DATA ANALYTICS has recently become a red-hot trend in professional sports. It's even spawned a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference with sessions such as "Allocation and Dynamic Efficiency in NBA Decision Making." But the tools are too expensive for most high-school and small-college programs, leaving those teams out of the data revolution.
That's beginning to change, thanks to Krossover, a web startup that promises to have a broad impact on small-time sports. Krossover, which went live in late 2010, is making inexpensive analytics tools available over the web for basketball and lacrosse coaches at small colleges and high schools. It also offers players a way to study their games and create video highlight reels to post on Facebook or other sites. In March, ESPN tested Krossover at its National High School Invitational, with an eye toward a possible partnership.
And all of it is the brainchild of an unlikely basketball polymath raised in Bangalore, India, playing on a dirt court outfitted with homemade backboards and rims.
Vasu Kulkarni, now 25, had been a star on his high-school basketball team in India--at 5-foot-10 and 135 pounds. When Kulkarni moved to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania, he thought he was good enough to try out for the basketball team. He got crushed by far bigger and better-coached players. "I didn't know there was such a huge discrepancy between where I came from and here," Kulkarni told me as he downed breakfast at the Reebok Sports Club in New York. Kulkarni, though, worked out and bulked up until, in his senior year, he walked on and made the Penn junior varsity.
While on the Penn team--often on the bench--Kulkarni got a view of the scorekeeper who used pen and paper to mark down everything that happened in a game. The notes would later get tallied by hand into statistics.
By the time Kulkarni graduated, he was convinced that technology could make better use of such stats. He built a service that allows coaches and players to locate specific shots in game video with the click of a button. A friend invested $50,000, and Kulkarni's deceptively simple idea became a startup.
Most high schools shoot video of their basketball games. For $1,000 to $3,500 a season, a coach can sign up with Krossover and upload that video to the site. A team of four Krossover employees use a video-game-like interface to tag the whole game in about 45 minutes. The tags identify hundreds of events in the game, such as shots, steals, and fouls. "We found we had to do the tagging by hand," Kulkarni says. "We tried image recognition, but it was too hard and images from all those camcorders were not that great."
The coach can then access the tags and video on Krossover's site. The tags can be mixed, matched, and sorted like a database. The video and statistical sorting by itself is delighting coaches. "We can bring in kids and say, 'This is who you're guarding and here's how she's getting open,' and show them the relevant plays on a single video," says Jim Brown, assistant coach of the women's basketball team at Transylvania University in Kentucky. "It's not just a verbal scouting report. It reinforces learning."
The players get access to the site, too, and they can use the tagged video as a learning tool--or for bragging. With a few clicks, a player can assemble highlights into a video and post it on social networks. Which, of course, turns into a viral marketing campaign for Krossover. If one high-school basketball team posts highlights, rival players are likely to start asking for Krossover too.
"The big picture for us is content," Kulkarni says. "These are lifelong memories of playing high-school and college basketball, with stats." That content caught the interest of ESPN, which has a high-school sports site called ESPN Rise. The network invited Krossover to its national invitational in North Bethesda, Maryland, and gave some of the teams there access to the site as a test. "Krossover could be a good resource for high-school athletes," says Glenn Rosenbloom, vice president at ESPN Rise. Though he won't give specifics about how ESPN might use Krossover, he adds: "If we determine Krossover would be valuable to athletes, we'll try to help make it available to them."
Meanwhile, Kulkarni is driving ahead with the same kind of determination that got him on the Penn squad. As of April, Krossover had about 65 basketball teams as customers; he's hoping to sign up 500 by year's end. The company recently launched a similar product for lacrosse, and Kulkarni says it's building versions for volleyball and football. No service like Krossover's exists for any of the sports.
Schools aren't the only market on Kulkarni's radar. Older recreation-league players might like highlight videos too. Kulkarni already cut deals with two high-end basketball fantasy camps, and his next goal, he says half-jokingly, is to offer Krossover to the rich New Yorkers he joins for pickup basketball most mornings.