"The partnership with FIBA has been there a long time, it’s been the foundation of what we do.”
In the context of a business relationship ‘foundational’ usually sounds like an overly generous platitude but in this instance Ben Turner, the head of partnerships at Genius Sports, should be believed.
Sparked by a chance introduction 14 years ago, the passion of a small Melbourne-based company and the open-minded approach of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) have produced impressive results from their long-running partnership. Genius is now a multinational sports industry group with more than 1,000 staff in 20 locations worldwide and, under FIBA’s forward-facing approach, basketball has grown into a well-run global sport that recently doubled its Olympic presence with the addition of 3x3 for Tokyo 2020.
It is a relationship that began almost coincidentally in 2004 when FIBA Oceania, the confederation that oversees Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, first enlisted the services of Genius Sports’ predecessor, SportingPulse. At a tournament in Fiji, an early version of what is now FIBA Organizer caught the attention of Zoran Radovic, the body’s development director. Radovic decided this tool was something FIBA needed to offer to all of its member federations in order to help them manage players, coaches, officials and competitions. Thus, the collaboration was born.
Genius Sports’ products are helping to manage the growth and delivery of Fiba events in basketball’s emerging shortformat variant, 3x3
Levelling the playing field
After four years of successful cooperation, in 2008 FIBA decided it needed to centralise its data and again turned to SportingPulse for a solution. Over 18 months together they developed what would become FIBA LiveStats, an ever-growing tool that collects and presents the kind of in-game statistics that make up so much of the modern discourse around basketball. The SportingPulse model meant that platform was made accessible for even the smallest nations in the body’s membership, with different federations able to choose what products best suited its needs.
“From the Anguillan federation, a small federation in South America, up to the Spanish basketball league, the tools have applicability for any level federation or size of competition,” explains Turner. “After the initial roll-out with a smaller number of federations over seven years the software is now used by 235 leagues in more than 100 countries.”
When FIBA made the bold move to bring the 3x3 format under its umbrella with various trials from 2007 to 2009, SportingPulse jumped on board with that idea, too. Alex Sanchez, the FIBA 3x3 managing director, hails the company for its work with the small-sided game since its inception and describing the partnership an ideal fit with the Olympic newcomer’s ‘millennial’ approach.
In 2016, following a two-year commercial relationship, a merger with Betgenius – a UK-based technology provider to the regulated betting industry – saw the creation of Genius Sports in its current form.
FIBA is a small organisation compared to lots of other and they definitely bat above their average
For Turner, it is clear that Genius Sports would never have reached this stage without what he describes as the best international sporting federation providing a template for its working relationships. “The SportingPulse team, the original Australia-based team, were big basketball fans, they had a real passion for the sport and that made working with FIBA very exciting and a great project to work on,” he says.
“They’re a small organisation compared to lots of other and they definitely bat above their average.
“The way we’ve gone about managing that partnership and working together with FIBA has been central to the success of Genius Sports’ client-central approach. [We are about] making the client or the partner the centre of what we do, working out what’s best for them and how we achieve what they need to achieve in its own context. It’s been a foundational partnership.
“Nick Maywald – the founder of SportingPulse – and the philosophies that he drove home about looking after the partner, working together side-by-side and going above and beyond, is something that we’ve built into the organisation, it’s become part of the culture. We go over and above for our partners and deliver outstanding results that make them look great. When fans are engaged, when fans are happy, [then] AFC, Lega B and FIBA – they’re happy as clients. Our whole aim is to get them excited and love what we do.
“The thing about the FIBA partnership is that it gave us a lot of experience about working across borders. Being an Australia or UK-based company, it’s very easy – well, comfortable – to operate working in your own markets.
“What FIBA did is it drew us out of our comfort zone and then we had to work across markets, where English was not the first language or not spoken at all. It meant we had to adapt our working practices and our technology to cater for different languages and users, as well as different fans. What fans want in the UK is very different to what fans want in Asia.
“So that knowledge and approach we learned from FIBA has really helped us to pitch and to win contracts with the Asian Football Confederation, Lega B and other leagues and other federations around the world.”
The LiveStats GameCentre is a platform which allows fans to track in-game statistics
Freedom to grow
Whilst the benefits of the partnership for Genius are immediately obvious, the impact for FIBA lies in the small details. Basketball’s informality is what makes it one of the world’s most popular sports in terms of participation but is also what can make it so difficult to manage. For FIBA, having a partner who is willing to provide free organisational software to national federations, many of which would have had no way of affording such a robust tool under their own auspices, gives the body incredible insight into how to manage its game and ultimately how to monetise it through tie-ins with the gambling industry, amongst others.
“The agreement between Genius Sports and the federations and leagues is such that the tool is free of charge,” explains Florian Wanninger, director of the International Basketball Foundation (IBF), FIBA’s social, educational and legacy arm. “The servicing of that was very important to us because in many cases federations and leagues are not in a position to spend a lot of money on development of those tools.
“In return, the federations and leagues sign an agreement to monetise the data globally. It’s actually turning a headache – tapping into development of software – into a controlled situation and a commercial opportunity situation.
“Genius Sports offer various services to our members, the leagues and federations, including building simple websites. The tool itself already offers an interface to a website or social media so it’s very much up to the federation and league on how they want to use it.”
The influence of Genius Sports has driven interest in Argentinian league basketball to new levels
A prime example is Argentina, a proud basketball nation which won a men’s Olympic gold medal in 2004. The Argentine Basketball Confederation (ADC) saw an incredible rise in fan engagement in its domestic La Liga as a result of the tailored partnership they signed with Genius in 2015. The ADC was provided with FIBA Organizer, FIBA LiveStats and a real-time distribution capability platform, as well as educational workshops for La Liga’s administrators and statisticians.
The number of first time visitors to La Liga’s LiveStats GameCentres, the platform’s live match stats tracker, rose more than 25 per cent from its debut year to its second and it has received nearly ten per cent of all visits globally. For Juan Diego García Squetino, ADC’s marketing and sponsorship director, the tools have enabled him to position the league differently in the international market.
“[FIBA LiveStats] is friendly system for all fans,” he says. “An easy system to use and generate good reading data. A great leap in the quality of La Liga and the professionalisation of the statistical system,” he says.
“Our job is strengthen the product of the Argentina National Basketball League to become a larger and more international brand.
“In the entertainment business industry we must make decisions for the constant search for better economic results and interactions with our fans, and technology is essential to making good decisions. The data provided by technology helps us make good decisions in the business thinking about the long-term strategic planning of La Liga.
“[FIBA LiveStats] benefits the organisation and all the components of the game, generating greater interactions with the fans. This partnership has had a direct impact on positioning the league as a benchmark in Latin America.”
We are currently running the biggest centrally managed sports competition in the world. We do everything, including the television and the live stats - that is an incredibly complex project
At a time where the international basketball calendar is being restructured, Genius Sports is helping Fiba to organise its event schedules and draws
Whilst the management of the game within its membership is integral to FIBA, its flagship product in the five-man game is international competition. The Euroleague is challenging but the Olympics, the FIBA World Cup, Eurobasket and the other regional tournaments are the closest that basketball played outside of the National Basketball Association (NBA) gets to a pinnacle.
FIBA’s recent decision to revamp its qualification for the World Cup and make it an event in its own right was designed to give greater exposure to national team competition. Organised regionally and played over six windows across a two-year period, the newly launched qualifiers feature home and away ties, with the idea being to engage more fans in their national team. It has not come without its controversies, with FIBA and the continental club powerhouse Euroleague at loggerheads over the release of players to their national teams.
Wanninger and his colleagues are hoping the quality of FIBA’s product, assisted by Genius tools and support systems, will see it capture the public imagination.
“We launched FIBA Live Stats in 2008 and since then we were using those tools in our official competitions,” he says. “World Championships, European champions and the youth categories. The biggest challenge was with the World Cup qualification system.
“The national teams, one of the strongest products and team sport has, was exposed only for a limited time. Most of the time in the summer, when people are at the beach. We had to find a way where national teams were exposed more often.
“Now, we are currently running the biggest centrally managed sports competition in the world. We do everything, including the television and the live stats. As you can imagine, that is an incredibly complex project.
“It has to be extremely reliable when you’re playing in 80 countries across five time zones, you have to have 24-hour-a-day support for that. That’s where Genius Sports comes into play. They gave us the tools, the roll-out, the training of the statisticians and the servicing.
“Then it’s a branding issue. So someone watching on TV, or online, all over the world sees the same thing and that’s really important for us.”
New formats, new opportunities
FIBA will take 3x3 to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Running one format of a sport is a challenge in itself but the rise of 3x3 and FIBA’s leading role in that requires further flexibility in its central partnership. As the sport continues to grow in popularity the models for data and commercialisation that apply to the five-man game need retooling for the half-court, rapid-paced version. Sanchez, the man in charge of overseeing that process, knows the value of what he has with Genius.
“Genius Sports have a deep knowledge of the sports industry, mainly with sports management software and data commercialisation. We are very grateful for their advice over the years; a recent example being their feedback during the process to develop a 3x3 specific suite of stats for 3x3 that will be launched this year,” he says.
“There are several studies proving that the packaging of data for fans and the broader public, as well as commercialisation of such data, increases the awareness of a sport. The latter is of particular relevance for 3x3 being a newcomer to the Olympics.
“Today, 3x3 is a bonsai as we are still two years away from our first Olympics; however, we have the potential to become a sequoia by 2028. Partners like Genius Sports will help us in this quest.”
Turner provides further insight into why the game is rife for commercialisation via the gambling industry: “From its early days, Genius saw 3x3 as a great opportunity from a betting perspective to be an attractive product. Because it’s fast, because it’s engaging people are taking great advantage of the technology, providing live pictures or live streams at events so there’s a great deal of visibility around it. Which breed confidence on the part of sport betting operators to make those markets available.
“We seem the game growing towards 2020 and beyond where we can continue to build scale and more content around 3x3 from a betting perspective so we can commercialise that aspect for FIBA.”
As FIBA juggles growing domestic basketball alongside its federations, raising the profile of national team competition and nurturing the nascent 3x3 format it appears to be a vital time for its partnership with Genius. With the amount of goodwill on both sides and the knowledge learned from 14 years of collaboration, they look capable of taking global basketball to another level over the next few years. Solid foundations, indeed.
Today, 3x3 is a bonsai as we are still two years away from our first Olympics; however, we have the potential to become a sequoia by 2028