sports analytics market flourishes, we’ll continue to position ourselves as a long-term, trusted partner to sports. Combining our love and understanding of sport both on and off the pitch with world class technology we’ll enable sports to unlock their official data’s value.
“From day one, we have believed that sports have a right to their data and intellectual property. Technology is what makes data valuable and we have always been committed to providing software that enables sports to take control of this increasingly valuable asset.”
BP: It’s very much a partnership model rather than an ownership model.
BT: “We certainly take a long-term approach to our sport partnerships. We work together to find out what our partners need. Then we build products together, which in turn benefit other leagues around the world. What we’ve found is that the challenges that Basketball Australia or the NBL face here in Australia are exactly the same as the National League of Argentina, the French Basketball Federation, Spain’s Liga ACB or the VTB League in Russia. With these same challenges, our job is to make sure we listen and build out these requirements into products that help them drive operational efficiency, enhance fan engagement and commercialise their sport.”
BP: What kinds of needs and challenges do some of these leagues have?
BT: “When I started out with SportingPulse International we had about 10 to 15 leagues and national federations using our FIBA products. As I travelled around the globe and met with existing and potential league and national federation clients, I heard about the common challenges they faced. They wanted to enhance fan engagement and find new ways to commercialise and generate new revenue.
“Although our original aim was to replicate the successful Australian advertising and registration payments model internationally, as we listened to clients we realised that we could help them with their challenges through enabling them to make better use of the statistics especially live in-game. We made the decision to rebuild our existing technology and built one of the most flexible and detailed sports API’s in the market.
“Our vision was to help leagues drive operational efficiency, take ownership of their statistics and build new revenue by providing live statistics to fans, media and into regulated betting markets around the world. Our API ecosystem provided leagues with the opportunity to integrate their existing competition management solution or use FIBA Organiser to post schedules, team and player details to power FIBA LiveStats. It then allows that data to be aggregated to empower the league’s themselves, the media and other third parties to consume the statistics via our API.
“That has enabled sports to use their statistics, how and where they want. This ranges from the NBL with their mobile app partnership through YinzCam, their video highlights product through WSC Sports Technologies and tracking integration with Catapult, to the Philippines Basketball Association who work with a fantasy game provider who use our live data and statistics via an API, or to the French Basketball Federation who takes the API to build out all of their statistics on their website.”
BP: I want to bring up a quote from NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger and he said, “the power of data is only relevant if stakeholders use it and consume it.” It stuck with me, can you add to that?
BT: “This quote is quite ironic. As one of our long-time clients, we met with the NBL four years ago, prior to Larry Kestelman and Jeremy taking over the NBL. At this time, we were building our API ecosystem, the product that would enable them to collect, manage and share data. We sat with the league and they said that they were not keen on sharing their data at the time.
“At that stage, the NBL was struggling for coverage but didn’t want to share their data through a wider network of websites. Fortunately, their digital lead at the time Guy Neville – now the NBL’s General Manager of Product and Delivery – totally got the opportunity. When Larry and Jeremy came on board, Guy embraced the idea of sharing data and enabling fans to engage with it. The NBL had all this great data in these databases, why not make the historical data, career stats, records available for the fans via the website, Fox Sports and other media portals. The more places people see basketball data, stories and content the more opportunities to grow the sport.”
BP: Is there a concern that sports fans may be getting bombarded with too much data which may potentially affect the quality of data that fans and broadcasters receive?
BT: “That’s a really interesting question. I was at the Sloan Sports Conference in Boston earlier this year and many people asked me what was my biggest take away from the conference. There are many individuals and organisations using data in interesting ways, but the challenge is how you present the data that people want at the right time and in the way they want to consume it.
“Whether I’m the coach, administrator or a fan of any sport, data is all around me. If I’m the CEO of any company I’m asking questions about data and how my consumers or customers are interacting with us.”
BP: How does Genius Sports ethically commercialise data? How does the company maintain the integrity of data whether it’s leagues, broadcasters or wagering firms?
BT: “We only work with regulated bookmakers around the world. We don’t work in unregulated markets and we help to drive what we call ‘official data.’ By working side by side with sport we enable official data to be commercialised in different places, not just for betting but in the media industry.
“The other side is that as a sport, once you begin to commercialise data, you need greater visibility on the global betting activity on your competitions to ensure your integrity is maintained. Around three years’ prior to both companies merging, Betgenius developed a bet monitoring system which tracks and analyses odds movements from global betting markets to identify potential incidents of match-fixing or betting-related corruption.
“Our monitoring technology is used worldwide and here in Australia, we recently signed a deal with Basketball Australia covering the WNBL and all of the second-tier competitions in Australia, safeguarding the integrity of their competitions.”
BP: What other sports has the company moved to outside of basketball?
BT: “Going into 2017-18 we’ll be working alongside close to 85% of the basketball market around the world.
“The next opportunity for us is football and we’re rolling out our full product set to various federations as we’ve done for basketball. We also recently announced the acquisition of the Italian technology provider Data Project, enabling us to enter the rapidly expanding volleyball market.”
BP: Has Genius Sports had a long history in football?
BT: “Back in our SportingPulse days we had a relationship with Football Federation Australia and Football New Zealand which now sits with SportsTG. We do have a long history in football and our constantly developing product set is relied upon by some of the largest leagues and federations in world football.
“Like basketball, there is a global demand for football organisations to take control of their data. We know football federations in Europe where they’ve worked with a local supplier or a third party and the supplier owns their stats history and won’t provide the database to the sport.”
BP: That’s unbelievable.
BT: “It’s actually a common story we hear around the world. Our model is about empowering the league through technology and providing them with the products that enable them to own and control their data and most importantly their history. A sport needs to own its statistical history. If they don’t own that history, they lose their connection with fans, their connection with past players and their stories.”
BP: What drives you to create a better Genius Sports?
BT: “It has been an amazing journey growing from just three people in 2011 to 50 people at SportingPulse International and now to over 1,000 people at Genius Sports.
“One thing that hasn’t changed along the way is the approach to partner with and help make sport better. With our technology, we enable sports to drive operational efficiency, enhance fan engagement, increase commercial returns and safeguard integrity. Those things are ingrained in the company.
“We get to go on a journey with sport and have a proven track record in facilitating their success in new and existing markets. We’re now in a better position than ever to support sport due to our size, reach and product set.”