With the NFL season now over, players finally have time to focus on their passions and side projects, which can be anything from an externship on Capital Hill to angel investing in startups. Some of these activities are facilitated through the NFL Player’s Association, which actually runs a tech accelerator designed to trade player licensing rights for equity.
The accelerator is called One Team Collective, and is run by an executive board made up of leaders from the tech industry as well as a player advisory board with nine current and former NFL players.
To kick off 2018, the accelerator released a list of the top five tech trends they think will be big in 2018, and we talked to Ahmad Nassar, chairman of the accelerator, to give us some context about how these trends will be important for the football world.
1. Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Speech analytics, computer vision and deep learning will personalize fan experiences, while players seek the best possible performance avenues in the athletic arena.
The group has already invested in one AI-focused startup, which is StatMuse. The startup is essentially a sports statistics database that can be queried by natural language processing, and it also answers questions using the voice of your favorite athlete. While StatMuse is a fan-focused application of artificial intelligence, Nassar noted that they’re excited to see how AI can help optimize player performance by doing things like creating custom workout or nutrition schedules.
2. Blockchain – Distributed ledgers, the foundation for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, have garnered a tremendous number of headlines — and have the potential to disrupt mega-industries, including finance, data analytics/security and transaction settlement by eliminating transactional fraud. The application of blockchain is limitless with respect to any type of data management/transactional architecture and will have meaningful application to athlete-driven data.
To address the elephant in the room, Nassar immediately explained that the group is cognizant that everyone and their mothers currently think blockchain is today’s hot technology. He was quick to make a distinction between what he called “pop-crypto,” which in his opinion draws parallels to the internet bubble, and real blockchain technology, which has the opportunity to change the way we work with data. Nassar mentioned that WHOOP, a portfolio company that collects athlete performance data via a wearable, could be a beneficiary of blockchain technology. Essentially the group wants to be open-minded and look for opportunities where blockchain technology can benefit the companies with which they’re working.
3. Customer Experience (CX) – Technologies integrating cyber with the physical to connect people, places and objects with data. Applications for robust CX will augment and transform everyday experiences, including the fan experience.
Nassar and the group are excited about how technology can help improve the customer (i.e. fan) experience. He noted that they’ve had some interesting discussions with AR companies that are building products to make fan interaction even stronger during and after games, and mentioned Pokémon GO as a product that successfully used AR to create a great customer experience.
4. Cybersecurity – Cybersecurity, data theft and fraud are top concerns for customers, corporations and athletes. These privacy fears are resulting in more hesitation to use digital tools, meaning this is an area where solutions are critical — and the market is ripe for innovation.
While cybersecurity is less applicable to football when compared the other categories, the group still recognizes a huge market opportunity for innovative cybersecurity tech, and will look to get involved when they see an opportunity that makes sense.
5. Consumer Product Innovation – Companies that embrace new technologies in nutrition, activewear, consumables and fanwear will gain competitive advantage — and fuel the future fan and athlete.
This is similar to customer experience, but instead focuses on tangible goods and consumables that are designed to help the fan experience. One interesting company in this category that the group has already invested in is Rep The Squad, a subscription service to borrow expensive authentic sports jerseys. It’s the perfect example of new technology (subscription and logistics) helping transform an old experience (wearing jerseys to games).
Ultimately, one year in the accelerator has done a great job at getting the NFLPA (and the players they represent) more involved in the tech and startup world — just look at how many more players are learning about and investing in startups, both through the NFLPA and on their own. According to Nassar, this increased involvement sets up the NFLPA for an opportunity to “put their thumb on the scale [in the tech industry] in a way that is helpful to members” going forward.