Earlier this year, 14 teams from nine of the world’s top sports business courses convened virtually to compete in the first ever SportsPro Hackathon. All told, more than 90 students took part over the weekend of 9th to 11th April, during which they had just 51 hours to create, flesh out and present a concept to a team of six judges, with the winners securing the opportunity to showcase their idea at SportsPro Live.
The participating students, who were representing universities spanning Istanbul and New York all the way to Liverpool and Ohio, were tasked with putting forward products or businesses that adhered to the triple bottom line, a framework established to encourage companies to focus as much on people and the planet as they do on profit. That meant the teams had to develop a solution that would contribute to the sports industry becoming more socially, environmentally and financially sustainable.
Day one included an opportunity for participants to network with their fellow competitors, but crucially it was also when they had to lay out a basic idea for their product and start setting a strategy in motion. Then, on the second day, the students were given access to mentors from organisations such as the National Football League (NFL), golf’s European Tour and BeIN Media Group, who offered advice to help the teams develop their ideas and shape them into something that could be presented to the judges.
“It was really fun when you look back at it, and such a great opportunity as well,” says Pollyanna Roberts, a student at Sheffield Hallam University. “[It was] an amazing opportunity to get our eyes and ears into the industry, see what's out there, see who else is out there and meet people in the industry, as well as current students and fellow students in other universities.”
You've got to commend these people for their hard work. You've got to commend these people for their ideas. But you’ve got to commend these people for having the confidence to do this.
Following four-minute presentations given by each team on the final evening, the judges were left to evaluate the concepts based on customer validation, execution and design, the business model, and whether they adhered to the triple bottom line. Prizes were then awarded for the best presentation, the most financially sustainable concept, the most socially sustainable concept and the most environmentally sustainable concept, before the top three teams overall were revealed.
While there could only be one winner, the judges were clearly impressed with the diversity of ideas across the board.
“There were things that I just didn't anticipate,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School, who led the judging panel during the hackathon. “I knew people would be talking about carbon reducing technologies and ways of reducing gender inequality and some of the more obvious things, but I think in amongst them there was a really significant range of different ideas.
“You've got to commend these people for their hard work. You've got to commend these people for their ideas. But you’ve got to commend these people for having the confidence to do this, because I think it's a big, big thing for a 21-year-old to stand up in front of the world and try and convince them that the ideas that you have are the best ones out there.”
With the curtain now drawn on the first edition of the hackathon, SportsPro takes a look back at the top three business ideas with some help from the brains behind the concepts.
First place: The Sustainability Hallamites Unite
University: Sheffield Hallam University
Team members: Natalie Lim, Dominic Mills, Katie Preston, Pollyanna Roberts, Harrison Warke, Luke Williams Lauren Wilson
The winning effort came from one of three teams entered by Sheffield Hallam University, whose self-described mission was to create a sharing economy platform for local sport and activity spaces, which would enable greater participation across many diverse communities.
The idea was born out of the fact that the UK sports facilities industry has declined in value by an average of 17 per cent every year since 2016, and is now worth just UK£1.9 billion. The group’s research also uncovered that the most inactive local authorities have on average a third fewer facilities than the most active areas, while 51 per cent of respondents to the group’s survey said knowing what venues are available is one of the most significant barriers to participating in physical activity.
The team’s solution to that problem was SPACE, a centralised booking system designed to improve efficiency and ease of access to facilities.
“The concept of SPACE is to provide different organisations, different communities a platform to promote what space they have without any real specific requirements for that space,” explains Luke Williams, who presented the idea alongside Pollyanna Roberts. “The idea is to connect people with different space, to get people physically active, play sport and make it a platform that has a one-stop shop for everything that they need.”
Indeed, SPACE is an Airbnb-style app where organisations are able to promote their facilities to both sporting organisations or individual groups on the hunt for somewhere to participate in sport, irrespective of what that sport might be. Each space would have its own profile, including a star rating to build trust in the platform, which would be based on features such as accessibility, cleanliness and safety. Users would ultimately be able to search for availability and enquire about booking directly with the venue.
Central to the concept is that it doesn’t just serve to benefit purpose-built sports facilities, but also school playgrounds, fields, parks, community halls, and essentially any other space being underutilised in the community.
“For some sports you don’t need a specific purpose-built facility,” Williams adds, “so it’s trying to promote those and provide a platform for people that think they’ve got a space that might be suitable for anything. For example, judo would only need a little hall, so it’s trying to get those local community spots and give them a little bit of a voice.”
SPACE would require a UK£10 sign-up fee to use the platform and the team said it plans to generate revenue through a percentage of commission on each transaction, as well as advertising, government funding pots and partnerships. Following an initial investment to help with startup costs, the Sheffield Hallam students said SPACE could break even after a year, based on hitting 25,000 transactions. That estimate is based on securing 120 venues each averaging four bookings per week.
In terms of the broader impact of SPACE, the team said the concept meets nine of the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals, including good health and wellbeing, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production.
“I did think about it some more afterwards,” says Chadwick, when asked about the idea. “Places like China, for example, where you've got hugely congested cities and a big drive towards sport, being able to know where there are sports facilities and those sports facilities that are not being utilised efficiently is really important.
“We have a moral duty, that if we're going to use concrete and steel, and we are going to power buildings, we've at least got to make sure that we use them. So I think in that sense, it was a really, really great idea.”
He adds: “What stood out for me is they were able to convert what were probably quite complicated ideas, possibly an idea lacking clarity when they started in hour one, but by the time they got to hour 52, they were able to talk about this in a very clear, succinct way.
“They hit the target because you didn't have to think too much. You didn't have to question too much. It was just obvious what they were advocating. And so I think in terms of clarity and precision, and their ability to communicate these ideas to the judges, was what won through for them.”
Second place: Liverpool All Stars
University: University of Liverpool
Team members: Paulina Rodríguez Báez, Marija Blažević, Bruce Cheng, Luigi Gaudiosi, Yingyan Li, Stylianos Tsegkas
The prize for the most environmentally sustainable concept was awarded to the second-placed Liverpool All Stars, who identified a gap in the market for a sustainable solution that allows female athletes to perform at a high level even when they are on their period.
The group’s research revealed that the average woman spends UK£5,000 on period products during her lifetime, using more than 11,000 tampons and pads in the process. With that in mind, the team from the University of Liverpool created Comforce, a brand of reusable and washable menstruation underwear that can be used without tampons and pads.
“When we were discussing the environmental and sustainable goals for the hackathon, we discussed different issues that female and male athletes would come across in sport. Through the brainstorming session we came to the topic of periods,” explains Marija Blazevic, speaking to SportsPro alongside her teammate Stylianos Tsegkas.
“We liked the idea that they are reusable, rewashable, they can be made from different organic materials that would have a lower environmental impact. Then, through the research, we realised that all the [existing] period underwear is just [designed] for day-to-day life. There was nothing really specific for sport.”
After discovering through their consumer research that more than 50 per cent of women would like to try such a product, Blazevic and Tsegkas said that their team spent much of its time mulling over what material to use for the underwear. They eventually landed on 100 per cent recycled cotton that prevents odour, organic hemp which is durable and breathable, and a touch of elastane with polyurethane laminate for greater absorption. As well as maintaining blood flow and reducing discomfort and swelling, the product would also come with a cotton reusable bag to store the underwear in before it is washed.
The underwear, priced at UK£38 per unit, is designed in different styles, sizes and absorption levels in order to enable all women to participate in sport. Comforce’s primary target consumers would be elite female soccer players in the UK, but the company would later want to expand to serve all female athletes. In order to achieve that, the group said it would first partner with the University of Liverpool to increase brand awareness, then find strategic partners to help distribute the product globally. In the long term, athlete brand ambassadors would help Comforce raise its profile.
According to Blazevic, who describes the hackathon as both “intense” and a “great experience”, the mentors played an important role in helping the team finetune its product.
“The mentors were very useful,” she says. “We would tell them about our ideas, and it was good because when we thought about the idea we only saw the good stuff. But when you pitch your idea to someone else, it’s easier for them to see the issues about the idea and the product, and maybe what’s lacking. So it was good to hear from the perspective of what wasn’t so good about our idea and how we can actually address it.”
Above all else, Blazevic and Tsegkas said the aim of Comforce is to change the perception around menstruation, raise awareness of the struggles female athletes go through, and stop periods being a taboo topic while helping the environment at the same time.
“Really understanding the needs of women in sport I think was really important,” Chadwick notes. “The nature of the conversation around women's sport needs to be broader and deeper. And it needs to involve very honest conversations about issues and challenges and obstacles that men don't necessarily encounter.
“So I think the second-placed team was really important. It's obvious, it's self-evident, but it's something that most of us don't really think about. So I thought it was a very important product, a very important idea.”
The Liverpool All Stars listen in during a mentoring session with BeIN Media Group's Andrea Ekblad
Third place: Justice League
University: International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES)
Team members: Rebecca Jardim de Barros, Zeina Hamarsha, Lorenzo Mazzone, Malin Vestin, Dilara Yasacan
“I really like this idea,” beams Chadwick. “I really, really like this idea. It may have seemed outlandish or different to some people, but for me, again, it just seemed obvious and self-evident.”
Chadwick is discussing the idea put forward by Justice League, a team comprising five students from the FIFA Master programme, who came up with a proposal designed to enable venues to generate cleaner energy and reduce their carbon emissions while simultaneously engaging fans.
The CIES students’ idea was to harvest the vibrations and pressure from fan movement inside venues to generate enough energy to power a stadium through Pavegen tiles. In order to incentivise fans, the energy generated would be tracked and presented via an exclusive app with data about how much energy their steps produced.
The group also wanted to create rewards programmes which would encourage fans to use the app and move around once they are inside an arena, while it also envisaged that there were would be opportunities to introduce gamification elements further down the line.
“We know that stadiums can be built, for example, to have solar panels, to have windmills sometimes to generate electricity,” says Zeina Hamarsha. “But in our case, we wanted to engage the fans to be part of this sustainable approach to new stadiums.”
Justice League present their idea to the judges
Dilara Yasacan, who co-presented the concept to the judges, says that the group worked long into the opening night of the hackathon before finalising their solution. Justice League then sought out members of Fifa’s alumni network to gather feedback about the project, which the team said targets six of the UN’s sustainable development goals, including affordable and clean energy, industry, innovation and infrastructure, and good health and wellbeing.
“I feel like in four hours, I contacted more than 20 people,” says Yasacan. “I asked all our questions about the idea, and then we went to the [mentoring] session, which was super helpful. They had different insights, it never clashed. So in one day, we met more than 30 people, which is amazing.”
In terms of funding the proposal, which was awarded the prize for the most financially sustainable concept, Justice League identified the EU’s Horizon fund. Meanwhile, the group wanted to target venue and stadium owners, governments, host cities and international federations to partner with in order to implement their solution. The students added that they would initially focus on sports where spectators are already regularly on their feet, such as soccer, baseball and American football.
Looking back on the concept, Chadwick says that the idea mainly stood out to the judges because “there were so many potential applications of it”.
“I would hope that these people have access to the kind of backers who might well be able to put some funding behind this kind of thing,” he adds. “In terms of getting people to stadiums, or maybe post pandemic, getting people into stadiums, and driving traffic towards food and beverage outlets, for example. Or even getting people instead of sitting the whole time in a stadium, getting them walking around and moving around a stadium and rewarding them for that.
“I thought it was a really great idea.”
If you would like to be involved in the 2022 SportsPro Hackathon as a participating university team, judge, mentor or partner, please contact Paul Guest (firstname.lastname@example.org).