- Here are the franchises setting the standards for a tech-first approach to building brands and engaging with fans.
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With 2016 coming to a close, we examined the sports landscape to rank the most technologically savvy professional sports teams. It was clear from our research that dozens of organizations around the world are approaching the building of their franchise from a tech-first mindset. But this ranking consists of twenty-five teams that were exceptionally innovative in 2016.
Our justifications and methodology for including a team on the list included three areas: regular partnerships and utilizations of new technologies and sports technology companies; unique fan engagement tactics via digital platforms and new technologies; and players on the team who are involved in startups and sports technology companies.
Below is the first installment of the SportTechie 25, the most tech-savvy sports teams across the globe. Please let us know what you think about the list on Twitter using the hashtag #SportTechie25.
25. New York Yankees
As Spring Training kicked off for the 2016 season, the Yankees banned print-at-home tickets for all home games this year in an effort to combat ticketing fraud and counterfeiting. Because of the team’s exclusive relationship with Ticketmaster, fans could still purchase and use a traditional hard copy through purchasing tickets at Yankees.com, Ticketmaster.com or over the phone at Ticketmaster.
Midway through the year, the Yankees grabbed more positive news as the team locked arms with Orangetheory Fitness, one of the fastest growing fitness companies that utilizes heart rate monitored, interval-based workouts proven to work by creating optimal target training zones for people. The Official Center Sponsor of the Yankees plans to open nearly 700 studios by 2017.
24. Dallas Cowboys
The $1.3 billion behemoth of a facility that is known as AT&T Stadium, or ‘Jerry World’, grabbed much buzz in 2009 when it finally was completed. Even now, it’s still a sight to see, having one of the largest center-hung video boards in all of sports. In the past half decade, the stadium has announced a handful of new technology integrations, including upgrades in WiFi, new interactive concourse exhibits, a revamped AT&T Stadium app, the addition of new video boards and more.
In the past two years, the organization has implemented mobile entry adoption for Cowboys home games as part of an ongoing partnership with Ticketmaster. The mobile strategy, with the team being one of the first in professional sports to go all-in on the shift away from paper tickets, has decreased instances of fraud, streamlined the ticketing process even further and boosted morale among the ticketing staffers.
Away from AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys officially launched its Blue Star Accelerator programin November together with local entrepreneur Rob Wechsler. The startup lab and investment venture, which will include companies at the intersection of technology, sports and entertainment, will live on the team’s campus in Frisco, Texas. The Star, as it’s being called, may also soon be home to Gatorade’s third Sports Science Institute, something that owner Jerry Jones alluded to in mid-September.
23. Oakland Athletics
As the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, Billy Beane is known for his use of ”Moneyball” over the nearly two decades he has spent in the front office. His progressive nature didn’t start and stop with his position as the general manager, though. Recently, Beane joined Kitman Labs where he sits on the organization’s advisory board. The Silicon Valley, Calif.-based technology and sports science company helps athletes remain healthy through a cloud-based service.
As a team, the Athletics have shown a keen interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—programs over the past few years, recently hosting a group of local youth baseball players for the second year in a row this July. The on-field clinic was designed to inspire STEM learning through the science of sports.
22. San Jose Sharks
At the start of the 2016–17 season, the Sharks became the first NHL club to work with VenueNext, a connected technology platform teams can leverage at stadiums to cut costs and drive revenue. For the current Sharks season, VenueNext is powering a few different venue experiences at the SAP Center for Sharks Sports & Entertainment. Additionally, as the Sharks competed in the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, the team announced a partnership with Kinduct Technologies, a provider of athlete performance software. Through its cloud-based management system, the Sharks can now collect and analyze large pools of data in a centralized technology platform and then distribute player-specific strength and conditioning programs to each athlete.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
Despite rebuilding their roster over the past few years, the Jaguars have still been an innovator off the field. Around the NFL International Series this fall, the Jaguars worked with London-based virtual reality company Laduma as the team held an activation outside Wembley Stadium to showcase its virtual content to fans. Now with an actual physical presence in London, the Jaguars solicited the services of Welsh digital marketing firm UpriseVSI in early 2016 to grow the team’s market in the United Kingdom. The digital company designed and created the Jaguars’ UK-based website and the booking platform for the teams’ new UK academy, Jaguars Academy.
Back stateside, the team worked with NanoLumens prior to the current season to outfit the newly renovated Everbank Field with —six LED displays in all—at the club seat levels. The products’ high-quality screen resolution allows fans to view any angle without distortion. To even further connect with fans in 2016, the team doubled down on gamification with branded video game content, a lead marketing strategy for the Jaguars and a way to capture data on attendees to Everbank Field. The most-recent pinball video game, dubbed “Bud Light presents River City Rollers,” also integrates a blue-chip brand into the equation, too.
20. Minnesota Twins
Before the 2016 season, the Twins announced they started working with Catapult Sports, a well-known Australian-based sports wearable and technology company, in order to prevent player injury. During practices and workout sessions, players wore Catapult’s harness strap, which includes a built-in tracking device. The unit includes both a GPS and accelerometer to help determine biomechanical fatigue and prevent players from heading to the dreaded disabled list.
Additionally, players like Joe Mauer have also integrated technology into their daily routine. After two down years in 2014 and 2015 where Mauer hit .277 and .265 respectively, the Twins catcher caught fire in the first half of 2016, thanks in large part of to a nifty pair of glasses that Nike sent him prior to the season. While the glasses are no longer on the market, Mauer and a few teammates took advantage of the “strobe glasses” to help see individual pitches in short, picture-like fragments to augment one’s focus.
Virtual reality even made its way to Target Field in late July, except it wasn’t for the players—it was for the fans. The organization gave away 5,000 virtual reality headsets to fans through its relationship with SuperSphereVR, a Los Angeles-based virtual reality production company. Fans could access content with the help of a Twins cardboard headset and via the free MLB.com Ballpark app.
19. Los Angeles Clippers
Steve Ballmer, the former Chief Executive Officer at Microsoft, is one of the most-technologically focused owners, not only in the NBA, but across all professional sports. He’s been adamant about keeping the team’s streaming rights as of late, even as the Clippers recently renewed their television partnership with FOX Sports Prime Ticket for a reported $50–55 million per year. In addition to the potential over-the-top offerings coming down the road, Ballmer, 60, sees fans watching a game through point guard Chris Paul’s eyes, a viewing option that may soon appear in the not-too-distant future.
On the investment side, Paul is one of the more active players in the NBA. As of earlier this year, Paul is also part owner of D1 Sports Training gym in North Carolina and an investor in Fusionetics, a company that develops programs to optimize athletic performance. In addition, the nine-time All-Star partnered with Israel vision technology company InnoVision Labs and created an app called Game Vision By Chris Paul to help improve athletes anticipation. Around the same time in February, the 31-year-old Paul became a strategic investor in Muzik, a smart and connected headphone company.
18. Dallas Mavericks
On the technology front, the Mavericks are led by owner Mark Cuban, who throughout his career has created a computer consulting business (MicroSolutions) and launched a high-definition television network (HDNet). In addition to being a participant on the ABC show, Shark Tank, Cuban has invested in dozens of companies over the years, including sports data and technology company, Sportradar, along with Unikrn, a leader in eSports betting. Even new Dallas Mavericks forward, Harrison Barnes, is involved in the technology scene, a proponent of the Fitbit Blaze and how wearables have positively impacted his careerin recent years.
Like the Denver Broncos, the Mavericks have placed a heightened emphasis on improving players’ sleep, partnering with Bedgear Performance Bedding before the 2016–17 season. Bedgear has worked with each player and coach to create a personalized sleep system. The Mavericks were the first NBA team to collaborate with Bedgear. Additionally, last year, the team called upon Tixsee, a technology company that helped the Mavericks alter the ticket purchasing process with a virtual shopping experience on Mavs.com in order to give fans a panoramic tour of American Airlines Center.
17. Minnesota Vikings
At the start of the 2016–17 NFL season, the Vikings unveiled the $1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium, which includes LED lighting, 1,300 WiFi access points, roughly 2,000 HD flat-screen televisions and a new high-tech, interactive fan experience called Vikings Voyage. Inside the 10,000-square-foot museum, fans have an opportunity to test their vertical jump, hit defensive-line pads and put on a virtual reality headset as they catch passes from a quarterback.
Along with its new stadium, Minnesota has been progressive on the social front, too. The Vikings have been one of the few NFL teams to creatively integrate Vine into their social strategy. Just recently, the team partnered with Tagboard—a Seattle, Wash.-based social display and research platform company—to publish Snapchat content and account information in-stadium. With the recent rollout of Snapchat Spectacles, the digital staff recently snagged a pair of glasses and started experimenting with the new piece of hardware last weekend.
16. Los Angeles Galaxy
In 2016, the Galaxy have been at the forefront of emerging technology, especially virtual reality. Through a relationship with London-based virtual reality company Laduma, the team launched an exclusive Galaxy VR app in September. Fans could access a five-part virtual reality series that gives them a look into the lives of Galaxy players, going inside the house of Steve Gerrard and checking out where Robbie Keane spends his time in Los Angeles. During the most recent season, the virtual experience was made available to fans at two home games at StubHub Center.
Midway through 2016, the Galaxy expanded its partnership with Match Analysis, a California-based company that assists the team with its performance analysis program. The technology provides additional fitness reports and tracking data to the Galaxy, such as a player’s location data, distance covered on the pitch, speed and recovery rates. In turn, the extra statistics gives the team a better means for customizing team and individual fitness requirements.
15. New York Jets
Like a handful of other NFL teams, the Jets are working with STRIVR Labs, a virtual reality company that not only helps players train but also provides unique experiences for sports organizations and their respective brand partners. The partnership kicked off in the Spring of 2015, with STRIVR capturing 360-degree content during training camp and home preseason games. Fans then had six options to choose from including running onto the field, participating in the coin toss, hearing the national anthem from the sidelines and even chatting J-E-T-S with other fans in the stands.
To track crowd levels at MetLife Stadium, the team implemented technology in 2015 from Uplause, a developer of interactive fan engagement technology that displays information from the Uplause Authentic dB Meter on the team’s in-game video board.
In September, Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall partnered with Lucid, an app that provides mental training, advice and mediation exercises for athletes. Through a $1 million donation to raise awareness for mental health, Marshall—who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2011—and Lucid gifted season-long app subscriptions to all high school football teams in the Public Schools Athletic League.
14. Denver Broncos
Over the past year, the Broncos have quietly been one of the NFL leaders in creative uses of technology. At the end of 2015, they were the first NFL team to partner with Bedgear Performance Bedding to help players and coaches get a better night’s rest.
During the 2016 season, the team is also leveraging augmented reality through the team’s Orange Herd app as part of a deal with blue-chip brands Coca-Cola, Conoco and Bud Light. In the ’Come to Life’ brand campaign, fans can use their smartphones at Sports Authority Field at Mile High to scan one of six souvenir cups, which then activates a 3D experience and different animations.
Inside the stadium in 2015, the Broncos also took advantage of the infamous Twitter vending machine, a well-known fan engagement tool. Yet, it was still the first time an NFL team had utilized the machine to provide fans with prizes, ticket upgrades and signed items in exchange for simple Tweets.
Last month, the Broncos hopped aboard the hackathon trend sweeping across professional sports, partnering with two locally-based companies—SendGrid and FullContact—for the Tackle STEM Colorado All-Stars Hackathon. The event included participation from STEM supporter, guest judge and defensive lineman, Russell Okung. The Oklahoma State graduate is also an investor in iBeat and Shyft Technologies.
13. AS Roma
At the end of 2015, AS Roma of Serie A, the top Italian soccer league, totally revamped its old website inspired by fan feedback via the Reddit. After being voted one of the worst websites in the entire UEFA Champions League, the team used crowdsourced intelligence to implement new features into the mobile responsive site such as a new video platform, card-based content, embedded social feeds and statistics updated in real time. The forward-thinking on social and online continued into this calendar year as the team created a Chinese WeChat account to further connect with its fans in China through one of the largest social messaging apps in the world. Last year, AS Roma became the first soccer club to launch an official WeChat account outside of China, doing so in Italian.
On the pitch, it recently partnered with STATSports, one of the industry leaders in GPS performance monitoring and player tracking. Through Roma’s use of the VIPER software system, it could help fine-tune the fitness of its players based on actual data versus rough estimates.
12. Philadelphia 76ers
In April 2016, the 76ers became one of the first sports franchises to launch an incubator and technology hub called the Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball. Up to six startups at the intersection of sports and consumer products will soon be selected for the six-month program. The winner will receive sponsorship from the team and a handful of advisors among the participating organizations. The 76ers made headlines again this fall as they purchased two eSports franchises, Team Dignitas and Team Apex, with both teams now combined under the Team Dignitas name. It was the first time a U.S. professional sports team bought an eSports franchise.
Around the same time in September, the 76ers launched a new ticketing platformthrough its relationship with StubHub, the team’s official ticketing partner since February. The new platform combines primary and secondary tickets into one marketplace, the first time that single-game tickets will be available for fans as part of the 76ers’ new deal with StubHub.
To improve on the sports science front, the Sixers even traveled across the pond for a hire as they landed Dr. David T. Martin—formerly of the Australian Institute of Sports where he worked primarily with cyclists—as the team’s new director of performance research and development.
11. San Francisco Giants
The Giants were first adopters of social media in the early 2010s and even fully embedding it into AT&T Park, as seen with the team’s social media fan hub located inside the ballpark. Outfielder Hunter Pence also embraced social over five years ago before it became the behemoth it is today. The three-time MLB All-Star continues to utilize Twitter and Instagram to interact with his fan base and leverages both platform various endorsement deals, like a recent campaign with a beef jerky company.
Similarly, the Giants have been quick to leverage virtual reality at the stadium. Through a partnership with Jaunt VR, fans could see what it felt like to attend a spring training game, participate in infield drills or ride alongside now former Giants pitcher Sergio Romo, making it one of the first virtual reality technology integrationsin Major League Baseball. Additionally, during the most recent season, the Giants as an organization streamlined its entire communication process with Teamworks, a software solution that allows the hundreds of employees and players to stay connected and improve efficiency.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers
Their success on the hardwood the last two seasons has arguably overshadowed their innovation off of it. Dan Gilbert, majority team owner, businessman and Founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc., began 2016 investing in a $35 million fund called Courtside Ventures, which concentrates on companies around sports, media and technology. The 54-year-old Gilbert recently expressed his interest in pursuing an eSports team as well.
Like the Hawks, the Cavaliers were early adopters of 3D projection mapping to enhance the fan experience at Quicken Loans Arena. Earlier this year around the NBA Playoffs, the team partnered with Budweiser to create a behind-the-scenes virtual reality experience for fans via the team mobile app. Just last month, Cleveland announced it would provide fans a way to stream play-by-play commentary in real-time through augmented audio.
Of its players, four-time NBA champion LeBron James counted himself as an early investor in WePlay, a social networking site for youth athletes which was acquired by TeamSnap in 2013 while he also invested in Beats Electronics prior to its sale to Apple in May 2014.
9. Bayern Munich
The most successful soccer club in German soccer history kicked off the Bundesliga season earlier this year with a digital-first mindset as it launched a series of new iOS and Android smartphone and tablets apps so fans could stay connected to the team from around the world. In March, Bayern also announced a deal with social media platform Sqor Sports, the company’s first entry into European soccer. Sqor aggregates a team’s social channels in one place for supporters to follow but also gives fans the opportunity to interact with each other via the app and engage with athletes online.
A year ago, Bayern Munich FC hosted Borussia Dortmund, but it wasn’t just an ordinary match. Bayern had teamed up with Snapchat for a ’Global Live Story’ that would be broadcast to all Snapchat users; it was the first type of creative partnership for a team in the Bundesliga. Through the collaboration, Bayern combined team content from around Allianz Arena with fan-generated Snaps and content from six geofenced bars across the U.S. (New York, Chicago, L.A., D.C. and Atlanta). The finished product was a mix of global content that appeared for 24 hours on Snapchat.
Similar to how the team has been progressive on the social front, it has also placed a key emphasis on big data and its role on pitch and in the stadium. Bayern is in the midst of a three-year partnership with technology giant SAP, who is the team’s official partner for sport analytics and enterprise software. Together, both companies are working together to maximize the team’s performance on the pitch, expand Bayern’s global footprint and improve fans’ in-stadium experience in Munich.
8. Los Angeles Dodgers
In late 2015, the Dodgers wrapped up the inaugural iteration of its accelerator program in partnership with digital marketing firm, R/GA Ventures. The first-of-its-kind initiative brought 10 startups and early-stage companies together for a three-month training camp in Playa Vista, Calif., with the team providing each company $20,000 in exchange for up to six percent ownership, depending if the company had released a product or secured other funding. The Dodgers Accelerator with R/GA culminated with the companies giving their Demo Day pitches to industry executives, media and investors. One of the startups Kinduct Technologies, which just raised $9 million in Series A funding, is now a client of the Dodgers.
Program 1.0 was such a success that the Dodgers completed their second installment last month as five early-stage companies were brought together for another session. The program has sparked other franchises—such as the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys—to launch similar technology accelerators and innovation hubs.
7. San Francisco 49ers
The $1.2 billion home of the 49ers, Levi’s Stadium, was and still is one of the most cutting-edge stadiums in all of sports, with 400 miles of cable, 1,700 beacons and 1,200 distributed antenna systems. The state-of-the-art venue set the standard for what modern stadiums will look like for years to come. With an emphasis on being environmentally friendly, Levi’s Stadium also boasts the first-ever rooftop farm on a professional sports arena, which generates 150 pounds per week and features nearly 40 rotating crops for stadium and private events.
Over the past three years, the 49ers as an organization have been focused on promoting learning opportunities for students around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) initiatives, arguably the sports organization who has done the most around education (Exhibits A, B, and C). In September, it became the first professional sports team to partner with Khan Academy, a global free online education program.
At the start of the 2016 season, the team announced a collaboration with Amazon Prime Now, so fans could receive their game day essentials delivered straight to their tailgating spot. When fans are ready to head home from Levi’s, they can now get picked up in an exclusive Uber Zone, the first-ever dedicated curbside pickup and dropoff spot at a stadium.
6. Atlanta Braves
Starting with the 2017 season, the Atlanta Braves will call SunTrust Park home, in what will be one the most technologically advanced stadiums in the world. Through a deal with Comcast, the new ballpark will include an all-fiber network and help fans stay connected as they text, Tweet, Snap, share, post and stream video across social media and online.
This past summer, the Braves became the first MLB team to launch a monthly subscription to live sporting events, a way to capture the last-minute market while also attracting younger fans to the ballpark. In August, the team announced a partnership with the Atlanta Tech Village, one of the largest technology hubs in the United States. With the unveiling of the new ballpark, the Braves plan to leverage the Silicon Valley-esque innovation hub and its technology startups to heighten the digital fan experience. Part of the Braves technology-first mindset has already been in full effect, having been long-time partners with Atlanta-based mobile company Experience along with forming a new relationship this fall with 15 Seconds of Fame, a social app that delivers personalized videos to fans after they appear on stadium jumbotrons.
5. Seattle Sounders
For a team that has placed a concerted effort on player tracking, safety and performance, the Seattle Sounders were the first Major League Soccer team to work with sports technology company Kitman Labs. Through the relationship, coaches and trainers can provide customized player-care strategies to better handle athlete injury management. At the same time, the Sounders have incorporated GPS tracking sensors into their practice regiment in order to analyze player fatigue and load levels.
Earlier this Spring, the organization started working with DeskSite, a digital media company that helps teams manage their video content. With the partnership, the Sounders launched the Sounders FC DeskSite, a free new video app that delivers to fans quality, high definition on-demand content.
4. Manchester City
The English Premier League team kicked off 2016 by experimenting with LiveLike, a virtual reality company, and Sky Sports around the team’s final home game against Arsenal in mid-May. It was the first English Premier League match broadcast live in virtual reality. In late September, Manchester City unveiled its ‘CityVR’ app to give fans an immersive virtual reality experience on-demand, which includes watching home match highlights via a VIP suite in addition to gaining a further look at player statistics and other content offerings.
This past summer, City also hosted its first data-driven Hackathon. At Etihad Stadium, the team recently became the first EPL club and we believe the first professional sports team anywhere to install a 360-degree tunnel camera last year, providing fans unique stadium vantage points and access to the team’s players via a YouTube app on mobile devices. Fans could then control their own view before, during and after the match.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Prior to the 2015–16 season, the Hawks underwent a complete and total overhaul from a branding standpoint led by new CEO, Steve Koonin. The end result was an organization looking to stretch the proverbial envelope when it came to innovative fan engagement. In Jan. 2015, the team held the first Tinder ‘Swipe Right Night’ (and the 2.0 version in 2016) to further engage its young, diverse millennial audience. It propelled other professional teams like Major League Soccer’s DC United to mimic the creative initiative.
Additionally, the NBA franchise was one of the first professional sports teams to adopt 3D projection mapping on the court during player introductions, unveiling it in 2014 and consistently upgrading the technology over the last few seasons. On the social front, the Hawks recently experimented with live streaming an open practice via Facebook Live, receiving over one million views in the process. Not to mention, it partnered with Emory Healthcare in April to build the first team training facility co-located with an entire sports medicine center. It will combine 3D motion capture technology, cryotherapy, sensory deprivation tanks and in-ground hydrotherapy to better treat players.
2. Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson. Andre Iguagadola. Kevin Durant. What do the Warriors’ players all have in common besides suiting up for the same team? They’re all investors in early-stage startups and technology companies. Similar to the players, majority owner Joe Lacob is a venture capitalist himself and partner at Kleiner Perkins, a well known investing firm. Lacob’s son Kirk, who is the team’s assistant general manager, is currently Vice President of GSW Sports Ventures, which looks to invest in sports-related areas. Co-owner of the Warriors and tech-minded entrepreneur, Peter Guber, also recently purchased a controlling interest in eSports franchise Team Liquid as part of a new ownership group.
On the court, the franchise was part of the first-ever live streamed regular season game as it began the 2015–16 season at Oracle Arena. The NBA worked with broadcast partner and virtual reality company NextVR, of which Guber is an investor. Prior to the signing of Durant this past offseason, the Warriors also quietly leveraged virtual reality during the organizational pitch to him and his agent.
1. Sacramento Kings
The Kings’ forward-thinking approach with technology clearly stems from the top, with owner Vivek Ranadivé being credited for digitizing Wall Street with his company, Teknekron Software Systems, in the 1980s. With a focus on first-to-market, the organization was the first NBA franchise to allow Bitcoin payment in 2014 while it recently became the first professional sports franchise to integrate a chatbot into Facebook messenger this past summer. With the ‘Pokémon Go’ craze of 2016, the Kings were, to no surprise, the first team to hold a meetup at its arena, too.
Prior to the 2015–16 season, the Kings live streamed their home opener in virtual reality, becoming the first NBA franchise to independently stream a regular season game using the new technology. They even used the new 360-degree technology to unveil its new jerseys for the current season. Most recently, it opened its new home—the Golden 1 Center—which now includes a dual-mode remote control appcombining the team and arena apps in one experience, another first-of-its-kind