In 2019, Atrium Sports acquired both automated camera technology firm Keemotion and also the sports data behemoth Synergy Sports Technology. The business recently rolled them all up into a new brand, Synergy Sports, to create a colossal one stop shop for advanced video and sports data services for leagues and teams from the top of the sporting pyramid down.
The possibilities that Synergy’s tech stack provides is immense. Ultimately, the purpose is to help players and coaches improve on the court or field, teams, leagues and federations can obtain rich data and commercialise their games and assets and to drive better experiences for fans off it.
In this conversation we talked to their chairman Nick Maywald to delve into a bit of his journey in building his fourth generation sports technology businesses to this point, Synergy’s purpose and why being people focused for a tech driven business is so important. We also ask about the company’s future through the lens of their technology offerings.
This year may well be the inflection point for sport, how does Synergy’s tech stack hold up in this challenging time?
Nick Maywald: “The reason we started Atrium was to help tier one, two and three sports with the ease, speed and cost of production while also making full use of competition data at the same time. COVID has obviously increased the challenges for a lot of those lower tier one and two leagues around those areas of production costs and their ability to continue to lift the bar on fan engagement and distribution. Not having the traditional revenue streams coming in from typical broadcast deals is a huge challenge. So I think that’s driving a lot of interest, certainly on a commercial level for us.”
Over the last 20 years you’ve observed how the relationship between sports and technology has evolved. You started SportingPulse in Australia even before ‘sportstech’ was coined as a term, then to Genius Sports Group in the 2010’s. If you can sum it up pretty briefly how has the dynamic between sports and technology changed in that time?
NM: “It would come down to really what’s driving it and I think it’s the change in fan and general consumer behaviour and the ability to engage with content, consume information and spend money via digital channels. The reason I started SportingPulse all those years ago in 1999 was that I had come out of playing basketball at a semi-professional level and eventually realised I probably was never going to make any money playing the sport! Then I got serious about business.
“It frustrated me enormously that people were still using paper-based fixtures. You would have to go to the stadium and check the boards to find your game and time. The whole premise of SportingPulse from day one was to try to make information accessible to participants and fans, more so in that time participants’ mums, dads and families, so that you weren’t relying on that archaic distribution method of kids being handed printed fixtures.
“As digital, mobile and everything else that has happened in technology over the last 20 years it’s easy to now quickly name the ways in which fans’, participants’ and consumers’ interactions with sport has changed. But this is still largely driven at the very elite level. There’s a big chunk in the middle where I think we’ve really carved out a good niche to be able to drive cost effective digital solutions that drive efficiencies. We’ve used a tagline a lot over the years ‘to improve performance on and off the court.’ And that performance is largely driven by the way you engage your fans, your participants and therefore the running of the sport and everything involved in it including commercial outcomes.
“Now more than ever before, when you’re talking about Gen-Z, I don’t hear people talk a lot about this but I fundamentally believe our number one challenge is to help sport to truly engage with them. They are the hardest generation ever to try and gain and keep their attention just because of the complete proliferation of choices that they have.”
What do you think is one of the key pillars of engagement?
NM: “It’s personalisation, and for sports to be able to retain relevance you have to retain fans and participants. If you were to name any of the top digital platforms today, my experience may be radically different from yours based on our respective tastes and preferences. When we think of sport as content, and as entertainment, this is the level of sophistication that sport is now competing with.”
We are proud to announce that Atrium Sports, Keemotion and Synergy Sports Technology have merged into a single company called Synergy Sports. pic.twitter.com/xToxyrpHTP
— Synergy Sports (@SynergySportsHQ) September 30, 2020
Over the years, each of your companies have been able to adjust and adapt business models and technologies to suit sporting needs, client demands and operational demands. How have you been able to maintain that flexibility?
NM: “I think it goes back to that very first proposition of trying to drive elite level solutions down through the pyramid of sports. We quite often draw that pyramid and if you did it for basketball, you’d have the NBA, FIBA Basketball World Cup and Olympics at the very, very top, and then you have the national leagues which are tier one, then tier two leagues, and then you have this massive base of serious amateurs or semi-pros and then the real grassroots down at the bottom. You can drive scalable solutions down through that pyramid and really engage the base. I think that’s what is really critical.
“In terms of constantly adapting the business model, staying across all of those digital initiatives and understanding the broader market outside sport and what attracts and engages people. As for any business, I believe this balance to be vital but sport can be a little bit more challenging. Despite that difficulty, the number one thing that we’ve always tried to maintain is true customer-centricity. The customer is at the centre of everything, not just the way you service them as customer support or the way you do your implementations or projects but actually understanding what they need.
“Then it’s about being really agile in product development and working with your customers to develop solutions that work for that particular demographic, sport or region, and it can all be quite different. FIBA’s requirements are different to what is needed in Western Australia’s state league competitions. So really understanding all of those different personas and their requirements to enable you to be truly customer centric and I think it’s difficult for anyone to get there 100% because it’s always a constant thing to work and improve on.”
You bring up FIBA, and the changing relationship your companies have had with them. The relationship and solutions developed goes back 15 or so years to now where you are implementing the FIBA Connected Stadium. How have you been able to manage that changing relationship?
NM: “I think it’s that customer-centricity as well and really being part of the fabric of the sport. That comes from understanding the customer requirements. If you’re truly customer-centric, you build a level of trust and a working relationship with the organisation. FIBA has changed incredibly since we started working with them 15 years ago. FIBA is a completely different beast now they have a lot more resources, a lot more people and a lot more commercial. You only have to look at what they did with the most recent FIBA Basketball World Cup in China to see how it’s changed from the first one I attended in Japan in 2006. The difference is just mind blowing.
“That journey with them, working really closely with them to understand not just their needs but their member national federation’s needs has probably been the key. So many companies will go in and want to work with a FIFA or an IOC, particularly startups, who can get sort of turned on by how sexy it is to work with an international federation and quite often forget about the reason an international federation exists. They exist to empower, help and provide resources to national federations downwards to actually make the sport thrive at each level. It seems very simple but it’s amazing to me how many people don’t seem to acknowledge the importance of grassroots for the elite. If you take participation sport away, everything crumbles pretty quickly.”
To turn the gaze internally, you’ve had a similar team working alongside you for many years too. So how do you maintain that collective vision as a team, and maintain that customer and solutions focus?
NM: “The guys we started Atrium Sports with range from the first two guys that I employed back in 1998 through to someone like Tim Corr, who is our Chief Commercial Officer now. I played basketball with him when he was 21 and I was around 15. He came into the SportingPulse business around 2012. A lot of us have been together for a minimum of 10 years and up to 25 years.
“I think what’s really kept the team together is probably, without wanting to get too philosophical about it, is that we have very similar core beliefs and values in the importance of sport, the love of sport and sports technology. I have a very strong view that sport plays a fundamental role in the development of youth in society around the world and sports tech, and how technologies and digital innovation is evolving, forms such a critical part of sport.
“We all get out of bed every day excited about the fact that what we’re doing can make a difference to that. We’re also probably geeky people in general who love technology as well.”
Servicing the grassroots, but then buying a business from Mark Cuban. It’s a rich evolution as a team.
NM: “Absolutely, and to be honest, it comes down to a very strong focus on people. That builds trust, and that builds loyalty. If you apply that same approach to your customer base and do the right thing by them from a transparency point of view, and all of the things that come with being good humans, then we’re very fortunate to have been able to do that as a group for a long period of time.”
It’s almost like a leadership philosophy for you?
NM: “We’ve got a very strong team here. We want to continue to build and grow that base of good people. I would summarise now as a ‘no dickheads policy.’ That’s really the way I sum it up these days and I don’t mean that to say that we don’t have all sorts of different, quirky people or slightly different values, but at the heart you have to be a good person, and you have to respect people and treat people the right way
“If you don’t fit that mould, doesn’t matter how good your business is we’re not interested. That’s really a pretty strong approach we’ve driven because you spend a lot of time at work and life is short, and you don’t want to spend a lot of time working with the wrong kind of people.”
No dickheads policy is a really good one. It does remind me of a certain policy of a much-renowned music festival in Victoria as well. But in seriousness it’s a clear tenet to strive for.
Just finally, what particular technologies excite you moving forward?
NM: “Artificial intelligence (AI) is a massive part of our investment strategy. We’ve just launched a new sports innovation lab based in Switzerland in Lausanne under partnership with the EPFL, which is a big sports tech university there that complements our existing partnership with the UCL University (Université Catholique de Louvain) in Brussels, which we’ve had a long standing relationship through Keemotion.
“So building out our AI capabilities, and in particular computer vision and deep learning. Then providing better insights out of an ever increasing volume of data, some of which is driven through things like optical tracking and AI, and some of which is coming in either from our wider suite of services, or even from our many partner products, manually provided data, or other API connected sources.
“The ability to take something as complex as that array of seemingly disparate data, make the insights from that data simple to understand and manipulate and then help sports across the spectrum make better decisions is a driving goal to a lot of what we’re doing.
“Whether successful means getting more kids playing, whether it means having better trained athletes, reducing injuries, a competition making more money commercially, making the sport more engaging from a digital perspective or boosting the in-stadia experiences. Just about everything you think about from sport is driven by data.
“What we can do with that data from an AI perspective is a massive focus for us. I talked about this recently, when you watch a 12, 13, 14 year-old interacting with their mobile phone these days, some of them don’t realise it but the amount of data they are ingesting in those experiences on their phones is incredible.
“AI and computer vision is one big thing. The other big thing that we’re putting a lot of resources into, and to be fair a lot of it is powered by AI and computer vision, is to continue to raise the bar on what we can do from an automated production and cloud production point-of-view.
“Due to COVID there’s an increasing challenge that sports have to be able to get good content produced in a cost effective or scalable way. We talk a lot about that, not at the NBA, FIBA Basketball World Cup or English Premier League level, but drop down a level from there and being able to, where it makes sense, replace the OB van with true automation in the cloud which I think is a critical thing for sport to remain sustainable in an ever increasingly competitive digital landscape.”