The Sportec Solutions guide to investing in sports technology

Sportec Solutions, the joint venture founded by Turin-based broadcast technology specialist Deltatre alongside the German Football League (DFL), is now six years old and has eyes on the next phase of its evolution.

The business was created with the goal of developing new technology in the data and officiating space for German soccer’s Bundesliga, but also has an international outlook that sees it serve clients beyond the borders of Germany.

Since its inception, Sportec has been instrumental in gathering rich data sets which are not only deployed by the Bundesliga and its media partners for storytelling purposes, but also by soccer clubs for performance analysis. Additionally, the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR) system in Germany at the start of the 2017/18 season has also been aided by Sportec’s innovations.

Sportec sees itself as a technology solutions provider, with emphasis on the solutions element. The company’s managing director, Christian Holzer, wants to develop tools that are flexible and are not required just be used in one way. He describes this as a “building block strategy” that uses existing infrastructure, both in the physical world and the digital, to create enhanced products.

Sportec is unique within the DFL’s family of different business units in that it is the only division not wholly owned by the German soccer league organisation and has commitments outside of ensuring the success of the Bundesliga. Operationally, Sportec works very closely with project managers and product owners at the DFL but the technology firm has shifted from being initially more of a service provider to becoming a development company in its own right.

Christian Holzer describes Sportec Solutions’ development approach as a “building block strategy”

This was most evident in March when goal-line and VAR technology startup Vieww was acquired as part of a five-year deal that saw Sportec become the Bundesliga’s officiating technology partner. The move for Vieww is part of Sportec’s progression as a business that has gathered pace since Deltatre took a slim majority holding in November 2020.

At the DFL’s recent SportsInnovation event in Dusseldorf, SportsPro spoke to Holzer about Sportec’s acquisition strategy and approach to identifying opportunities for investment.

Let’s start with Vieww. How did that deal come about? Why did you invest there? And what are the goals for that investment?

When we founded Sportec Solutions we always had in mind that the officiating market is a growing market, it’s a demanding market, it’s something that will be there forever. So VAR and also other areas such as goal-line technology – since it’s a supportive function for the referee – will always have its place in the world of professional sports. Therefore, since we are a sport technology company, it was part of our long-term business strategy to work in that market.

In the beginning, we did project management around officiating and we worked together with third parties to provide that service to Bundesliga. Over time, the idea was generated that it really fits into the strategy of Sportec Solutions to own that technology. Then we screened the market for the kind of company which applies best for our targets – delivering a service to Bundesliga but also owning a technology that is able to cover the full area of officiating.

So starting from VAR, going to goal-line technology and then providing us with a technology footprint and technology stack that enables us to build additional services on top of that. For example, cameras in the stadium and streaming services for VAR are a good basis to build around for other sports services.

We sort out what we have, what we need in the future and then we are screening the market to find which company best fits our needs.

Vieww is in the officiating space, but is Sportec going to be investing in data innovations too?

In our strategy those two markets are coming together. Goal-line technology is based on cameras tracking the ball. If you’re able to track the ball, you’re also able to track players. This enables us to build on and merge both worlds to generate new products out of it. For example, automated event coding based on tracking data, streaming services based on the VAR system or getting additional tracking points when you’re able to track limbs. So skeleton tracking is one possibility that we are now able to do since we have all of the different building blocks in house – we own all the core technologies and can build on top of them. This, therefore, means that we are in a stronger position to combine technologies and find efficiencies that will provide more sophisticated products to our clients across various verticals: broadcast, digital, sponsorship, clubs, bookmakers etc, and better experiences for fans, viewers and users.

Does this mean Sportec is now focused on in-house development rather than investing in new technologies or are there more investments to come?

We are still looking and we are still investing. Another core principle of Sportec Solutions is to own the tech. We are investing in our own developers. We have a huge development team ranging from application developers up to cloud engineers and machine learning guys, to develop on top of our technology – on top of our building blocks – but we’re also screening the market if there is something available or of interest that we can probably acquire.

Then we are asking does it make sense to buy or to make? Are we going on the next step?

Let’s talk a little bit about that screening process. How do you go about it? What do you look for in a company when you’re seeking to make an acquisition?

Currently, we are very tech-driven in that process. So we are looking into our tech stack, we are looking into the future and what we think is necessary to build the next layer of applications on top of what we have. Then we are identifying the missing spots, the missing building blocks that we do not have or that we are integrating by third parties, or that we could integrate from third parties as a service, or that we could acquire from another company.

So, we are trying to sort out what we have, what we need in the future, and then we are screening the market to find which company best fits our needs. We are not screening the market for huge companies. We were looking for the golden nuggets that are helping us to improve our technology.

Sportec recently agreed a partnership with the DFL to become the Bundesliga’s officiating technology partner

How do you go about finding a golden nugget? Is it a case of running accelerator programmes or working with other startup communities? Talk me through that scouting process.

Here is where the Bundesliga kicks in again. It’s about the network. For example, here [at SportsInnovation] meeting a lot of people.

With the help of Bundesliga and with the help of Deltatre as a global service provider, we are basically screening the market all the time. So with Bundesliga it is more from a user point of view and Deltatre more from a tech/service provider point of view, we are making use of that and gathering information across the globe – so what’s next and what is of interest? Then we’re evaluating them once we have identified them.

If someone was to come up to you and say: ‘I want to invest in tech, what is the secret?’ What would your advice be?

Two things. The technology must fit, it must be a good technology that is not closed in itself, that has certain interfaces, certain APIs, certain building blocks, strategies around it, so that we can really integrate easily and we do not have to redevelop everything again, because then it’s not a good investment.

Then, at least at the same importance level, is the team itself. The team needs to be a good team, it needs to fit into our culture, because these people are coding. If the team does not fit into our culture, we may lose them and then the whole investment is gone. The tech doesn’t live without the people developing it.

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