US accelerator giant Techstars is bringing a sportstech accelerator to Melbourne, and in the sportiest of sporting nations, the many ways of digitising our favourite pastimes could help boost grassroots participation, while also giving the startup ecosystem a boost.
The new accelerator is TechStars’ second sports-focused program, and will see the global network partnering with LaunchVic, Tennis Australia and Victoria University.
LaunchVic chief Kate Cornick tells StartupSmart having the accelerator in Melbourne will help startups in the sector realise their full potential.
“It also recognises Melbourne’s position as a global sports centre,” Cornick says.
Last year’s LaunchVic Mapping the Victorian Startup Ecosystem report identified health and wellbeing as a growing segment, accounting for a fifth of the total number of startups in the state. Sportstech, which falls under this category, was “a significant driver” of this growth, Cornick suggests.
“Melbourne is recognised as one of the world’s leading sporting destinations, which, combined with our recognised strengths in health sciences and world-class university system, are the perfect ingredients to capitalise on the opportunities presented by sportstech,” she adds.
Sam Robertson, associate professor of sports analytics at Victoria University, originally comes from a sporting background, and says its “a real arms race” for technology in professional sports.
While sports clubs want to use technology to get the best results, they’re often bombarded with tech businesses trying to sell them new products, he tells StartupSmart.
Startups, in particular, are a new concept to the pros.
“[Professionals] normally have their tried-and-true manufacturers who they work with, and they have no idea really how to navigate that space.”
TechStars, combining the expertise of a global player with a local body like LaunchVic, the sporting giant of Tennis Australia and a local university, could help participating startups to come across as more credible.
“They add that validity,” Robertson says.
While Robertson admits that compared to some of the other Melbourne universities, Victoria University doesn’t always compete, “what they do compete in is sport and sports partnerships”, he says.
For something that’s very niche to a particular sport, the university and the accelerator may be able to help them work to span that sport at all levels — from grassroots through to elite.
Equally, “sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know,” Robertson says.
Someone could come up with a solution specific to one sport, and find the same idea could be applicable to others.
“That’s going to be super powerful for some of these startups,” he says.
The grassroots are greener
Sydney-based Benchvote is a startup that works with sports clubs, helping them to create fan engagement campaigns — for example, allowing fans at a game to vote for the man of the match — and also helping clubs work with their sponsors digitally.
Currently, it works with about a third of the AFL clubs, founder and chief Adam Mussa tells StartupSmart.
Benchvote sits in an interesting position, serving to benefit the clubs by helping them keep their sponsors happy, while also focusing on fan engagement and enjoyment.
“Predominantly, we’re a tool that is used by the club, but the end users are the fans,” Mussa says.
When building Benchvote’s products, Mussa and the Benchvote team always consider what the user experience for the fans will be, he says.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the club that pays the bills,” he adds.
“We walk a very interesting line,” Mussa explains.
“We’ve got the fan engagement on one side and the commercial objective on the other side. It’s our job to marry those together.”
Recently, Benchvote secured a deal with Hawthorn Football Club to power its Pick My Club grassroots campaign, shining a spotlight on the Eastern Football League.
And Mussa sees opportunities for startups to work more in the grassroots sports space like this.
“The small clubs have the same problems as the big clubs,” he says.
“But it’s quite an often overlooked part of the tech landscape.”
Tech companies — Benchvote included — tend to try to reach the top end of town, he adds. That’s where the money is.
But any technologies that can help fans of smaller clubs engage with their team and its top players has the potential to attract and inspire users.
“There aren’t many people playing in that space,” Mussa says.
Olga Dziemidowicz is the co-founder of MarineVerse, a startup using VR to create an interactive sailing experience, without the risk of actually getting wet.
For Dziemidowicz, it’s about “democratising sailing”, making what is considered a fairly elite sport more accessible.
MarineVerse is “not a competition to real sailing”, she says
“We want to be enhancing sailing — it’s a pathway to see if they like it.”
Equally, many of MarineVerse’s most engaged users are older people who used to sail but aren’t able to any more.
“It allows them to keep doing what they loved, but in a different way.”
According to Robertson, the power of tech to get people more involved and engaged with grassroots sports is a “really massive” part of what the TechStars accelerator is about.
Robertson mainly works at the elite end of sports, but “even I’m changing my thinking there”, he says.
The more people you can pull in, the more viable the solution, he says. And this is likely to play a part when the TechStars participants are selected.
“If you think about long-term viability of these startups, and any solution for sport, it should be looking at the full participation pathway, from grassroots to elite.”
Robertson also notes that sports can be used for social good — something that some very high-profile clubs do incredibly well.
Startups that can use sports, either in conjunction with elite clubs and even globally, or within their own communities, may well be of interest.
“We’re really conscious of that,” Robertson says.
The power of the team
When launching any startup, education is crucial. When she founded MarineVerse, for example, Dziemidowicz had no experience in the tech or startup space at all.
“Having a startup is a bit different to doing your normal business, and to having employment,” she says.
“Educating yourself about what you need to do, and how you need to think, and how other people have done it is really important.”
She also places importance on the community. And, while she says she has networks in the startup world, it wasn’t until the sportstech pitch competition in March that she really connected with other sportstech founders.
“It’s about knowing the environment,” she explains.
For example, if a founder speaks to others who have been in their shoes and have, for example, pitched 100 times and succeeded on the 101st, they know not to be too downhearted when they’re rejected for the third time.
“It’s just giving you perspective,” she adds.
There’s also an element of being surrounded by people with a similar mindset, and bouncing ideas around. This is where it’s particularly useful to be around people in your sector.
“There are definitely similarities,” Dziemidowicz says.
MarineVerse is more likely to run into the same challenges as say, the founder of a golf startup, than as the founder of a foodtech startup.
“It’s mostly because of who the audiences are, and how they behave, and what sport does to people in general,” she explains.
“There is an aspect of entertainment and physical activity, and maybe a fan community.”
You can draw parallels between sportstech startups, even if on the surface they appear completely different.
There’s the same potentially limited customer base, there are specific audience demands, and similarities in the ways these products are consumed.
“You can translate that and draw parallels and learn,” Dziemidowicz says.
“I can see the benefit in potentially grouping sportstech versus fintech, agtech and so on.”
Mussa also stresses the power of a community, both in sports and in startups. People who work in the sports industry tend to be ‘sportspeople’, he says.
“It’s not a job you take because you want to prosper financially … you really work in sports because you enjoy sports.”
Whether people are passionate about the sports themselves, in the business side of things like Mussa is, or are fascinated by everything that goes on behind the scenes, “it’s really an industry that is led by some form of passion”, he says.
It’s a close-knit community, he says, especially in Australia. And, as a founder, having access to a sports-focused startup community would have “unquestionably” helped Mussa in Benchvote’s early days.
“I got really lucky,” he says.
Benchvote got a government grant, and was able to secure some strong pilot customers, he says. But to build up his network and get to where he is now “was a slog”, he says.
“Having somebody who could open up those doors for you and really guide you in that thinking, rather than being a trial-and-error process, I couldn’t tell you how much of a difference that would have made for us,” he says.
Australia is a small market, and quite far away from the rest of the world, which is something to overcome.
“Having something here, especially if it has ties internationally, would be such a help.”