From LA to the lab: Angela Ruggiero on her new tech venture, the 2024 Olympic race, and Donald Trump

The chief strategist for the Los Angeles 2024 bid reflects on the future of the Olympic movement and how her new company, Sports Innovation Lab, can foster a better understanding of the complex world of sports technology.

From LA to the lab: Angela Ruggiero on her new tech venture, the 2024 Olympic race, and Donald Trump

It’s hardly surprising that a four-time Olympic medallist chooses to keep busy. Not content with the demands of being an International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive committee member, chair of its Athletes’ Commission, and the chief strategist for Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic games, Angela Ruggeiro has helped launch the Sports Innovation Lab, a digital research platform that aims to help its clients better understand the world of sports technology.

SportsPro spoke with Ruggiero to discuss the future of sports technology and why she believes Los Angeles is ready to host their third Olympic games.

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Can you tell us a bit more about the Sports Innovation Lab and how your new platform will work?

We’ve created a research platform that will effectively organise and simplify the whole market of sport’s technology. We started out seeing that there is so much fragmentation and confusion around what’s going on in that space. So many decision-makers want to take advantage of the latest and greatest in sports tech, yet not one objective, third-party source of information [exists] that you could go to to understand the space. And two, from a competitive analyses standpoint, we wanted to build a really strong platform that our users will be able to go into and understand how the world of sport technology is organised, which in itself is a really big feat.

We’ve looked at over 1,300 companies to date, and organised them by the patterns that emerge. We have 30 sectors right now that we have organised those companies around, and when you go into the platform you will see the companies and where they lie in a sector: where they are located physically; what their financial situation is; what round of funding; are they public are they private; and what their products and service are. What we tried to do is not just cut and paste what their marketing materials say.

In our first year we will do a deeper dive analysis into the four major trends: qualified athletes; next-generation sponsorship; immersive media; and smart venues. Those four trends will be areas that we will actually use our lab. We will invite vendors into our company to talk to the marketing staff, to talk to the engineers, to test products and services – we have relationships with MIT, Harvard education institutions as well as a great network of advisers that are domain experts that will help us understand those products and services. We are looking for the game-changers – those are the companies that have a strong sports focus and are backed on the tech side. It’s a B2B, subscription-based service. If our customers are interested, they can have access to these scouts or consulting or events or other products.

It sounds like you’re offering a pretty comprehensive analysis of the technology market. How have you gone about ensuring that you have presented it in a way that is easier for decision makers to decide on where to invest their money?

We see other industries doing this, and we’re thinking, why don’t sports have that source of information? I think at first, there will be early adopters who’ve seen how it works in other industries; how it’s allowed them to make smarter, wiser decisions. It’s an efficiency play – to have a source of information that allows them to see the landscape; to talk to the big tech companies. IBM are one of our founding partners, they get it – they have great technology that they’re trying to leverage in the sports sector. We just want to make people smarter and help them make big decisions, and be an objective source of information for them so they don’t have to hire a team of analysts to go out and do the research.

What do you see as the future of technology in sport?

It’s exciting and that’s part of the reason I am in this business. I have spent the last seven years on the IOC executive committee; I was a four-time Olympian in ice hockey; I have worked for professional teams and consulted for broadcasters, and I’ve just been around this. The exciting part for me is the potential for sports technology to really make a difference in our sector. Technology is going to help athletes get better; it’s going to allow you to train smarter, prevent injury, be more precise with how you engage on a daily basis, and how teams help you reach your potential.

I see sponsors leveraging it to really connect with their customers and really connect with fans. Technology will continue to drive more precision in how they employ their dollars and get a bigger return for their fans. I see it in the venues with all the new capabilities of Wi-Fi. As those venues get better connected, it will create a better fan experience. And the last point, in terms of immersive media: you don’t have to go to the venue, you can be at home and have a really enriching experience watching from home – watching VR [virtual reality] or all these interesting technologies. Technology will drive sports in a way that we haven’t seen in a really long time. It’s going to exacerbate the growth of the sports market and that’s the reason having really good information as you make decisions is really important.

You mentioned your role on the IOC executive board, and obviously you’re playing a key part in Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Olympics. How is new technology affecting your preparation for the Games?

From an IOC member’s perspective, we’re always trying to get better – that’s what Olympians do. We have one of the most recognisable brands in the world, with an amazing ability to capture an audience during Games time. But still, we are always looking for ways to engage with young people; to get them to understand and appreciate the Olympic brand and what the Olympics is all about: inspiring billions of people every two years. Maybe because I am one of the younger IOC members, I see technology can drive that.

Every young person is on their phone; they’re watching the Olympics in a new way. They’re still watching linear TV, sitting around with their families, but they’re also watching bitesize clips on their mobile devices and on their social media channels. So they’re consuming it in a different way, so just being on top of that is really important. From LA’s perspective, we believe we are going to be the most innovative games in Olympic history by attempting to leverage the unbelievable creativity in Southern California. We have the movie industry, Disney, and theme parks, but we also have great tech companies – the Snapchats, the Facebooks, and the Apples. We have all kinds of great technology companies working with us [who] have promised to help us deliver. The blend of our location, the history of LA, the creativity that comes with the culture that we live in, and the desire to push the movement to a new level.

The bid has just received unanimous approval from your city council. How big of a hurdle was that?

To have unanimous support from the City Council and all the Olympians present was a great day. Any city needs to do their due diligence. They need to understand the complexities of a bid and know how it’s going to impact their population financially and socially.

LA has 88 per cent public support, we now have support of our city council, and as I always remind people, the first act Mayor Garcetti took when he became mayor was to write a letter to the Olympic committee to say, “LA would like to bid for the 2024 Olympics.” We have clear support at all levels of our government and the population.

What’s the next stage?

Now we will officially deliver our bid book at the end of next week. At that point you’re then prepping for the evaluation committee’s visit in April. After that, it’s continuing to engage with Angelenos in the state to keep them aware of the process but, most importantly, talk to the IOC members to discuss the details of the bid now that we have had the time to listen and learn and incorporate feedback and present that in our bid. We call it ‘The New Games for A New Era’; [we want to] explain what that is to them.

An obvious concern for any city hosting the Games is the cost. The council have granted a financial backstop. How important is that?

It’s key, and it’s what we’re promising the city of LA. We believe we will have one of the lowest-risk Games in Games history given the fact that we’re using existing venues and that we’re not building a single new permanent structure. The riskiest construction is always the village and that already exists.

We don’t believe there will be any cost overrun, and we’ve been vetted more thoroughly than any bid in history. The amount of work that 2024 has done to ensure that the numbers we put forward are extremely accurate and incorporate large contingencies.

What would you say separates LA from the other bids?

Low risk is one of our core tenants – the risk to the movement and the risk to the city is very minimal. Also: innovation. I truly believe we are going to be able to take advantage and utilise the innovation and creativity of LA.

This is not LA versus Paris versus Budapest, because I think we all have the same end goal, but I do think there are some unique assets in California that we want to put at the service of the Olympic movement. Finally, my focus the last seven years has been helping the movement move towards a more athlete friendly games. I’ve done everything in my power to ensure our bid is the most athlete friendly games ever. That’s one of the things I’ve worked most closely with Janet Evans [chair of LA 2024 Athlete’s Commission]. The two of us have worked closely together to ensure that every word in that book, every aspect of an athlete’s time, before, during and after the Games, is as athlete-friendly as possible.

What, if anything, good or bad, have you learned from the recent Rio and London Olympic Games, and how do you plan to incorporate that into your bid?

I loved London [2012 Olympics]. For the record, that was my favourite Games I have ever been to. They did such an incredible job with presenting sports; putting the athletes at the heart of it and even revitalising a neighbourhood. We have tried to study and talk with the leaders of the London and Rio organising committees to learn and try and evolve like every bid does.

Something I took to heart from London was the sports presentation. I remember going to a bunch of events not understanding the rules, and there were videos explaining the rules. Most fans aren’t experts in the sports they go to at the Olympics, and I remember saying, ‘Wow, that’s really cool – you’ve engaged with me and I suddenly get scoring in gymnastics, or I’ve suddenly understand the nuances.’ Having that in your back pocket, you actually enjoy the experience more. We’ve taken a bit of that, and try and expand on that and leverage the way the stadiums are more connected in order to have that real amazing fan engagement and sport presentation experience.

Finally, we couldn’t help but notice you have a new president. What has been your reaction to the first week of the new Trump administration and how do you think his administration will affect your bid?

I think we are just, like anyone, tracking the big decisions that he’s making. The election for 2024 isn’t for eight months, and a lot could happen globally and domestically, so I think it is too soon to say how the administration could affect the bid.

What we can say is that we’ve known from the outset that we have full support from the federal government for the things we need to deliver successful Games: security and the big pieces of our bid that obviously the federal government takes care of. Mr Trump has already reached out and he had a good discussion with the mayor, and they did discuss the Olympics. I personally know him – I was on the apprentice ten years ago – and he is a big Olympics fan, I’ll tell you that. I think we’re all glad that we have his support.