Picture the images of a manager on the touchline calling a player over to whisper instructions, the assistant manager whispering advice to a substitute or the manager passing written notes to players. The problem they all have in common is distance. Football is one of the classic examples where tactical instructions requires immediacy and distance which Armony is looking to solve with their wireless communications technology.
Starting in football there is some hints that other sports may follow as we discuss in this interview, the second of a two-part joint series with the guys at Sportageous where we talk to the CEO and co-founder of Armony Mo Malkawi.
The basic problem of communication, especially on the football pitch is distance & background noise. Why do you want to solve these problems in communications on a pitch, beach or track?
Mo Malkawi: “The answer is twofold: It starts with the nature of the game. If you look at football, it’s a game where communication between the coach and the player is permitted. Unlike tennis, for example, where communication between the coach and the player isn’t, in whatever manner, whether with wireless communication systems or not. So given the communication between the coach and the player is permitted in football, we’re just creating a better way of doing it and where it starts to make sense is if the coach can communicate then technology should be used to facilitate and do it in a more reliable and safer manner.
“On the other side, it’s all about the importance of the verbal instructions that the coach gives. Instructions can be emotional and spontaneous, but most of the time these instructions are game changers. You would have seen when a player is about to get onto the pitch as a substitute, you see the assistant holding a piece of paper or pad, and explaining something to the player. This is always positional in terms of their playing formation or positioning for set pieces. Teams study and work on their positioning before games and study their opponents in the same.
“So if there’s a way we can use technology to allow the coach to communicate with the players and do all of this during the game while the players are on the pitch then we want to fulfil that need. From a business perspective, your product is only good if there’s a need for it and we know for a fact that there’s a huge need.”
Tell me about some of the pilot trials and tests. Who have you worked with and what was their feedback?
MM: “I can mention FC Koln in the German Bundesliga. We did some tests with them and with the Jordanian national team and a club in Dubai, Al-Ahli.
“The feedback was interesting. While it was mostly positive, the valuable feedback we needed helped us fine tune the product, which was one of the reasons we changed from an armband to a vest. Players told us armbands fall down and weren’t very comfortable but coaches liked the armbands. If the players weren’t comfortable then it wouldn’t work. So we figured the best place the device could go was in a vest and just between the shoulder plates and behind the neck.”
The vest is very common and athletes are so used to it. It’s been considered to be the most functional and least invasive. The switch has been made because of feedback, any other reasons why the switch was necessitated?
MM: “One of the key reasons was that in June 2019, FIFA made an amendment to the game allowing for GPS trackers to be used in official games. GPS trackers are used in vests and so we figured there’s already hardware there, let’s stick to that and not add more hardware to the player.”
You’ve gone from communication but is there plans to expand your offering to other types of tech? From communications to other utilities for training and performance. It could be GPS movement tracking, metrics, analytics. Is there plans to evolve or expand the tech stack?
MM: “Yes and that was one of the reasons we signed a partnership with the Swiss company Advanced Sports Instruments, they already have an excellent GPS tracker and software. Right now, we have two products used by clubs in the USA and Germany, but we figured we can have a third ‘all-in-one’ device where our wireless communication technology could go with ASI’s analytics and performance tracking device. We’re working on creating the third device now and are aiming to launch it in January 2021.
“Having an all-in-one device will open new markets for us. We can target new markets where wireless communication is needed on top of analytics and performance metrics. The fact that there’s many GPS tracking companies whose device is in a vest, we didn’t want to end up with an issue where coaches and athletes had to choose between different vests and functions. The proposition is to roll them all in one.”
Expanding from football, you have plans to service individual sports as well. Before I started recording you mentioned you have an interest in sports like surfing and skateboarding. Tell me about the desire to be a solution for individual sports?
MM: “Moving to or targeting individual sports opens the option of being both a B2B and B2C business. When you’re selling directly to customers, they must be individual athletes. With team-based sports you deal with the club, which is its own unique proposition and challenges. So we remain a B2B business but opening up to individual athletes will change the business model from just a pure B2B but an expansion to a B2C business.”
And lastly, well done for being accepted into the latest cohort for Qatar SportsTech. Describe the chance to be a part of it. It illustrates to me that you have your eye on expansion into key regions like the Middle East. What do you hope to learn from Qatar SportsTech and use it as a springboard for?
MM: “That’s a very good question. We would love to sign some partnership deals with stakeholders in Qatar. We’re just two years away from the World Cup, that’s paramount for us, our objective is to have an association or partnership with key stakeholders in the region we want to work with stakeholders like Qatar Football Association, the Qatar Stars League or the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that’s responsible for the World Cup. Other objectives would be club-based deals or pilots, a chance to expand our customer base or even establishing a local base. It’s about establishing a base in Qatar at this crucial time and it will be very helpful to get FIFA approval for our communication system. It will be a huge step forward to get the law amended to allow for wireless communication in football.”