The first installment of SportsINNO, a speaker series hosted by the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation and the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Austin, took place on November 1, 2018, and brought together four visionaries whose professional pursuits have situated them at the intersection of sports and technology.
With Mark Phillip, founder of Are You Watching This?!, a B2B sports excitement analytics company, serving as moderator, the panel discussed everything from the applications and limitations of virtual reality to the possibility of adding esports to the Olympics.
Meet the Panelists
Alan Ashley is the Chief of Sport Performance for the United States Olympic Committee, where he is in charge of deploying the resources of the USOC to help American athletes achieve success in international competition.
Danny Belch is the VP of Marketing at STRIVR, a virtual reality training platform.
Angelina Lawton is the founder & CEO of Sportsdigita, an interactive sports agency specializing in digital sponsorship.
Roger Williams is a SVP of Media Operations at Disney Streaming Services, which provides streaming video technology for Disney and all of its various media entities.
Here are some of the hottest topics that arose during the conversation.
What Virtual Reality Can Do, and What It Can’t
Using virtual reality technology, STRIVR, the company for which panelist Belch serves as vice president of marketing, creates training programs to teach skills faster and more cost efficiently.
One data point Phillip highlighted is that in 2017, NFL quarterback Case Keenum had the best QBR rating under pressure in the league, and it’s possible that success came from Keenum’s use of STRIVR to sneak in thousands more hours of practice without fatiguing his body.
“The stat was that [Keenum] watched 2,467 extra repetitions over the course of the year,” Belch said. “That’s like basically Case Keenum doing practice for the whole year and then three times practice with all those extra reps. You tell me how good you’ll be when you can practice three times as much as your competitor.”
Although he touted STRIVR’s ability to revolutionize the way athletes practice, Belch wasn’t shy about detailing the points where the current VR technology comes up short. For one, STRIVR hasn’t figured out yet how to apply VR training to sports where decisions need to be made while the athlete is in motion.
“[If you] strap a camera to someone’s head and then have a basketball player running down the court and then go back in VR and watch it, you’re going to get nauseous and sick,” Belch said. “The last thing we want to do is make an athlete sick because what will they do? They will throw it away and they will never do it again.”
You won’t likely be watching a live sporting event in VR from your couch any time soon, either, Belch pointed out. For one, the amount of computing power required to operate virtual reality technology is much higher than consumer products are capable of providing right now, but additionally, using VR can be exhausting.
“At STRIVR we have a very specific and niche view on VR,” Belch said. “We don’t believe VR is good for three-hour long football games or baseball games. We believe in short, targeted, kind of micro approaches. Everything we do in VR is between five and 15 minutes, and that’s even a long time for VR. I don’t know if anyone has worn VR for 15 minutes, you’re ready to take it off. How are we going to watch live sports or movies or TV if we can only take it for 15 minutes? So I don’t think VR is ready for the living room.”
The Esports Question
Lawton brought up esports in response to a question about what trends she’s seeing in the field. Phillip then asked Belch if STRIVR worked with any esports players (they don’t), and Ashley picked it up from there, detailing discussions the International Olympic Committee has had around the possibility of including esports in the Olympics.
Although there are certainly plenty of athletes and administrators in the sports world who scoff at the idea of adding an esports competition to the Olympics, Ashley took a more open stance on the issue.
Recently, Ashley said, a colleague pointed out that a parallel can be drawn between esports and an Olympic sport like shooting. “It’s not like you have to be the fittest athlete on the field to shoot,” the colleague said, “but you have to have a precision and a certain capability that is extraordinary.”
Ashley also allowed the inclusion of esports in the Olympics might have positive results on a larger scale.
“If you can get all the individuals who play esports to think about the Olympic movement, to think about the Olympic values, make it part of the social fabric and culture, that’s got a really good, positive outcome on it,” Ashley said.
“The other thing about esports that is interesting … is that they are taking into consideration things like nutrition, sleep, sort of the whole person health and wellness of the individual because all those things contribute to your capability of maintaining focus and performing at a high level. I look at that as a good thing from a holistic standpoint, a humanistic standpoint because ultimately if you’re thinking about better nutrition, if you’re thinking about your sleep habits, if you’re thinking about taking better care of yourself as a human being as a result of a sport, whether it’s esports or anything else, that’s a good thing.”
Issues With Adoption
Innovative new technology can only make an impact if the users it was built for adopt the product into their everyday routines. Elite athletes can be a particularly difficult group to convince to change the way they do things, a conundrum Ashley is intimately familiar with. He emphasized that adoption has to come from the individuals, it can’t be applied from the top down.
“It’s like, ‘Here’s something that’s good that maybe could help you. Try it out, see if it fits, see if it works,’” he said. “In most cases athletes are very smart about their career about their training, they’ll see the benefit of these things where there is one.”
With recent advancements in a camera’s ability to capture depth, Williams pointed out, we’re getting closer to the point of taking subjectivity out of sports, which will provide another cultural hurdle for athletes and officials to navigate.
“With camera depth you can also capture representations of experiences in sports, so you can actually get to the point and measure and validate subjective sports,” Williams said. “I don’t know if there is a willingness to actually get to the point of removing subjectivity in judging in certain sports, but we’re getting to the point where you actually authoritatively measure did that pole vault happen in an appropriate reliable means of execution.”
One group that might resist this type of objective measurement in sports is referees and umpires. Williams experienced first hand this reluctance when he was part of the implementation of instant replay for baseball and had to deal with push back from the officials union.
“Officials play a big role in sports and their judgement on that sort of thing is important and it’s part of the tradition and history,” Ashley said in response. “But I also think that it goes back to the athletes. The athletes are looking at it and going, ‘Let’s find the most reliable ways to measure so that we have objective data to go off of,’ and that includes everything from how far did you jump to being able to take a look at video and have judges review close calls.”
Applications Outside of Sports
Although all four panelists have a special interest and expertise in the world of sports, their businesses’ reach extends into other industries, and their stories provide a great example for those looking to use sports as a launch point for even bigger impacts.
Lawton and her Sportsdigita team built their flagship product, the Digideck, with professional and collegiate sports teams in mind. But today, the company’s clients include United Healthcare and others outside the realm of sports.
“People are no longer wanting to do PowerPoint, and they are wanting to integrate their sales and marketing teams together,” Lawton said.
For its part, STRIVR has recently created training programs for Walmart and United Rentals. Additional clients include Chipotle, Verizon, Fidelity Investments, and JetBlue.
One of the biggest challenges Ashley faces in his work for the USOC comes from the lack of useful consolidation and interpretation of data. With new ways of gathering data popping every day, the true challenge is now how best to put those numbers to work to improve our lives. Although Ashley is looking at this issue from the perspective of applications for athletes and coaches, this problem extends far beyond sports and a solution could ultimately change the lives of everyone.
“Pieces of that are coming together now, but I don’t see that anybody has completely solved that problem yet where it is consolidating down important data into really useful bites that the athletes can use to impact their training, to understand recovery, to make sure that they are absolutely in the best place health wise, physically, mentally, technically, tactically to continue to improve,” Ashley said. “If they can get to that place the sky’s the limit of what human endeavor can do.”
The Closing Message
The panelists ended the evening by highlighting the skills and qualities they look for in their employees and sharing advice for those looking to enter the industry.
Lawton’s dream employee has a wide range of talents and isn’t afraid to work outside his or her job description.
“They can wear many hats. They don’t come in and silo themselves and say, ‘I only do this,’” she said. “At a company like ours you have to be able to do everything and nothing is below you. You’ve got to just go for it.”
For Belch, the key word is “execution.”
“Ideas are great and everyone in this room has an idea that probably will end up being a billion dollar company one day, but who is actually going to go execute?” he queried. “[At STRIVR], we never had the best of anything. Never the best tech, didn’t have the best engineers, didn’t have the best business backgrounds, but we executed like hell.”