MLS executive Chris Schlosser discusses the league’s Innovation Lab with Boardroom, where six startups from a group of 500 vie for league investment.
As Major League Soccer began its landmark 10-year, $2.5 billion global streaming rights deal with Apple, it quietly launched a startup program where roughly 500 companies submitted proposals to vie for league investment.
The MLS Innovation Lab, which the league formally introduced Thursday, whittled down the list to six startups who will demonstrate their products in front of league and team executives at three key events. Three of those companies will advance to MLS All-Star in Columbus this July, where they’ll present to the MLS Board of Governors.
From being the first major US pro league to utilize a bubble for matches during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first soccer league to install VAR, the first in-season tournament between two leagues in the Leagues Cup, and the Apple TV deal, MLS prides itself on its innovative ideas and experimentation.
What it didn’t have, however, was a formalized program, which will now run annually between September and July.
“We are always pushing the envelope for the global sports industry,” Chris Schlosser, MLS’s Senior Vice President of Emerging Ventures, told Boardroom. “We are inundated all of the time with opportunities in the startup space, but without any sort of framework or formal program, it was hard for us to actually figure out the best way to engage with the startup community.
“Now, we can find amazing technology that can go right into our enterprise. And we have a unique set of assets that can be really valuable to a startup, creating what we think is a pretty compelling program in global sports.”
From Dec. 5-10, six companies from four countries trekked to Phoenix for the first presentation event at MLS Next Fest. MLS looked at companies that could improve the league in three overarching categories: on-field player development (including health and wellness), fan engagement, and media technology. With very few exceptions, Schlosser said these will be the three categories for each annual MLS Innovation Lab class.
Schlosser leads a core group of about 10 who focus on the Innovation Lab daily, with help and input from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Deputy Commissioner and Soccer United Marketing President Gary Stevenson, and industry specialists from around the league when needed.
Here are the six startups who made the cut:
- A-Champs is a training tool company based in Barcelona that combines cognitive and technical training systems for athletes of all levels into one product.
- Fitogether is a South Korean FIFA preferred provider for player tracking, utilizing GPS and a hybrid video system to track players with accuracy within centimeters. “It’s supposed to be the most accurate in the world,” Schlosser said, “and we’re working to verify if that’s true or not.”
- Reeplayer is an American company with an AI-powered camera system that allows teams and organizations to automatically record, stream, share, and monetize soccer footage.
- STADIUM.US innovates with a 5G-powered AI camera with an OTT platform that creates advanced game and player analytics. Both Stadium and Reeplay could provide real-time AI-generated clips and highlights that Schlosser said MLS is intrigued by.
- Fabric is an American fan engagement company that creates augmented reality fan experiences.
- CAMB.AI is a UAE-based company that, through AI, can localize content instantly using only one video as input. For example, Schlosser said a game video can be broadcast in real-time in English and then be translated into more than 100 different languages while still sounding like the voice of the original speaker. “They’re not all the way there,” he continued, “but if you could unlock even a fraction of that capability, talk about an unbelievable use case, especially in an Apple world where our matches are broadcast around the world.”
At MLS Next Fest, each of these companies installed their respective systems, bringing in teams engineers developing their products in real time at exhibition booths. There, parents, players, coaches, children, administrators, college scouts, and the chief soccer officers for all 29 teams were able to test the products in real-time.
One company, Schlosser said, installed a Starlink terminal to ensure optimal connectivity. Fabric showed off an AR treasure hunt for the kids.
“We thought each of these companies had a really great product and a great founder,” Schlosser said, with the clubs also meeting each of the six companies individually. “They’d demonstrated interesting business growth already, and we were excited to bring them in and get to know their product and capabilities in our environment and really get a chance to look under the hood and see what they’re capable of to a group. We’re thrilled after the first event.”
The second event where the half dozen startups will present will be the Generation Adidas Cup from March 30 to April 7 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., one of the country’s most prestigious youth soccer tournaments. The third and final chance to shine before the three finalists are decided will be the MLS Next Playoffs and showcase from June 15-23.
“It doesn’t mean we won’t do long-term business deals with all the companies,” Schlosser said, “but we think there’s an opportunity for us to highlight some of the most special companies each year that come out of the cohort. It’s a lot of fun to be able to spend time with them and see what they’re building.”
Schlosser believes MLS can greatly develop and accelerate these businesses, bringing value through exposure and, if chosen, the ability to integrate within the league’s community and ecosystem and make significant short and long-term impacts.
“Each company has very different lanes, but each in their own right has the opportunity if they can execute and continue to develop their products,” Schlosser said.
Once MLS chooses to invest in companies after All-Star, the process of selecting applicants will begin anew in the fall, with hundreds of different startups vying to join the league’s growing infrastructure. Just like innovation never stops, the league hopes this new program turns over year after year, providing ideas and a powerful kick to help achieve MLS’s future goals.
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