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The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Sports

From the NBA’s VR initiative to one of the top ads of 2014, the companies experiencing the thrill of victory thanks to their ingenuity.

The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Sports
[Photo: Flickr user EJ Hersom]

1. Silver Crystal Sports

For letting sports fans create their own team jerseys. This Toronto-based company leases microfactories to sports venues and retail outlets so fans can design and print their own team jerseys on demand in a matter of minutes. Counting 400 worldwide partners, including some NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL teams, Silver Crystal expects to add 50 new clients a year, especially in the untapped college market. “The sports industry changes so rapidly that everyone realized they can save themselves from having to burn the inventory of traded players,” says company cofounder Jeffrey Silver. Silver Crystal sells the jersey letters and numbers to the teams, and it says these systems increase game day jersey sales by 25% to 150%. As of now, most fans order at digital kiosks in the venue, but Silver Crystal recently launched an app so fans will be able to customize their jerseys from their seats and have them delivered during the game.
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2. Sporting Innovations

For teaching fellow sports teams how to engage fans. When MLS team Sporting Kansas City launched its fan-engagement consulting business in 2011, it had only one client—its own franchise. After a slow start—three clients in 2013—more than 45 athletic programs, including Oklahoma State University, the Utah Jazz, and the Pac-12 conference, have signed on so far in 2014. The company predicts its client figure will double every year for the next five years. Why? According to Sporting Innovation’s co-CEO, Robb Heineman, it’s because the organization essentially builds a Wikipedia page for each fan that details, among other things, when and where the fan bought their ticket, when they arrived at the game and even when they went to buy a hot dog and soda. “If someone has a ticket for the game, I’m going to try and find out who they are coming with,” he says. “If not, I’m going to push them toward a mobile ticket offer affiliated with a brand they’re a fan of.” Heineman stresses it’s not stalking—it’s market research. “Teams have millions of fans who consume their content, and they really have no idea who they are,” he says. Until now.

3. Under Armour

For calling an audible on its female-focused ad campaign. Known for its macho “Protect this House” marketing style built on football, Under Armour went in the opposite direction on its new ads aimed at women. Instead of a traditional pro athlete, the company featured ballerina Misty Copeland as the face of its “I will what I want” campaign. “There is a new set of consumers in athletic females—people who aren’t playing organized sports, but are headed to spin class, Pilates, or are doing Tough Mudders,” says Leanne Fremar, the creative director of Under Armour’s women’s division. “Misty challenges the traditional notion of “athlete,” but I think you would be hard-pressed to say she is not an athlete.” Under Armour spent $15 million on the campaign to increase its women’s apparel revenue, which accounted for roughly 25% of the company’s $2.3 billion revenue in 2013. In its first month, Copeland’s clip on YouTube had already been viewed more than 7 million times—the most for any Under Armour campaign.

4. GoalControl

For ensuring refs make the right calls. After a referee disallowed an obvious goal by Germany in a 2010 World Cup game against England, FIFA officials knew they needed to introduce new goal-line technology in Brazil. Enter this German company, which has created GoalControl-4D. It’s composed of 14 total cameras that are pointed at the goals from different angles that are able to snap up to 500 photos per second. When a goal is scored, the device instantly sends a notification to the referee’s watch. (The accuracy of goal detection is up to 5 mm and, with a bit of German bravado, the company says only two cameras are actually needed for accurate ball detection.) This year, not a single mistake was made on World Cup goal calls—and Germany, coincidentally, ended up winning the title.

5. Boston Marathon

For using data to bolster its race day medical coverage. This past year, the Boston Marathon field size spiked by 9,000 runners to 36,000 participants, and 10% of those received some kind of medical attention. To boost its defense, the race has partnered with the Boston EMS to data map the entire 26.2-mile medical effort. Whenever runners seek treatment along the course, medical personnel scan their race bibs so head medical coordinator Chris Troyanos and his staff stationed at the finish line can see the treatment numbers in real time, control traffic flow to area hospitals, and, if one particular ER is getting inundated, reroute the incoming patients to another facility. Troyanos feels that’s still not enough. “The next iteration for us is to be able to create a medical history of each runner,” he says. That way if someone loses consciousness, medical personnel can scan their race bib, quickly pull up his or her health history, and know how to treat accordingly.

6. NBA

For embracing change, however it looks. The NBA has a new way to show off its games: inside Samsung’s virtual reality goggles. It began producing virtual reality content this February, and says it’s only the beginning of a long experimentation with the new form—something that could ultimately lead to broadcasting a live, 360-degree courtside perspective from every game. (It would be an especially clever way to serve the audiences it has cultivated in countries like India and China, where most fans may never be able to experience an actual, live NBA game.) It’s one of the first big technological explorations under the NBA’s new commissioner, Adam Silver, a man who spent his first weeks on the job taking meetings in Silicon Valley. Technology isn’t the only kind of change Silver embraces: He also caused a stir in November with a New York Times column advocating for legalized and regulated gambling on professional sports.

7. MLB Advanced Media

For making stats for superfans (and to help build superteams). These guys were on the list last year, but they deserve to be invited back because they’ve introduced a player tracking system that follows every movement made on the field. In addition to seeing what the player did, viewers can also see what might have happened if the pitch had been lower or the batter’s swing had been faster—or whatever other metric someone wants to know. Take a diving outfield catch: Viewers can see how fast the outfielder took his first step, accelerated, his top speed, and how direct of a line he took to the ball and his route efficiency percentage. The stats assist coaches with player evaluations, help players better position themselves at the plate and in the field, and settle debates among fans as to whether the player could have actually gotten to the ball. In 2014, MLB began mapping out player placement at Target Field, Miller Park, and Citi Field to create algorithms to connect the data. MLB’s goal is to have this technology in every stadium for the 2015 season.

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8. Omega/Swatch Group

For defining accuracy by the millisecond. Omega, the official timekeeper of the Olympics since 1932, added a new wrinkle to its clocks in Sochi, Russia—the IH Whistle Detection system. Here’s how it works: Each hockey referee was equipped with a wireless microphone that connected to the timing system, which monitored audio signals throughout the game. Whenever a ref blew his whistle, the system would recognize it and automatically stop the clock within one-tenth of a second. According to Omega, that’s at least a half second faster than a human hand can do it. Fractions of a second might seem insignificant, but, in the waning moments of the game, every fan wants a more reliable call than the ones made by huddling refs trying to make the right decision by committee.

9. VenueNext

For serving fans in ways they’ve only dreamed of. Backed in part by San Francisco 49ers executives, including team CEO Jed York, this Palo Alto-based startup launched its first in-stadium app at Levi’s Stadium past season. The app fulfills the dream of many a sports fan: It allows them to order concessions grub from their seats for either pickup or delivery. And to help fans make a strategic decision about when to take the long walk to the bathroom, the app provides line wait times in real time. Just in case anyone misses a play, the app offers on-demand video replays and in-game box scores. The company has only operated the app in Levi’s Stadium, but its future potential for other venues is bright. Early reports show that nearly 30% of fans at Levi’s Stadium are actually using it.

10. Quince Imaging

For turning the basketball court into art. All the talk this past NBA off-season was about the Cleveland Cavaliers, and yet no one mentioned the team’s new 3-D projection technology that makes the starting lineup announcement actually fun to watch. Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Atlanta have all asked Virginia-based Quince Imaging to create pregame videos that are beamed onto the teams’ courts using image-mapping technology. Eight to 10 different projectors shine a particular image into one quadrant of the court, and the images are stitched together into a uniform video clip. The 3-D sequences bring the video to life, like when a player in Cleveland’s video dunks so hard that it looks like it actually cracked the wooden floor. These visuals can take 45 days to produce and cost $27,000 to $30,000 per minute, but that hasn’t suppressed future demand. Who wants one next? “It’s actually easier to list the teams we haven’t spoken to,” says Quince Imaging designer CJ Davis.