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Scanning for ideas: How Sportradar is embracing an innovative spirit
Sportradar has developed into a range of new areas in data and media services over the past decade but it still has an eye on how the sports industry will evolve, looking into the university and startup scenes, and even within its own staff, for new talent.
by Eoin Connolly
Few companies in the sports industry have evolved in such intriguing ways as Sportradar. Once a supplier of solutions to the betting industry, it has grown through the widespread offer of integrity services to become the forward-looking data partner of major leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) and a coming force in the ever more important world of OTT broadcasting.
Between its in-house development and its acquisition of companies with the intellectual assets to provide an additive effect, Sportradar has found a range of ways to drive its work forward in recent years. Now, the company is also seeking to stimulate fresh ideas from newcomers and outliers in software and hardware development.
As well as promoting its own profile as an innovator through activities such as guest lectures on university courses, Sportradar is supporting promising talent and concepts. It is a partner of the Hype Foundation, a UK and Israel-based incubator and investment accelerator for sports startups.
So far in early May it has already operated its own Innovation Week for tech talent, working with Hype Foundation on events in Vienna and London. Next month, back in the Austrian capital of Vienna, it will again be running its own Sportradar Innovation Challenge for young software developers, user experience designers and business students, after a successful event in Ljubljana, Slovenia last September.
Sportradar has supplied application programming interfaces (APIs) to support hackathons, and made its own APIs available to developers for longer-term challenges. Speaking to SportsPro earlier this year, managing director of group operations David Lampitt explained that these activities come with the aim of lowering the barrier of entry to talent and potential partner companies in the sector in the interests of building a “diversity of insight” that will eventually help fans to better enjoy and appreciate the sport they’re watching and following.
“We’re really happy and really proud,” said Lampitt, “that we’re in a position to support those businesses or those applications or those offerings that are starting off and trying to find a different way of tackling those questions or identifying trends, whatever it may be. Because the more businesses there are out there doing credible stuff, interesting stuff, insightful stuff, the richer the fan experience will be. For us, it’s another part of providing fans with the widest spectrum of incredible information and interpretation.”
For Luka Pataky, the Sportradar manager for innovation and business development, these initiatives support the company’s desire to “nurture innovative spirit” and find new ways of looking at problems.
“I believe in the innovation team that we want to be talking about the big things,” he says. The innovation unit, he explains, is “a little bit independent” of Sportradar’s daily operations “but we are also part of the big picture”. There is freedom, in other words, to explore new ideas, but the intention is that the products of that exploration can be harnessed in service of bigger goals.
The experts within
Sportradar’s innovation projects are based across three broad areas. The first is internal: the group has processes in place to identify untapped talent and expertise within its own staff base, and encourages any and all of its employees to share ideas.
“Trends appear every day,” says Pataky, “and we realise we have people within the company who have the skills to address that.”
This is particularly the case wherever Sportradar moves into unfamiliar territory, and Pataky reveals that emerging concepts like blockchain and automation are among those most exercising minds across its offices. Attempts are made to apply some of this internal knowledge and interest through the creation of test cases, with company ‘hackdays’ established around specific problems to give staff an opportunity to develop new solutions.
Some real-world applications are already resulting from these processes. One thing Sportradar has in development is a “journalist assistant”, which might help those in the sports media to build data visualisations into their content while fitting seamlessly into their existing workflow.
Still, the company naturally also remains on the lookout for provocative new insight from outside its walls. Within the innovation team, Pataky says, there is a focus on “bringing different skillsets into this team from all angles”.
Unsurprisingly, one of the primary environments Sportradar looks to for fresh ways of thinking is academia. The company has partnerships in place with universities across Europe. In some cases, these are built around a specific area of study. The University of Ljubljana, for example, works with the company on investigating new avenues in augmented reality, while another project at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim is concerned with machine learning.
Elsewhere, there are incentives for individuals or groups of students to be engaged. The University of Ljubljana was the scene of a Sportradar Innovation Challenge last year, with the company’s data made available to teams to develop apps with uses in the media, journalism, and other adjacent sectors.
Milutin Spasic, whose broad educative background included spells working on AI and machine learning as well as project management, was part of a team of four computer science students attracted to take part. They entered with a blank sheet of paper but eventually developed a networking app which allowed soccer fans to provide details of their emotional reactions. This was then mingled with existing Sportradar data to create richer new sets of information.
The team won, and three of them now have roles at Sportradar. Spasic is himself a junior project manager in the Ljubljana office.
In the event, they chose not to pursue their app as a commercial venture. Spasic, however, was pleasantly surprised to discover that when he asked Sportradar if he could continue to pursue his personal interests under its employ, that request was granted.
“We are developing a lot of crazy new products that may not be related to what Sportradar are doing now,” he says, “but we are trying to find new markets.”
The startup space is another source of innovative thinking for Sportradar, and the company has other initiatives in place to harness the creative energy of tech entrepreneurs.
The Acceleradar programme gives developers access to Sportradar data for free for one year, to help them work on new tools. Submissions can be made via the Sportradar website but while there are occasional calls to action related to specific areas of interest – such as machine learning, AI and blockchain – entrants are given a free rein.
“From the beginning, we keep everything open,” says Pataky.
Sportradar consults with those in the programme on their business cases and offers some early guidance but then leaves them largely to their own devices. The same is true of the model under which their work is used going forward. No rights to any company are held by Sportradar and at the end of the 12 months, different options can be explored for a “best fit” if a successful partnership looks viable – from a data customer relationship to investment or even a joint venture. Another possibility, depending on the geographic location and interests of the startup, is to send it on to an accelerator partner such as the Hype Project for further incubation.
All of this, Pataky says, is building towards a “sustainable future” for Sportradar, bringing in the people and ideas that will help “to give us the agility to respond to outside environments”.
For a company that has moved so far and so fast from its origins, it is also a chance to retain the spirit that has inspired its own development.
“We were thinking about how we grew,” says Pataky, “and how we were once a startup as well.”