Ep. 32: Evolution of Sports Tech & Where It’s Going with Brian Kopp
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Brian Kopp, Partner & Group CEO at Phoenix Sports Partners, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how sports tech has evolved and where it’s going. When it comes to data, why is it important to solve a basic problem, speak the language of your audience, and then be able to take action on it? What do sports tech companies need to do in order to be successful?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Brian Kopp partner and group CEO at Phoenix Sports Partners. Brian, great to have you on the show,
Brian Kopp: (00:31)
Rob. Great. Thanks for having me.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
Brian Kopp: (00:36)
Sure. So I am with Phoenix Sports Partners. We are an investment group focused on the youth and amateur level of sports. We work at all levels but a core on the youth and amateur side of things. We are an investment group but also an operating company. So we look for companies that we can invest in support, get operational synergies and help to grow. And I've been in the sports technology space for the last 12 years, which is just another way of saying I'm old, the gray hair gives it away too, but getting the experience of being in the sports tech space and seeing how it's evolved, we've seen a lot of things and we're excited about where it's going in the future.
Rob Cressy: (01:12)
So there are two things that we're going to jam about specifically, sports tech how it's evolved and where it's going as well as sports tech success, what's necessary for companies to know and do. But let's start with what you already mentioned. You've been in the industry for 12 years. So what have you noticed from an evolution standpoint from when you started until now?
Brian Kopp: (01:35)
Sure. So I think I was in the early days of what people consider sports technology. My first job in sports was with the company STATS, which is a sports data company. I helped them acquire a SportVU, which is a camera-based player tracking system. And again, this was 2008 before that was as prevalent as you see it today. And we rolled that out to the NBA, built the whole analytics business around it. And from there I went to catapult sports, which is a wearable GPS device, which you see everywhere. Again, when I joined them it was just still getting started here in the US and so I've been in two different places where the initial push within sports technology is, Hey, we can capture new stuff. We set it better than that. But essentially what we were doing is using technology to capture things you just never could capture before. So a lot of the conversations were about technology and about how you can capture data. But I always knew that was the first step. The next evolution, which we're right in the middle of, is you can capture all kinds of stuff. More importantly, what do you do with it? How do you make better decisions? How do you get better efficiencies? How do you help athletes, how do you grow your business on the media side, on the fan side, and how do you help athletes either improve their performance and or keep them safer? So I think the next wave of technology isn't just what you can collect, but more importantly, how do you make better decisions with information?
Rob Cressy: (02:57)
Okay, so keep along with this same track. I think one of the challenges, and we often bring this up on the podcast, is someone has an amazing company or they're capturing new data or new something. But the challenge is the company on the receiving end in terms of, I don't know what this is, I've never used this before. I don't understand it. So the rate of adoption can oftentimes be slower. Where the technology is amazing and it's doing this thing, but they're not always at the forefront from the consumption side of things. So how do you tackle that side? Well, I think we need to make it very intuitive to the user. When you're talking to a team, whether you're talking to the individual athlete, when you're talking to an organization, institution, whoever your audience is, it's not just about cool technology that gives you more information. It's about solving an actual problem.
Brian Kopp: (03:50)
I know that sounds very basic and it's kind of business one-on-one, but it's not just creating data for the sake of creating data, understanding what problem you're solving and make it easier for that person to then make better decisions to solve some of the problems they're having to understand how they can get better as an organization or as an individual athletes. So it's not just showing cool stuff, but it's understanding your audience and being able to solve problems or make things more efficient or help them to perform better seems very basic. But most companies still are struggling with that very basic premise of not just explaining what they do, but explaining how they help their end-user or what problem they're solving.
Rob Cressy: (04:31)
So how do you, the solving of the basic problem, how do you know what is the basic problem? Because when you look at business, we can look from a huge point of view and certain companies that want to be huge. You can think of the biggest thing in the world. Anything from, we engage sports fans or we capture data for sports, that's gigantic. But how do we know that it's specific enough? Like what's the difference between too specific, not specific enough and just the right sweet spot?
Brian Kopp: (05:04)
Well to me that goes back to before I joined sports, I worked in a lot of other industries and I got my MBA and worked in, before I joined sports I was working in for-profit education, which couldn't be any farther away from the sports industry, so a lot of this comes down to tried and true business practices of understanding who your audience is and understanding who you're speaking to, what are you trying to deliver to them and not just make it this grandiose. We can do all this stuff with data If you're talking to an individual team, you're talking to an individual coach within a sport, you need to be able to, I always say speak their language and that means depending on the sport, who the coaches, what are they trying to accomplish these days? You may say they have the best product, the best technology. It could be revolutionary to you. At the end of the day, they're trying to do their job. They're trying to make their athletes better. They're trying to win games. So if you're coming to a team with a solution, you better be able to show them how you're going to help them win games. No matter what level you're at. At the end of the day, if it's, if it's about health and safety, it's health and safety to help your players, your best players are on the field to help you win games. So you've got to understand what you're trying to solve for. If you're talking to a venue operator, you've got to understand how you can make them more efficient or drive them more revenue. So really understanding who your audience is and then articulating to them how your product or your service fits into what they're looking for. And not just a grandiose technology. That's always good and that's always part of the message. But at the end of the day, people are going to make decisions based on how can you make my job easier? How can you make my job better? How can you drive me forward? Whether I'm trying to win games or build a better organization or get better as an athlete, how do you help me do that? If you can articulate and get it down to that level and make it something that it's almost a no brainer. The thing that we like about this space is everything that we get involved in has a data element. Because when you're talking data, it may be hard to explain that to people right away, but if you could show them true results and they get hooked on those results and you're not going anywhere. If you really can speak the language and you can show them those results and you can make their jobs more efficient or push them forward, then you're going to be very sticky and you're not going anywhere.
Rob Cressy: (07:09)
I think you mentioned something extremely important on being able to one, understand who your audience is and then two speak their language because it's not just data in startup world, it is pretty much everything that you can think of in terms of social media marketing and content creation, podcasting, what makes something successful. And you say, well, we want to be value-driven. We want to think of the audience first and then we're going to create for them. Whereas a lot of the brands or companies that get into trouble say we're going to create first and then we're just going to sort of jam this down the throat of our audience. And as I look specifically on the social side of things, it is speaking the language of the audience, which is I believe the biggest challenge for brands moving forward is they talk like a brand. They essentially say, buy what I'm selling. But what I'm selling. Because that's how we were used to marketing to people. Here's this shiny object that I have. But now with Amazon, you can buy anything whenever you want, wherever you want, however you want at any time. So now everything's become a commodity. So now what is the story that is attached to why I would buy what you're selling? Because now we have a myriad of reasons as to why we should give our attention to brands, why we should pay attention to you or God forbid, actually engage with you.
Brian Kopp: (08:33)
Yeah. Well. So it's funny I was talking to, I met with one of our board members at Phoenix because we have a number of high-level advisors with quite a lot of business experience. And he was telling me when he worked for IBM in the, in the 60s and the early days of computers, he realized that they can't just talk about the features of those computers because someone else might have better features. They talked about solutions helping that organization and the reason they were successful, he said, Hey, other companies had better hardware, but we were able to sell them a full solution that helped us grow our business. That was 60 years ago, 50 some years ago. It's the same type of business principle. It's just now you're talking about different things. So back then it was punch-card computers. Now we're talking about technologies that capture all kinds of crazy stuff within sporting events and live for athletes.
Brian Kopp: (09:19)
But the same business principles apply, which is you need to speak to them and understand not just here's what my product does, but how does the overall solution, which includes data and analytics, which includes a service which includes a personal connection you might have with someone. How is that something that they can embrace? So it's not just about the features of a product because you're actually right. That only gets you so far and marketing yourself that way only gets you so far. Being able to speak to what you do holistically is really what resonates to people.
Rob Cressy: (09:48)
From a forward-thinking standpoint. What has your eye right now, what should we be paying attention to? Or I like to say with myself, I'm very forward-thinking, some more likely to adopt something than others. And one way that I learned about this stuff is by talking to people like you or others in the industry to say, Hey, what has your eye out there right now?
Brian Kopp: (10:10)
Sure. I think it's a couple of things. It kind of depends on what level of sport you're talking about. I think at the professional level I'll kind of go to the top down. I think at the professional level it's really about efficiency. It's about collecting a lot of different data and being able to make very efficient decisions and make that work within the workflow of that organization. So when I first started again back to you know, feeling old in 2008 when I started talking to teams about technology, specifically within the NBA, I think a handful of teams had one data analyst doing stuff in spreadsheets. You fast forward a decade and every team not only has an analyst, but they have a group of analysts and they're not working, dealing with spreadsheets anymore. They're dealing with the programming language and building databases and all the things you do with much bigger data sets. So the differentiator isn't going to be a new data capture system or technology. It's going to be able to be flowed into your workflow, solving a new problem, giving the new angle that maybe they haven't seen before. So at the professional level, it's a little bit harder to crack in. And it depends on the sport and it depends on how far are they along in some of those areas. I think when you move down to college and high school there's a lot less efficiency. They're getting better, but there's a lot less efficiency in how they use information. Some of that is because they don't have quite the staff. Some of it is because the technology was too expensive to get down to those levels. The pro teams can spend money on things that some college and high school teams can't. So making technology and data capture more efficient, more cost-effective and more seamless for them to make some decisions is pretty important. So there are different ways that you can capture data that moves downstream. And then I think on the youth side it's about exposing things that have only been available at the professional levels down to youth athletes. And the big thing for us is around performance and safety. Think there's a lot of people playing a lot of sports at all levels. I have five kids, they all played various levels of sports. And as a parent, you always think about are they having fun? But also are they staying safe? Are they going to injure themselves? It's less about always increasing your performance, but a lot of it is around safety. One of our companies gets into football tackling, I mean football and the pressure on youth football and high school football. One of the ways we think to solve that is to make the game safer by teaching in different ways and analyzing how well people are doing that and trying to make it safer. It's not going to eliminate some of the challenges, but at least it makes it a less risky proposition or seem that way. So we think that at various levels there are different things you can go after. The common thread throughout all is data and presenting it to the audience in a very effective and efficient way, how they use it.
Rob Cressy: (12:43)
So we've talked about a few different things that are extremely important for success in sports tech. Understanding who your audience is, speaking their language. But if we're going to look at this from a fundamental company side of things, there's a wide range of anything from a mom running a booster club to someone who runs a pro stadium or team or marketing or technology for them. So if we're going to look at what are the fundamentals that need to happen for sports tech success
Brian Kopp: (13:19)
I think the fundamentals are you need to have a couple of different options. There are too many companies that try to do something that, that serves a professional level and then just jam it down to the lower levels. As you said, that doesn't fit. I mean, there's going to be, you know, people at the upper end there might have a lot more staff have a lot more sophistication, a lot more time or budgets to spend on things. Whereas when you go down to a booster club or a team that might have three coaches that have multiple hats, you need to be able to serve them in a very different way. So having different versions of what you offer is very important. And that's whether you're talking with an individual team or as you know we work, one of our companies is FanFood and you know FanFood has an option that works with professional clubs and then an option that works for the booster mom is running one concession stand into high school or youth events. So being able to offer different things to different audiences I think is very important. And then on the back office, to me, I start with things as a business person, you know, growing up and in, in my career being in finance and understanding how the businesses need to operate, you didn't have different products, but in the back end, you've got to make it very efficient. You've got to be able to scale it's one thing to be able to go after a couple of clients. It's another thing to be able to scale to hundreds of millions beyond that. So being able to scale your business in the backend is very important. And again, it sounds like a business one on one type of comment, but a lot of companies forget that. It's almost like we'll figure that out later. Whereas you got to have a plan for that going up, going forward, otherwise the business can get out of you. So for us, we always approach it as the market, the opportunity, but let's make sure that we understand how we're out this business and making it scalable from the get-go.
Rob Cressy: (14:54)
Yeah. I learned that lesson about making things scalable the hard way. I was hired to host a twice a day video show for a baseball client and it was taking me eight hours a day to produce this highly put together baseball show. I loved it. It was five days a week. It was my dream opportunity. I'm like, this is amazing, but here's the problem. I couldn't have taken on two or three more of that client because it was already taken up eight hours of my day. Inevitably what happens, the client goes away because the baseball season ends. After putting in an eight-hour full day where I didn't get to work out, meditate, do any of the things I normally do, I'm finally a normal person. And guess what? I wasn't looking forward to doing prospecting for the next two or three hours to find the new clients in. Once the client left, it finally dawned on me, I was like, wait for a second Rob. This is completely not scalable. You could not take more of these clients and sometimes you've got to learn the hard way. But thankfully I at least learned it.
Brian Kopp: (15:59)
Sure. No, I mean the scalability is very hard and that's, that's something that we're, we're trying to solve me. Part of our approach at Phoenix is a portfolio approach and I don't mean that just a financial portfolio, but part of what we try to build and part of my job people kind of ask me what does a group CEO mean is really, I work with each of the CEOs at the companies to try to find efficiency. Some of that is back-office efficiencies, but it's really about those go to market visits. How can we scale, how can we have relationships that allow more than one of our companies to progress? But that's absolutely the hardest thing to figure out. And it's, it's really that that goes back to that crossing the chasm of being an interesting little company into something that's sustainable and grows from there.
Rob Cressy: (16:40)
I liked the mindset of the group relationships approach because when I look at my fundamentals to success, I rarely, I don't even think about competition because one, I know that I've got to execute this stuff as much as everything. And then two, I'm so relationship-oriented with every other person. There's plenty out there for everyone to win. So I love being an immediate connector to others because I'm a big believer in what you put out there is going to immediately come back to you. I don't expect that anyone person is immediately going to have a one to one relationship for me. Instead, I think about the totality of life in the way that I do business. In the relationships and the things that I can do. So if I can introduce someone to you or you introduce someone to me later on down the road, it's going to work out for the better.
Brian Kopp: (17:29)
Yeah, I agree with you. I've always felt that way. When, when I left Catapult before I joined up with my partners at Phoenix, I was advising a number of startup companies and I would talk to a ton. And for most of them, it wasn't a good fit for me, but I could introduce them to somebody that could help them out. And so that's always, I still try to do that. It's hard to juggle everything, but I think it's important to do that. It's a little bit give back to the ecosystem and to help people where we can. I also have huge respect for people that start up companies at any level because it's very hard to do. I mean it sounds, it sounds super exciting and in some ways it is, but it's a very emotionally taxing thing to start up something from scratch and, and to be able to turn it into something. Anything I can do to support people in any industry, but specifically within my network of sports, I try to do the same and whatever you want to call it, karma or just the right thing to do. It's always good to help because I do think it comes back to you in the long run.
Rob Cressy: (18:18)
So I do want to circle back on something that you just said. So you mentioned doing a startup is hard to do and I completely agree but you also mentioned you want to have a few different options or versions of what you have to offer. And I think that alone can be a challenge in terms of are we going after the right market or too many markets. Like should we just go after pro teams as opposed to here's a pro version, here's a high school version. How do you really figure that out? I know a lot of it is a trial error, speaking to your target audience and really getting this. But when you're running a startup you can be, you can be pulled in so many different ways. You're learning as you go in. By the way, there's no exact book that says, Hey Rob, here's the startup book for the exact way that you do what you do.
Brian Kopp: (19:11)
There's plenty of books out there that try to do that. But yeah, there isn't one that, that nails it. I think that this will sound like contradictory things, but two things always pop up in my mind. One is focus. I think it's very important that you have a focus, that you know what you're going after. You understand your market, you understand the product who lives in that market and you don't let get too many things to distract you from that. Especially in the early days of startups, there are so many things that could pull away from your resources, or even pull away from your brainpower or your focus on how you gotta get your business going. The second one, which sounds a little bit contradictory to the first one is flexibility. Like you need to have focus, but you also need to be flexible.
Brian Kopp: (19:53)
You can't be so focused that you're going to drive something off a cliff when you don't understand it. I mean people use the word pivot and I think they make that sound like it's a giant like 90-degree turn or 180-degree turn. I don't think that's what it's meant to be. You learn what the market needs and you adapt and you become flexible to change your approach, change your pricing, change some elements of your product. But that's the successful companies have an initial focus, but then they have enough flexibility to adapt and to be able to understand what the market needs and, and either there are so many stories of companies that started off doing one thing and ended up in success in a slightly different area. It's because they learned from what they were doing and they were able to make the right adaptions and they were able to flex their business to serve another market or customer product or whatever it is. So I think eventually what I was talking about earlier, eventually, you want to have different versions of serving different people. But in the beginning, you got to have focus and you try to do it all, you'll end up doing none of it. And we've seen some of our companies that that fell into that trap a little bit and part of our job is to make sure they maintain that level of focus but also challenge them on being flexible. So they sound like contradictory terms, but they're not meant to.
Rob Cressy: (21:01)
It's an art versus a science because you're completely right in terms of focus versus flexibility because you are learning on the job as you do this and you may learn something that you didn't know otherwise. You're like, Oh, this all of a sudden took off. And then you put a little bit more resources into it and you're like, oh, I got this. And yeah, the focus thing, I think certainly founders can get shiny object syndrome when let's say you're not seeing the results that you want and then all of a sudden this shiny object comes over here and you're like, Ooh, what if this is the path that we should do? And it's really having the discipline and focus. But also the flexibility to understand that listen, I am going to learn as I do this and you just keep moving forward. And I think that action is the key to all of this. That sometimes when you're trying to make these decisions, what do we do? What do we do? I'd rather just, let's just take action and we're going to figure this bad boy out as we go.
Brian Kopp: (21:58)
That's right. I think that you want to take as many of the tried and true business practices as you can into the startup world without being too cumbersome. Like you don't want to slow yourself down. You got to be nimble, you got to be able to adjust, but you gotta make sure that you're doing it in a, in a sensible way. So a lot of times we try to enforce some of that structure in our companies, but not too much. You still are our mean, lean and nimble. Startups need to move quickly. I think that people in the sports world, sports are a lot like entertainment. People get into it because it's cool and they don't always make the most rational decisions. So you know there is an element of that. There is an element of, Oh wow, I'm working in sports. This is fun. But you got to bring the tried and true business practices as well. And we think there's a good marrying between the two. It can be fun, it can be exciting, it can be great to be in the sports world. But at the end of the day, we're still building a business. So we got to be able to balance those two.
Rob Cressy: (22:49)
People get into this because this is cool. That makes me chuckle because you could work for a sports company and they're just going to say, all right, you're going to do $200 a day for this week. And you're like, Oh wait, I thought this was cool. And you're like, Oh no, you're just in this cube farm dialing for dollars to generate more leads for us. And you're like, oh I guess, and obviously, there's always the glamorization of everything. And there are great things about sports because people are very passionate about the sports side of things. But at the end of the day, you do have to execute. You do have to build teams, you do have to have different roles in things. This is actually why I believe the culture side of things is so important because the less sexy side of things, if you're doing $200 a day, which I worked at a call center at Fifth Third Bank, home equity loans right out of college, and let me tell you, I did not like that whatsoever, but I learned and if you could build the right culture around it to support those people and help them achieve what you want, then it can be a little bit more palatable.
Brian Kopp: (23:53)
Well, I've talked to a lot of especially college graduates that want to get into the sports industry. I give them the type of advice that they definitely don't want to hear, but they really should listen to, which is if you want to get into sports, think about what area of sports you're interested in and go get some experience outside of sports in that area. So if you want to get into sports analytics, go work for an airline company in their analytics business. Cause I guarantee you you'll have much, much more complicated areas of data that you'll deal with there that'll make the sports side that much easier and yes, network and, and know people and make sure that you're out in the industry to go get some experience in another industry. They never, they don't like to hear that Rob, they want to just jump right into it and run a sports team or something like that. But for the most part, if you want to get into the sports industry, one of the best things you can do is go out and get other experience and then bring that to bear within the sports industry because that's really what these organizations at all levels are looking for is being able to translate it into business practices you see elsewhere. And then putting that sports twist on it.
Rob Cressy: (24:54)
I can tell you having a complementary skill set is one of the greatest things for me. My background is in digital advertising sales on the publisher side for seven years. So I learned how to monetize websites for seven years. So now when I quit my job to start my company in sports, all of a sudden the rest of the world is looking at things from a sports lens. And I was like, well, wait a second. I understand the publisher's side of things. So as I was building up the media side, I had a unique perspective and the big advantage that gave me is I knew that the monetization for publishers via banner ad revenue was going down the tubes. Why? Because I was on the publisher side selling this stuff. I was seeing the inventory go away. The click-through rates go down, the CPMs go down.
Rob Cressy: (25:43)
I'm like, Oh my goodness, this is a sinking ship, and then I looked at the entire sports landscape and they're all built on this publisher model where they essentially became a slave to page views and then when everything went down, there's more advertising on the website, which meant that the user experience was going down and then fast forward, even right now these companies are laying off people and or going out of business because the model wasn't sustainable and thank God I had that complimentary experience from what is now 14 years ago to understand the industry and one last nugget to add onto yours if you want to get a job in sports. Someone once told me, and this was an absolute game-changer, he said, Rob, if you ever hope to get paid to do what you love, you better be doing it already. From that moment, I had zero experience in anything that I'm doing right now. I taught myself podcasting, I taught myself social media, taught myself events how to be on all of these different things because no one will ever give you your dream job unless you are doing it right now. Then we can add to what you said, you could also do that in another industry, which is the exact same thing.
Brian Kopp: (26:56)
Yeah, no, I agree. And then again, it's a crazy world that we operate in, in sports. That's why I think it's a lot like entertainment. There's a lot of people they get into it and some of these jobs are a bit thankless and what you end up having to do, but you put up for the just cause you're working within the sports industry. But at the end of the day, it is exciting and we are working with much more exciting things and maybe some other industries, but we're all building businesses and we're trying to use the information and use data and, and use technology to move things forward. So it's not always what someone wants to hear, but it's usually the best way to get into the industry is getting other experience first.
Rob Cressy: (27:33)
Brian, I really enjoyed this conversation. Where can everybody connect with you?
Brian Kopp: (27:37)
You can visit our website. It's phnxsports.com. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And yeah, I'm pretty active on LinkedIn where I normally am. Not as much on Twitter and other social accounts. But you know, Phoenix is just getting going. We're just launching a lot of things and building a portfolio and hopefully, it will be seeing a lot more of us in the coming years.
Rob Cressy: (28:03)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I'm curious to know what in the world of sports tech has your eye right now? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. As always you can hit me up on all social media platforms @robcressy.