This is why Chicago is the epicenter for sports tech

Crain's

Almost by accident, Chicago has become a dominant player in the field of sports analytics.

Three local sports technology companies—Stats, Zebra Technologies and Sportvision—collectively have motion-tracking agreements with the top professional sports leagues: the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and Nascar.

None of the three started off tracking athletes on the field. But all have responded to professional sports' appetite for big data to steer their businesses toward analyzing every move of every player on the field, ice, court or track. The result is a burgeoning ecosystem of sports technology expertise that has made Chicago ground zero for some of the latest innovations.

“Those are fiery, powerful players in the emerging sports analytics and tech industry,” says Ben Shields, a lecturer of managerial communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and faculty adviser for the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “Their very presence in the Windy City makes Chicago a key player.”

Northbrook-based Stats, a giant in collecting and distributing sports statistics, jumped into player-tracking for the NBA in 2010 with its SportVU system, which today tracks the movement of every player and the ball in all 29 NBA arenas. That business is one of the fastest-growing pieces of the estimated $100 million in revenue the company will pull in this year. Ravenswood-basedSportvision, known for broadcasting technologies like the yellow “first and 10” line during NFL games, developed “Pitch f/x” technology to measure baseball pitch locations and followed that up with “Field f/x” for player movement. The company also has annual revenue near $100 million.

Publicly traded Zebra, a bar code manufacturer, joined the mix in 2013 by repurposing its RFID technology for the NFL to track the movement of players at all stadiums this season.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

“We're some of the pioneers of saying you can get a lot out of not only collecting data but actually connecting X, Y and Z coordinates and seeing what value could be made out of that,” Sportvision CEO Hank Adams says.

There were more than 3,000 market research analysts in the sports industry nationwide last year, a 26 percent increase from 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chicago has become a formidable player even though much of the technology originated elsewhere. SportVU came from Israeli missile-tracking technology, and Sportvision does most of its research and development in the Bay Area. Catapult, which makes wearable devices for athletes to track information about heart rates, acceleration, speed, metabolic power and other metrics, is based in Australia. But the company opened its North American headquarters last year in Chicago to tap into the expertise of Brian Kopp, who helped develop SportVU and plans to hire about two dozen people locally by year-end to adapt its products for American sports.

Kopp says Chicago's value for sports tech companies lies partly in its reputation as a sports-crazy town. “We have the advantage of people just wanting to work in sports,” he says. “The combination of passion for sports and skill like software engineering and program development—we've found that here.”

The player-tracking companies are part of a market that's already flush with big sports brand names, such as Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods and Rosemont-based sports equipment maker Riddell.

BENEFITS FOR ALL

That close proximity of sports' top tech players has benefits for all of them. Zebra's sports tech team, for example, worked with Wilson last year to experiment with putting sensors inside Wilson footballs.

“We all know each other really well,” says Jill Stelfox, Zebra's general manager of location solutions. “It's a really tight-knit community, and it is so helpful that everybody's right there together because you can make the collaboration happen faster.”

But with player-tracking in its infancy, Chicago's prominent role is still vulnerable.

While Sportvision's Pitch f/x tracking system remains in use this season, a radar-based player-tracking system from Swedish rivals Hego Group and Trackman beat Sportvision's camera-based Field f/x as the technology of choice for MLB, which installed it in all 30 of its ballparks this past offseason and may use it to track pitching next year, too. Field f/x still will be used for Minor League Baseball through 2019.

On the data analytics side, Stats recently lost its status as the NFL's official statistic distribution partner to St. Paul, Minn.-based rival Sportradar U.S.

LOCAL PIPELINE

Those cases underscore the importance of doing more product development here instead of adopting it from overseas. Creating a local pipeline of data science talent also can help make the information the companies are gathering relevant to customers.

“We're throwing way more data at teams than ever before,” Kopp says. “It's not about the technology, it's about the analytics and insight and what you do with the data.”

To that end, Northwestern University last year launched a sports analytics concentrationwithin its Master of Sports Administration program. Classes examine how to use statistics about athletes' performance and physical attributes to create data-based models that will help predict future performance.

Playing defense also could require an aggressive offense, much like the path taken in Chicago by e-commerce companies GrubHub and Groupon, which grew in part by acquiring complementary technologies and competitors.

Stats has led the way on that front. The company has acquired five sports tech companies since September, including former competitor and predictive modeling specialist Bloomberg Sports.

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