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The 10 most innovative sports companies of 2020

The St. Louis Blues, AS Roma, plus the teams of technologists, architects, and other behind-the-scenes players improving the sporting life.

The 10 most innovative sports companies of 2020
THE WORLD’S 50 MOST INNOVATIVE COMPANIES
Sports

Of all the industries whose every aspect is being thoroughly transformed by advanced technologies, its broader effect may be most profound in sports. The companies we honor this year reflect this trend, showcasing how AI is impacting training and highlights, how sensors and spatial data are making players, coaches, teams, and even fans smarter, and how the in-game experience is being upgraded both at home and in the arena. Game on.

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1. Nex Team

For bringing shooting-practice routines of NBA stars to its AI-driven training app

The company’s HomeCourt app, which uses AI-driven training tech to help everyone from kids to pros improve their game, attracted the NBA as an investor in July 2019. By early 2020, the app evolved to include NBA Global Scout, a mobile, AI-powered extension of the original HomeCourt that allows players from India to Indiana, China to Chi-town, and Senegal to San Diego to record their measurements—such as wingspan, height, vertical leap, and agility—then build and show off their skills through development drills created to help NBA scouts evaluate their on-court proficiencies.

2. St. Louis Blues

For skating to where the puck is going with gambling by engaging fans to bet on in-game events

On its run to lifting the 2019 Stanley Cup, the team experimented with fan engagement (and arguably the future of sports gambling) through predictive gaming. Before and during games, fans were asked questions like, which team would be first to reach three shots on net, allowing fans to build up points for the chance to win prizes, including season’s tickets. Its popularity—more than 70% of fans who played along did it more than once—now has other teams and sports leagues paying attention.

3. Populous

For granting home-field advantage to Tottenham Hotspur and Minnesota United FC

The Kansas City, Missouri-based architecture and design firm made an impact on the Beautiful Game in 2019, unveiling two very different but equally impressive stadiums on either side of the Atlantic. Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London not only immediately became the envy of global football when it opened in April 2019, but it’s also the first international stadium designed to be NFL-ready. That same month stateside, Minnesota United FC’s Allianz Field—featuring a 360-degree open concourse—opened its doors in St. Paul, adding another soccer-specific jewel in Major League Soccer’s growing collection.

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4. Dazn

For fighting for boxing’s audience

The London-based sports streamer has become a household name around the world after acquiring major sports—including soccer—in such countries as Germany, Japan, Canada, and many more. It had a breakthrough 2019 in the United States, in particular thanks to its pitch to boxing fans. Its combination of original content and pop culture has brought some hype back to boxing, with the Joshua/Ruiz title fights as well as putting social-media stars KSI and Logan Paul in the ring.

5. Catapult

For creating the first wearable technology for soccer players

The Australian company has transformed wearable performance tracking technology that pro athletes on the world’s best teams are wearing into its first consumer product Playr, the world’s first wearable designed specifically for soccer. It aims to use data and analytics not only to improve performance but also reduce injuries. Beyond soccer, Alabama football coach Nick Saban has publicly said they have cut injuries in half by using Catapult.

6. Second Spectrum

For giving basketball and soccer fans new perspective

Since 2018, the Los Angeles-based company has collected spatial data from cameras in NBA arenas to supply player-tracking statistics to every team in the league, and L.A. Clippers fans have been able to see some of that data through Second Spectrum’s CourtVision app. Last year, deals with the English Premier League and North America’s Major League Soccer have it tracking data, including as a player’s speed, shot velocity, and distance from the goal, and MLS is aiming to incorporate visualizations for some of this information into its match broadcasts.

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7. Premier Lacrosse League

For barnstorming a new type of pro league

Launched in June 2019, America’s newest sports league has earned immediate respect for kicking off with guaranteed minimum salaries, player healthcare, coverage on NBC, a touring schedule, and—a first for a professional sports league—an equity stake for players. Viewership grew 54% over the course of the inaugural season, aided in part by at least one broadcast innovation: mic’d-up players on the field who can be interviewed live by the commentators, a novel idea that earned an Emmy nomination and co-option by legacy sports leagues.

8. Fanatics

For hitting another homer with MLB and Nike

In 2019, the new sports apparel giant expanded from its NFL duties for Nike by signing a 10-year deal with Major League Baseball to design, manufacture, and distribute all Nike MLB fan gear sold at retail. It also signed 10-year retail deals with the Golden State Warriors, expanded its footprint in the English Premier League with a full commerce and apparel deal with Everton FC, and opened new offices across Asia.

9. AS Roma

For using the hype around new player transfers to help find missing children

The Italian soccer club, owned by American James Pallotta, took a unique approach last year to the annual news hype around signing new players. As clubs around the world out-duel each other with elaborate social-media videos for each new star signing, Roma decided to harness that attention for good by pairing each new player signing with a notice for a missing child in Europe. As a result, as of January 2020, the effort had helped locate six missing children.

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10. IBM

For adding sound analysis to its AI-powered golf and tennis highlights

The tech giant originally introduced AI highlights at The 2017 Masters—processing hundreds of hours of live video; analyzing player movement, gestures, and facial expressions; and listening to the roar of the crowd to identify the most highlight-worthy moments just minutes after they occur. Over the past year, it’s added sound analysis to this AI-powered sports highlights technology, allowing for more accurately edited highlights at The Masters, Wimbledon, and US Open. The company also put AI analytics in the hands of USTA coaches with its new Coach Advisor tech.

Read more about Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies:

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