Sports iLab’s Angela Ruggiero on the Converging Fields of Sports and Technology

By Kaitlin Milliken, Staff Writer

The Olympics have always attracted the top athletes from around the world. But while events like the marathon and wrestling have stayed pretty much the same for centuries, the way fans consume content has evolved.

Now, teams, franchises, and even the Olympics must embrace new technology to keep up with fan expectations and viewing habits.

Angela Ruggiero has experience both as an athlete and an innovator. Formerly a member of the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Ruggiero is a four-time Olympian—and four-time medalist. Today, she is the CEO of the Sports Innovation Lab, a market research company that looks at technology trends in sports.

“[M]y whole background was in sports, whether I was on the field of play or spending a lot of time off the field of play on the International Olympic Committee or various Olympic boards,” Ruggiero said. “It gave me this amazing insight into how the business of sport was changing. [We] created the Sports Innovation Lab to help sort through that changing landscape. … Sports and tech at all levels is absolutely coming together, and we’re trying to sit in the middle of it.”

Innovation Leader interviewed Ruggiero for our podcast, Innovation Answered. Listen to the full interview or read selections from the conversation below.

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Innovation Leader: The Sports Innovation Lab focuses on the relationship between sports and technology. How do you see those two fields converging?

Ruggiero: They’re absolutely converging. That’s what I love. I love the power of sport. It changed my life. It brings people together. It keeps people healthy. It gives communities a sense of pride. Technology does a lot of the same things. It brings people together. It breaks down barriers.

When you bring those two things together, the message of sport is amplified. Previously, I looked at sports more analog, where you have your bricks and mortar stadium. You have your paper ticket. You have people on the field. A small fraction of the globe even knows that game is occurring.

Now, with technology coming in and infusing sport at every level, the athletes are getting better. They’re monitoring. They’re measuring. They’re predicting their performance. The fans are engaging.

Even if one percent of your fans ever make it into your venue, they can watch you at home. They can stream you on their phone. They’re feeling more a part of that experience. Because of that amplified effect, the brands, the sponsors are reaching their consumers in more effective and efficient ways because of technology. …

Innovation Leader: These sports teams and franchises, they’ve been around for years and years, and people still go to the games but they’re facing a level of disruption. What forces are changing the sports industry?

Ruggiero: Disruption is all around sports. … The biggest push is the media industry. Again, sports is a form of entertainment.

I’m here in Boston today. Previously, if I wanted to go to a baseball game, you can go to the Red Sox. Now, I have competing pressures. I might choose to stay at home and watch Netflix. Kids across the world might want to play Fortnite. … Sports is just one of those many entertainment options.

Innovation Leader: What trends do you see that are helping the industry move past these obstacles?

Ruggiero: Obviously, data is everything. … Everyone knows “Moneyball.” If you use the same methodology, and predictive nature, and data that you’re applying on the field of play to your off-the-field-of-play operations and the business behind it — get smarter, first of all. Create roles for people, to really understand innovation…

They’re trying to figure out right now and invest in the technologies and the other entertainment platforms that ultimately could take their core content, their sports content, and give it more visibility.

Innovation Leader: What are teams doing to innovate the in-stadium experience so people want to go buy a ticket and go to the game live?

Ruggiero: That’s a great question. The Cowboys mentioned [that only] seven percent of their fans ever are in a venue. … In the Olympics, if you think about it, I was an Olympian. Less than a tenth of a percent of the globe will ever actually attend an Olympic Games.  … You want to pay for that ticket and bring your child and have this lasting memory. … You can’t get that same experience at home. They’re still a great value proposition for these people. However, as we know, technology is a big piece of that puzzle.

Maybe, you want to have [the] ease of experience before. Download your ticket on your phone so you don’t have the paper ticket. Maybe, you want a different way to know the best traffic pattern into the venue, so you’re not sitting in a line forever just trying to find parking. …

We see stadiums evolving. That could [involve] what beer I like to drink. If you know that…Angela likes IPA, you’re more likely to push me a IPA coupon or let me know where the shortest line is to buy IPA versus a lager.  … We’re finding more personalization at the core for the fan. 

Innovation Leader: No matter what type of sports you love, there are going to be a lot of people who opt to watch the game from the comfort of their own couch. What’s being done to change the at-home experience for those folks?

Ruggiero: We see a lot of investment now moving towards AR and VR. Again, if you can’t afford to go to a game, or you don’t want the hassle, or you just want the comfort of your home, what are the ways that we can actually deliver the content in new, innovative ways?

We at the Sports Innovation Lab call that our immersive media track. Within immersive media, whether that’s AR/VR, whether that’s a second screen you have in your hand, your phone or a tablet.

Whether that’s the content on your linear screen, your big screen TV, that the broadcaster says, “OK, let’s give more data.” Maybe, it’s the heart rate of the athlete. We can stream that online. That’ll be interesting for fans at home to engage with. …

I have my phone in my hand. I might decide to put on a pair of VR glasses. Now, I’m court-side suddenly. I see the same basketball game from a completely different vantage point. Again, there’s a lot of capital being deployed in this space, because everyone knows that fans are going to want to continue to consume content. …

Innovation Leader: If we had a franchise that we’re looking to innovate, what advice would you give?

Ruggiero: … I would say there’s no easy solution. There’s no one-size-fits-all product.

There’s immersive media. There’s … sponsorship. There’s smart venues. There’s quantified athletes. There’s eSports. There’s all these different verticals that are shaping and changing sports.

Having someone thinking about it as opposed to reacting. Proactiveness — that’s how I was able to be successful in my career as an athlete. If we can get the industry to think that way, and proactively plan and strategize for all this amazing stuff that’s hitting, hopefully, that’s a recipe for success.

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