Sports tech in focus: Supponor
Ross Hair is the Managing Director of Supponor, a company that transforms real-world advertising space visible at live sports events into highly targeted, virtual brand messages. Using virtual reality technology, Supponor is able to hyper-localise sports advertising for fans watching the events on TV, and has aims to take the tech even further. Current leagues deploying the technology include top European football leagues (such as La Liga in Spain and the Bundesliga in Germany) and the NBA basketball league in the United States.
We spoke to Ross about how his background has helped open doors for Supponor, the challenges of growing the business and how the industry is changing…
Tell us about your career trajectory.
I've had a twenty-five year career in broadcast media, covering children’s media, sport and entertainment TV, before transitioning in 2018 to sports technology, the sector in which Supponor sits. My media journey was through the worlds of both free and pay television, developing and distributing scheduled TV channels (across Europe and Asia in particular). This is a business which in recent years has of course been challenged by the big online streamers such as Netflix, Amazon and Google.
My work with Supponor combines my experience within the sport and video worlds (I spent seven years at ESPN, part of the Disney group). This is my first role within a technology-related business, but my experience in sport and in particular the relationships with governing federations, broadcasters, production companies and ad sales agencies have helped to promote how Supponor’s tech works and the collaborative partnerships we need in order to enable virtual advertising within live sports broadcasts.
How would you describe Supponor's offering?
The driving idea behind Supponor is to allow sports fans to see more relevant advertising messages when watching their favourite teams play and to allow local or regional brands to associate themselves with top tier sport.
We're the only business in this sector offering that full suite of virtual advertising tools in live broadcast. We are able to offer both the replacement of existing advertising (such as shown on the perimeter LED boards) or we can also place virtual advertising graphics in spaces around the field of play. The virtual advertising industry is still developing, but there’s no question that Supponor is leading the way!
How do you guard against disruption?
It's actually us doing the disrupting, by augmenting the long-established means of broadcasting sport to create more value. In our world of live sports, there are long-held relationships between governing bodies, production companies, broadcasters and marketing agencies, all responsible for defining and handling valuable audio-visual and media rights (including major sponsorship deals). We are now part of that process, allowing new, incremental advertising opportunities to those already there. Our business welcomes new competition in virtual advertising to help establish the industry and embed the benefits of the virtual advertising in existing stakeholder thinking.
Industry: Broadcast Media
Company size: 11-50 employees
How has the company grown over time?
The company is actually 15 years old, although 10 of those years were spent in a laboratory! Our roots are in Finland, which is still where our research and development group is based. Our commercial relationships are based on a small group of high value, multi-year deals, such as with La Liga.
In Spain, our technology is now used in around 50 matches per year, involving top clubs such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona. We are also in our first season in the German Bundesliga and are currently covering the NBA basketball finals in the US which has taken our total annual event total above 100. So, following a long period of funding and technology development, we have a proven technology and a proven capability to work with the best sports leagues around the world.
Trust is incredibly important when integrating with valuable live broadcast events. Our work, as the pioneers in this space, has taken tenacity and resilience, but revenue growth is accelerating and we are obviously now looking to add more clients from different sports, as well as to test the technology in other live events.
Is the plan to expand outside of sports in future?
I think the technology certainly allows for that. Sport is a great attraction, given its capacity to garner big international audiences. In South America, they love to watch Barcelona play. In China, they love to watch the LA Lakers or the Bulls play basketball. Wherever those big international audiences exist, that's interesting for advertisers, but there's no reason why that can't be replicated with, for example, music concerts or other major public events.
How did the company’s product develop?
It is in both the algorithms that drive the software and the people who operate the system that we have seen great advances. This has included handling different environmental conditions (such as handling bright sunshine or fog), to building an outstanding operational team focused on product excellence. Testing is a major piece of the client development process. We have had to prove to potential partners that we can create new value and not affect the functioning of the existing sport production. We now have thousands of hours of game-time experience. The greatest compliment we get is when we hear commentators mention that virtual advertising technology was used, but nobody noticed!
As Managing Director, what were the key challenges of scaling the business?
Sport is actually quite a conservative world. It does well given the valuable media, sponsorship and broadcast rights, but that has led to some reticence about jumping on new innovation. That being said, I think it's becoming easier as the benefits of virtual advertising have emerged. Part of my role is to make sure that the virtual advertising industry continues to develop with us at the forefront. Supponor can achieve greater scale by developing remote hubs to manage many matches at the same time (rather than being at the match itself) and by extending the delivery to online (‘OTT’) platforms as well as to traditional TV clients. That’s next on our development path.
"In meeting these challenges, we have recently established our core values as ‘professionalism, trust, innovation, adaptability, and collaboration’. We're focused on bringing these values to our commercial partnerships to meet any of the scaling needs."
What lessons would you have liked to have known before you started out in your career?
I would tell my younger self that being focused on people and building great working relationships is as important as the business model, strategic discussion and making decisions! Developing emotional intelligence to really understand what people are looking for is a vital skill in whatever sphere you operate in. So I'd always encourage people to be exceptional listeners, to refer back to what you have heard and to make sure that you fully understand a point of view. That doesn't mean you agree, but in a partnership something may spark a completely different direction of travel - that's the nature of collaboration. The aim is to create better ideas or solutions, which in turn may make bigger business opportunities.