i3 | September 25, 2018

Angela Ruggiero: Leading the Sports Innovation Lab

Cindy Loffler Stevens
Angela Ruggiero

Sports Innovation Lab CEO Angela Ruggiero is focused on the convergence of sports and technology. The Boston-based company she co-founded with Joshua Walker in 2016 features an intelligent, machine learning-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that processes massive quantities of data on sports technology to deliver actionable insights.

Ruggiero knows the sports world from the inside, with an impressive resume of achievements. A graduate of the Harvard Business School (MBA), Harvard College (BA), and the University of Minnesota (M.Ed.), she is also a four-time Olympian in ice hockey, winning a gold medal in 1998, silver medals in 2002 and 2010 and a bronze medal in 2006. She was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015, was an International Olympic Committee executive board member and the IOC athlete’s commission chair and chief strategy officer for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Bid Committee.

The Sports Innovation Lab includes clients such as Intel, Gatorade, Octagon, the NBA and the Canadian Olympic Committee. Angela spoke with i3 about how data is powering the future of sports.

Why did you create the Sports Innovation Lab?

What would the world look like without sports? I believe we are at a critical turning point in the world of sports. Organized sports are more expensive than ever before and major leagues like the NFL and women’s NCAA basketball have seen viewership or attendance decline in recent years. At the grassroots level, the number of kids playing sports in the U.S. is decreasing.

These trends are a major wakeup call for the sports industry to embrace technology. It’s a matter of survival, as well as opportunity. We’ve seen this disruption story completely rock other industries, ranging from music to retail to restaurants. Could sports be next? Or, could sports thrive because of technology?

Over the last eight years as a board member on the International Olympic Committee, I realized that unlocking the potential of technology in sports was the way the sports industry could stay relevant and inspire the next generation of children and fans.

However, today, sports business leaders are tasked with evaluating new technologies with little to no objective sources. As the chief strategy officer for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic bid, I had to conceptualize the most innovative games ever for the International Olympic Committee. Unfortunately, there was no one to provide reputable data or analysis on technology and the way sports would be created, consumed or played in the future. On the other side of the equation, tech companies don’t always have the insider access they need to reach decision-makers in the walled garden of the sports world. Because of this disconnect, I saw a huge opportunity to help the industry that changed my life. Our co-founder comes from the tech and analyst world, and so we set out to create the first trusted, objective voice for the sports technology sector.

How did your Olympic experiences prepare you for your role as CEO?

In many ways, my entire journey has battle tested me to become a CEO. But being a part of a gold medal-winning Olympic hockey team was the ultimate lesson in leadership. Not only were we competing against the world’s most elite teams, but as Olympians, what we stood for as a team was much larger than hockey alone.

I realized over four Olympics that when achieve that goal, and plays their specific roles, anything is possible. Sports is a platform to highlight the best in us, and the ultimate way to see what is possible in people and society. Whether I was fighting for more equal rights on the ice for my women’s team, inspiring businesses through the message of the Olympic Movement or letting a young person know she could do anything with her life, I now take that same approach to business. It is all about defining a vision and mission, creating specific goals to achieve that end, inspiring individuals on your team and ultimately working with others to work together.

I also managed to play more hockey games than any other man or women in a USA Jersey – something I am very proud of. That required constant innovation, reinvention, attention to detail in my training and a belief that I could get better every day. Any good CEO would say that you’re constantly competing against yourself to become a better version of yourself every day. In doing so, hopefully you are also setting the example for others in your company.

What is your business model?

Sports Innovation Lab’s purpose is to bring an objective voice, trusted insights and unfettered access to the sports world. Rather than rely on people alone, we provide a software-as-a-service (SaaS) market research and data platform to make this intelligence accessible to decision makers 24/7 around the globe. We use the data in this platform to produce market trend reports on a regular basis. Our team of expert industry analysts also provide custom consulting services for clients that require hands-on support with strategic business planning, vendor analysis and other advisory services. Finally, we work to curate custom events and conferences on the fusion of sports and technology.

Can you talk about the cross section of sports and technology?

On a global scale, technology can innovate how sports are played, consumed, created and shared. For example, we can make cities safer with smart venue technology and show how sports can be the ultimate testing ground for other verticals. Through technology, we can increase accessibility to sports for everyone on the planet, not just those who can pay for a ticket to be there physically. We can inspire the next generation of female and minority sports fans by giving them opportunities to see versions of themselves in sports teams and leagues.

On a tactical level, the Sports Innovation Lab sees five major trends in sports technology:

First, esports are defining – and will continue to define – how future sports fans consume all sports. On a basic level, esports (the first truly digital first sport) are video game competitions drawing massive online audiences that are using technology in ways traditional sports cannot provide.

Second, immersive media companies are developing digital sports content that provides consumers with greater choice and control. The future of sports media is accessible, social and interactive. Leading brands will deliver this experience.

Third, next-gen sponsorship technologies are helping brands, athletes and teams create and measure the effectiveness of digital experiences that integrate seamlessly with sporting events and engage fans before, during and after the events take place.

Fourth, the popular “quantified self” movement is extending to athletes. Quantified athlete technology companies monitor, measure and predict athlete training and performance.

And finally, smart venues prioritize speed, security and sustainability. The goal of the smart venue is to deliver an experience that is unforgettable, safe and incentivizes fans to come back again.

What tech areas will most significantly impact athletes?

We have identified more than 700 companies in the quantified athlete sector. This technology landscape includes baseline diagnostics (such as genetic testing or blood analysis), wearables that track biometrics or motion tracking, and athlete performance platforms that consume an athlete’s data to interpret it for more personalized training recommendations. These companies are creating more data streams for the athlete to understand their bodies and more accurately monitor their training and performance. The trend of personalization is one that we see acutely in elite athlete adoption, which will eventually make its way to healthcare and personal health. Sports is the proving ground for many of these technologies.

What are your global goals for the company?

We view sports and technology as global, universal languages that anyone can speak and understand. That’s why Sports Innovation Lab is an inherently global company. Our mission is to be the world’s most comprehensive, trusted source of information and insight on the intersection of sports and technology. On a much deeper level, we hope to use our own technology (SaaS platform) to extend the accessibility and adoption of sports to underrepresented populations around the globe, so sports can continue to inspire people for decades to come.

What advice would you give to startups? 

I do everything in four’s, as that was my number on the ice: 

  1. Strive to be better every single day. There are inches all around you.
  2. Look forward to getting knocked down. This is when you truly learn and grow – if you take the time to reflect and change.
  3. You can accomplish more as a team than on your own. Remember, business is a team sport.
  4. And my favorite quote: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right.” – Henry Ford.

September/October 2018 i3 Cover Issue

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