When sports shut down at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, it wasn’t clear whether there would be innovation in the sports world at all in that moment. But those fears quickly proved unfounded as leagues, teams, and companies which participate in the ecosystem rose to the occasion to develop novel ways to return to play and support the fans who needed the joy and excitement that live competition plays in their lives.
1. National Basketball Association
For blowing the best bubble
Just 20 weeks after stopping play as COVID-19 took hold in the United States, the NBA restarted its season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, and the WNBA tipped off its 2020 season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The NBA was the first major pro sports league to halt its season as a result of the pandemic, and among the first to successfully get back to playing. To do so, the league worked to create an immersive experience for fans, with 17-foot video boards surrounding the court that display 300-plus fans in real-time; using more than 30 cameras and never-before-seen camera angles to enhance the broadcast, and a virtual cheering experience that allows viewers at home to impact visual effects in the venue. It also created customized viewing options on NBA League Pass and NBA TV, including alternate and in-language feeds, enhanced graphics, gaming options, and influencers calling the game.
For racing into esports
This past year, Zwift proved that esports can stand alongside—and even in place of—real sports when it hosted its biggest esports event to date, partnering with the world’s most famous cycling race, the Tour de France, to host the first-ever Virtual Tour de France in July, featuring the same athletes and teams as the real-life event. By offering a virtual alternative to cycling’s most prestigious race, Zwift’s platform demonstrated the growing power of esports, as 23 men’s and 17 women’s professional teams participated. The racing was broadcast by 18 TV networks to more than 130 territories worldwide as well as a free-to-view global livestream hosted on YouTube. Zwift continued its long-standing relationship with the world cycling governing body, the UCI, hosting the first UCI Cycling Esports World Championships in December. For more on why Zwift is a Most Innovative Company in 2021, click here.
For running to e-commerce and subscriptions
In 2020, Switzerland-based On launched Cyclon, the world’s first subscription-based shoe service to bring fully recyclable sportswear to runners worldwide. For about $30 a month, subscribers get new shoes and running wear they can return when done, in exchange for the newest versions. Once returned, the used gear will be fully recycled, with materials reused to create new products. The first product in the Cyclon service is a fully recyclable, high-performance running shoe that weighs less than 200 grams and is made with more than 50% bio-based materials. On is aiming for the Cyclon to hit 200,000 subscriptions by 2021. Overall, despite COVID-19, June saw the highest e-commerce sales for On’s U.S. market to date, resulting in an anticipated growth of 190% for the year.
For going all in on philanthropy and athletes
In 2020, the on-demand sports merchandise platform Fanatics created the celebrity- and athlete-driven All In Challenge, which exploded on social media and raised $60 million dollars to feed those most affected by COVID-19, such as kids who depend on school meals, the elderly, recently unemployed, and others. In just 12 days from idea inception to site launch, Fanatics built a charitable giving platform that will now be used to support a myriad of philanthropic initiatives moving forward. The company is also growing its e-commerce partnerships beyond teams and leagues, to team up with NFL running back Marshawn Lynch’s Beastmode brand on a first-of-its-kind venture with an individual athlete. Fanatics is now expanding into China through a joint venture with Hillhouse Capital.
For firing therapy guns into the mainstream
Hyperice‘s primary product is a massage therapy gun, but it’s also created its HyperSmart “operating system” to blend a user’s physical and digital activity to consistently guide them toward optimal wellness. HyperSmart’s algorithms interpret the data from wearables and physical activity, and it’s integrated with Apple Health, Strava, and Garmin (with Whoop and Orangetheory on the way), to customize pre- and post-workout routines in Hyperice’s app tailored for them and their goals. The more a user interacts with HyperSmart, the more intelligent it becomes, recommending personalized routines for body maintenance, improved flexibility, and optimized performance by analyzing each user’s profile alongside wearable data that considers the type, duration, and intensity of their workouts. In March, Hyperice acquired NormaTec, a pioneer in pneumatic compression systems, and is now working to advance the NormaTec tech and bring down the price to make its compression-recovery products accessible to more consumers. The company also won deals with the NBA, NFL, UFC, and other leagues as an official partner, as well as winning fans (and strategic investors) among such athletes as Naomi Osaka and Russell Westbrook.
For sharpening its shot
This year, the AI-based platform added more features that were perfectly timed to tap into the opportunities around home training during the pandemic. That included Battle Mode, which allows users to play against each other, even playing virtual 1-on-1 and pick-up hoops. The NBA used Homecourt for its 2020 Draft Combine, to show scouts, teams, and fans how prospects perform a wide variety of skills.
7. Fenway Sports Management
For winning with moneyball in the Premier League
The year 2020 marked the culmination of perhaps the most high-profile experiments in the biggest sport on earth. While still a force on the field, as a business Liverpool FC was flailing when Fenway Sports Management took over in 2010. The new owners invested in a few pillars to build it back to a more dominant force in global football, using statistics, data, and an American “moneyball” approach to soccer, securing a stadium redevelopment plan, and retooling the club’s commercial business into a well-oiled money-making machine. This year, after all that patient building, Liverpool won its first English Premier League title in 30 years.
For giving athletes of all stripes an early COVID-19 warning system
Like the athletes it serves, the popular health tool and fitness tracker Whoop adapted to the pandemic in a number of ways. One was launching a journal where users self-report caffeine, alcohol use, feeding window, and other lifestyle details for an assessment on how those choices affect sleep, recovery, heart rate variability, and resting heart rate. It also rolled out a respiratory rate feature, which has been shown to be a leading indicator of possible infection if a user sees large variances or a sudden rise from their norm. Whoop also developed an algorithm that has been shown capable of detecting 20% of pre-symptomatic COVID-19 illnesses in the two days prior to the onset of symptoms, and correctly identifying 80% of symptomatic cases by the third day of symptoms. Athletes in sports such as golf, and teams—such as college football players at the University of Tennessee and NFL pros including stars like Patrick Mahomes—have used Whoop to help monitor their health and performance with the resumption of play. After pro golfer Nick Watney decided to get tested based on his Whoop data, the PGA Tour issued 1,000 bands to its pros.
For putting fans where they wish they could be
OZ, which started in sports tech, served fans well during the pandemic. It used its platforms to help sports adapt to new realities by allowing fans to record chants that would then be piped into stadiums, and using augmented reality to allow them to personalize their experience with their own avatars, club shirts, genuine cheers from home via an app—and even appear in their preferred seat.
For giving fans a live look when it matters most
This new mobile live sports platform Buzzer, started by former Twitter director of live content Bo Han, is being pitched at young consumers by offering frictionless look-ins to live games. Combining its own mobile broadcast rights acquisitions with the users’ existing subscriptions, Buzzer aims to draw in viewers by telling them when an exciting moment is happening for a team they care about and offering them 99-cent micropayment options to watch if it falls outside of what they are paying elsewhere. One key here is that it’s not trying to be another aggregated streaming product to replace YouTube TV, Hulu Live, or FuboTV, but rather to act as a gateway into live action. It’s an ambitious sports media play that points to where fandom is headed.