Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative media, events, and consumer goods companies.
Technology continues to revolutionize sports, whether experienced on the field or viewed from the couch, and innovations from these 10 companies are altering playing fields from little leagues to the majors. Fanatics entered the trading card business with a deal that for the first time offers a piece of the action to the leagues and to players’ unions. Surfline released a new wave forecasting engine that uses AI and machine learning to assess data from more than 800 HD cameras around the world. Golftec is bringing state-of-the-art motion capture and measurement technology to weekend duffers, while GameChanger (a division of Dick’s Sporting Goods) has taken the live streaming of little league and high school sports to new heights, including archives and sharable highlights. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is expanding pro play in Africa, the Drone Racing League worked with T-Mobile to launch the first 5G-enabled racing drone, and Carbon teamed up with Rawlings to create the first baseball glove that includes 3D-printed components. Intel’s new 3DAT technology, an AI-powered video analytics platform, enhanced broadcasts of last summer’s Olympic track and field trials. Following the NCAA’s landmark ruling to allow college athletes to begin profiting off their names, images, and likenesses, Opendorse launched three products that enable amateurs to seek deals while remaining compliant with regulations. Abbott Laboratories introduced a Bluetooth-enabled wearable to help athletes monitor glucose levels while working out or competing. Here are this year’s 10 honorees in the Sports category of Most Innovative Companies.
For remaking the supply chain of sports fandom
After conquering sports apparel with its combination of an on-demand supply model and e-commerce deals with almost every major sports league and team on the planet, Fanatics is aiming to rule the rest of the sports commerce ecosystem from trading cards and ticketing to betting and NFTs. In August, Fanatics secured trading card rights for Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), and NBA. It ended Topps’ decades-long hold on baseball cards, which immediately made Fanatics a major player in the $98 billion trading card industry. What’s more: Fanatics has given the leagues and players’ unions equity in the trading cards business, something they’ve never had before. The company also partnered with Jay-Z last summer to enter the New York sports betting market with Fanatics Sportsbook, and hired FanDuel’s former CEO to run it. Fanatics’ Candy Digital, an NFT venture that launched in June, has exclusive digital rights for MLB and hit a $1.5 billion valuation this fall after a new round of fundraising.
For predicting where tomorrow’s waves will be breaking
A subscription-based wave forecasting and surf report service, Surfline unveiled a new wave forecasting engine in 2021, a massive undertaking that was carefully constructed from the ground up. It leverages advanced AI and machine learning—plus a network of live HD cameras at more than 800 locations worldwide—to develop forecasts, performing more than a quarter of a trillion calculations each day, so Surfline is able to project where waves will be generated, how they’ll travel, and when they’ll arrive at the beach. Additionally, Surfline incorporates observations of the sea surface taken from satellites to fine-tune these forecasts as the waves travel. Once Surfline has accurately understood how waves track to the beach, it then uses a robust machine learning system trained with 35 years of its own unique ocean observations to understand how they’ll then transform into surf in the lineup. With surfing making its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 2021, the Olympic Committee asked Surfline to advise on how waves were most likely to arrive during the event. Surfline also added 100 locations to its HD camera network last year, allowing even more surfers to take advantage of its Surfline Sessions feature on the Surfline app, through which they can connect their smart devices to the app and, after a session on the waves, receive individual video clips of all their rides. These efforts are paying off: Total paying subscribers are up 38% year-over-year, with paid subscriber retention up 31%. Surfline subscription revenue is up 36%, and overall revenue grew by 24%.
Surfline is No. 49 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
For bringing state-of-the-art analytics to weekend duffers
Golf has boomed during the pandemic, with more new players picking up a club for the first time (500,000 in the U.S. in 2020, according to the National Golf Foundation) and established players increasing their number of rounds (61 million more rounds played in 2020 than in 2019). In a technique-obsessed sport where an infinitesimal change of angle can send a ball soaring into the abyss rather than onto the green, more than a million players a year seek state-of-the-art instruction at one of data-centric Golftec’s more than 200 locations in North America and Asia. In July 2021, the company released OptiMotion, a unique motion capture and measurement system that uses HD cameras and AI to reproduce swings in 3D, all in a wireless, sensor-less environment. In the months since the new technology debuted, Golftec reports having taught more than 800,000 lessons using OptiMotion, adding significantly to the digital library of 14 million swings the company has captured since its 1995 founding in Denver.
For turning little leaguers into livestream stars
Mobile scorekeeping platform GameChanger was founded in 2011, adopted shortly thereafter for use by Little League Baseball, and acquired by Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2016. Numerous impressive partnerships, including one with the National Federation of State High School Associations, have enabled the platform to achieve impressive scale (4 million games and more than half a million teams). During the pandemic, however, GameChanger greatly expanded its purview by introducing live streaming with an AI powered scoreboard. The streaming platform launched in Jan 2021, and soon added a Video Archives, which allows coaches and parents to store live streams. GameChanger also released a feature that lets users create snippets of each video that parents can then share on social media. Over the course of 2021, streaming adoption by parents and family members grew from 6,000 per month to more than 120,000 per month.
5. National Basketball Association
For expanding into Africa
The inaugural season of the new Basketball Africa League tipped off in Kigali, Rwanda, last May with a 12-team tournament. The league was developed through a partnership between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation, with the North American league creating a new NBA Africa entity to oversee the effort and help broadcast the inaugural season in 215 countries. The BAL reached more than 170 million fans across NBA and BAL social media platforms between March and June 2021, with 33 million video views and 3.3 million engagements, while the BAL website registered 1.6 million unique visitors during the tournament in May and more than 5 million clicks. Led by former NBA international scout Amadou Gallo Fall, who previously oversaw the creation of the NBA Academy in Senegal (a training ground/high school with other campuses in India, Australia, and Mexico), the league’s 2022 season will be played from March through May on a multicity tour, with games in Dakar, Senegal; Cairo; and Kigali.
For tracking track and field stars
Intel debuted its 3DAT technology to the world at last summer’s Olympic Games. 3DAT is a cloud-based, AI-powered video analytics platform that assesses athletic performance. The technology has been in development since 2019 but premiered as a broadcast enhancement at the Olympic track and field trials in June. Basically, what 3DAT does is fuse multiple 4K video streams to create a 3D image of an athlete in motion. Notable tech enhancement in 2021 include the release of a software development kit that allows developers to build their own applications off the platform. The tech was also expanded in 2021 to include high-fidelity markerless motion tracking (to capture high speed movements like a golf swing), AI-powered single-camera skeletal tracking, and an expanded array of more than 2,000 metrics to capture and measure biomechanics.
For taking 3D printing into the major leagues
More MLB players use Rawlings gloves than any other brand. Like all sports equipment, baseball gloves are fetishized, and the company’s new REV1X—released in July 2021—was a highly anticipated debut. The twist is that Rawlings is using a new process developed by 3D printing technology company Carbon to manufacture critical components including the padding used for the thumb and the pinky areas, replacing felt. (Carbon is also partnering with bicycle accessory company Fizik on 3D printed saddles and with Adidas on a shoe.) The REV1X is a new kind of glove design, with special webbing that is stronger and lighter—the whole glove is lighter—and much easier to break in. The new manufacturing process expands Rawlings’s ability to create the glove, reducing supply chain problems. The first production run sold out within 24 hours.
For connecting amateur athletes with endorsement deals
Since 2012, Opendorse has served as a platform to facilitate endorsement deals for professional athletes, from NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes to Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan. Last July, when the NCAA finally opened the door for college athletes to begin profiting off their names, images, and likenesses, thousands of them flocked to the site. Opendorse offers several features tailored to amateur athletes: Its Deals platform functions similarly to the version for the pros, matching athletes with prospective sponsors, but Opendorse also offers amateurs additional tools to ensure they maintain compliance with rules that vary from state to state, and even from school to school. The company projects that student athletes will earn more than $1.5 billion in their first year of eligibility on the platform. Opendorse has been expanding its platform to create walled marketplaces for specific teams (colleges, Team USA) and has emerged as the leading disclosure tool as it allows athletes to announce new deals from within its app. There are more than 15,000 pro athletes and more than 50,000 amateur athletes now using the platform.
9. Drone Racing League
For putting viewers in the pilot seat
In August 2021, the Drone Racing League (DRL) launched its first 5G-enabled racing drone in partnership with T-Mobile. It is one of the first racing drones in the world to have an embedded 5G module capable of livestreaming video directly to the internet. The drone brings sports fans closer to the action than ever, streaming high-definition, immersive First Person View (FPV) race footage to fans via T-Mobile’s 5G wireless network. At the same time, DRL partnered with Genius Sports, a sports betting integrity organization, and DraftKings to transform DRL into the first aerial sport fans can bet on. This past year, DRL has more than doubled its broadcast reach into 250 million households in 140 global markets with a dozen sports networks including NBC, ESPN, Sky and Fox; the league also reports a 300% increase in TikTok fans since August.
For fueling athletes with more biodata
Abbott’s Libre Sense Glucose Sports Biosensor is the latest product in a glucose monitoring line that dates to 2014. This one is designed specifically for athletes. The small bluetooth-enabled wearable is the size of two quarters and attaches to the upper arm, allowing athletes to better gauge and maintain optimal glucose levels for better health and performance. The device has been adopted by the world’s top marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, as well as four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome and other top athletes. Initially released in the late fall of 2020, the biosensor is currently only available in Europe.