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How The Sports Industry Pioneered Advances In The Innovation Economy

Ten years of innovation, lesson No. 4: Competition is a joy.

How The Sports Industry Pioneered Advances In The Innovation Economy
[Source Photo: Flickr user The Library of Congress]
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The National Football League is an amazingly successful enterprise, but these days it’s hard to think of it as a bastion of forward-thinking business practices. The organization’s blindness, or willful denial, of concussion risks could be a case study in mismanagement. Whether the edifice of professional football will eventually crumble under the weight of health challenges has become a reasonable debate. But here’s what’s not debatable: Football has been a popularizer of several key innovation-economy breakthroughs.

Consider the now ubiquitous “yellow line” denoting first-down markers on football TV broadcasts. This was the first mass-market implementation of augmented-reality technology, which places digitized visual information into real-world situations. Pioneered by a Chicago-based company called Sportvision (one of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Company honorees in 2010), the yellow line is now just one example of in-game AR, from specific down-and-distance information in NFL games to digitally inserted advertisements on fields and backgrounds. Sports-related AR has spread well beyond football: Sportvision also provides the Pitchf/x technology that allows Major League Baseball games to track pitches and show strike zone information, as well as Racef/x that allows Nascar viewers to more easily follow specific vehicles.

In fact, the intense competitiveness of the media markets in which football, baseball, and other sports operate has actually made them a hotbed of change. Look at data analytics: The Michael Lewis book Moneyball and its cinematic counterpart starring Brad Pitt was the first culture-wide illumination of the competitive business advantage that data can provide. While reeling off stats has always been a core part of sports-geek fandom, data analysis is now a central operating principle in sport that extends even to the high school level (as reflected in our highlighting of video-analytics platform Hudl in last year’s World’s Most Innovative Companies list). That cultural reach has supported a broader embrace of analytics, as the proliferation of data extends into all businesses.

Sports have introduced broad audiences to other now-core modern business notions: 360-degree customer engagement (as seen in digitally connected venues from Kansas City to Sacramento); global outreach (the NBA reaching out to China; NFL games in Mexico and London); and the targeting of more diverse customers (marketing to women). Even the commercial appeal of social media emerged only after sports figures and other celebrities got involved. Major League Baseball’s digital streaming arm, BAM Tech, is such a pioneer that Disney invested $1 billion in it. And the NFL continues to move us further: By broadcasting games on Twitter, the league is accelerating the blurring of lines between TV networks, websites, and apps.

Sports businesses will need to continue to take risks in order to maintain relevance. They are on the front lines of where technology and culture collide. It’s a collision that won’t hurt your head, but it will encourage change.

This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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