College sports is big business, but it's spawning some smaller ones that could make teams run more smoothly and someday find uses on a bigger stage.
The Triangle is one of the centers of the sports start-up scene, thanks in part to the work of former Duke football player Zach Maurides. His company, Teamworks, continues to refine software that teams at Duke, N.C. State and other universities — as well as some in the pro ranks — use each day to help players manage their jam-packed schedules.
That's just a sign of what's to come, Maurides says.
"The technology in elite athletics and the sports world as a whole, we're maybe 10 to 20 years behind other industries," he said. "The good news is this is an industry that is rapidly consuming technology. It's said, 'We want to work smarter, not harder, and leverage technology.' "
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Other start-ups being used by local schools are applying everything from big-data analytics to robotics to help teams recruit, brand and solve various behind-the-scenes problems, usually with a mobile device as a key building block. So many ideas are coming and going that a customer like Kevin Lehman, Duke's football chief of staff, says there's an "element of the tech bubble that burst" in waiting to see who will ultimately emerge, Google- and Amazon-like, to dominate the scene.
Over time, "you'll see a maturation in the quality of things that are offered," he said. "You'll see a lot of integrations, a lot of partnerships where you see a stitching together. Today, an average athletic organization might have 10 to 15 products that don't all integrate. You'll stitch those together, and you'll have a better experience."
Frustration led to startup
Teamworks itself is a direct product of Maurides' time as an offensive left guard on Duke's football team, back in the mid-2000s before the university hired David Cutcliffe as the program's head coach.
Duke in those days was "making investments in the success of their athletes," but it hadn't necessarily solved the problem of helping them juggle training, practice, class and medical-treatment schedules that varied wildly in how they were assembled and delivered.
The resulting inefficiencies frustrated Maurides, who decided to do something about it when he took an information-science class that asked students to suggest ideas for solving everyday problems. He came up with a web application, one that, after he decided to pursue it in earnest, leaned on using text messages to get athletes the information they needed.
The emergence of the iPhone and other smartphones late in the 2000s gave the project a further push and remains today the system's core. "Everybody's tied to their devices," Lehman said. "It's an easy way to connect to them, at a personal level."
Duke's football team was Teamworks' first customer, with then-coach Ted Roof and head trainer Hap Zarzour giving the project their support. The men's lacrosse team, coached by John Danowski, followed suit and eventually Northwestern University's football team became Maurides' first outside-Duke customer.
The company now supplies about 2,000 athletics organizations, spanning the college ranks, the pros and some leagues and governing bodies that use Teamworks to coordinate their work. The company remains in expansion mode, having landed $15.3 million in additional financing recently and with a "hiring plan [that] has us getting north of 130 people by the end of this year," Maurides said.
The company long ago mastered a problem Lehman said can trip up would-be suppliers, namely coming up with a product that can "cross over from one team to another, or one office to another." Many schools use Teamworks for multiple teams. At N.C. State University, for instance, both basketball teams are clients, as are the football and baseball teams. UNC-Chapel Hill also uses it for multiple teams. The total cost to UNC's athletic department is $100,000 a year, according to a UNC spokeswoman.
Robotic football-thrower interests UNC, Duke
Meanwhile, other firms are trying to help college teams solve problems with such things as practice routines, recruiting and marketing. Most work with football programs first, simply because football is almost always both the largest and best-financed sport at a given school. And a lot of the sales pitches first unfold at coaches' conventions and other trade-group meetings.
One company, Monarc, worked with the University of Iowa's football team to develop a robotic football-throwing machine founder Nate Pierotti thinks can help receivers cope better in-game with the kind of off-target "passes that coaches wouldn't even want their quarterbacks to throw" in the controlled conditions of a normal team practice.
He's in the early stages of marketing the invention, and counts Duke and UNC among the schools that seem interested provided he shows them it delivers what he says it can.
Two other companies, Whistle Recruiting and Zcruit, have developed services that respectively are supposed to help teams manage their recruiting contacts and figure out which recruits are most likely to sign with them. Both have clients in the Carolinas, with Atlantic Coast Conference power Clemson University's football team being among their early adopters. Zcruit also has Wake Forest University and East Carolina University as customers.
With Duke football, a decision about buying a company's product usually is a matter of both the cost-benefit ratio working out, and of seeing whether it can "get past the barrier of using that idea or technology day to day," Lehman said.
"The last thing our players want to do, or anybody in general wants to do, is add one more step to what it is they're doing," Lehman said. "There's a lot of great ideas out there, but the hardest thing is making it fit into the system."
Recruiting fertile ground for startups
He added that player recruiting is fertile ground for innovators who can help teams streamline the process "and still keep a personal feel" to it.
Duke gets game video of recruiting prospects from a Nebraska firm, Hudl, that puts all the data it gets from high-school teams online so coaches can see full games or highlights of players they're interested in. For screening purposes, it's "changed the game," Lehman said, recalling that it wasn't so long ago that a CD in the mail represented the state of the art.
Whistle Recruiting is dealing with the numbers problem inherent in a recruiting process that has coaches at each football program managing contacts with about 1,000 potential recruits at any given time, said Luke Pitcher, the Utah firm's founder and a veteran of Notre Dame's recruiting office.
Whistle gives coaches a database to record everything they learn about a recruit, and a reminders-and-messaging system that tracks their communications both for future analysis and to watch out for potential recruiting-rules violations.
Pitcher said he's trying to emulate Teamworks by coming up with a system that simultaneously integrates and simplifies the communication process, by figuring out "what are the key pieces of information that need to be shared with coaches that aren't being shared right now."
The business opportunity lies in the fact that many teams still rely mostly on basic word-processing and spreadsheet applications to track their key data, and that coaches are "juggling between five or six major communication" platforms, Pitcher said.
Zcruit's coming at the problem from a different angle, namely by trying to help coaches cut down on the number of recruiting prospects they deal with.
Its founder, Ben Weiss, began developing the idea as a student at Northwestern after noticing that the Chicago school was wasting a lot of time and money by "chasing the wrong guys."
Most schools are "only getting 7 to 12 percent of the players they're sending scholarship offers to," Weiss said.
He and his colleagues now use mathematical models to help Northwestern, Wake, ECU and other clients "identify a target list of the best players likely to commit to their schools," Weiss said.
He added that the results, just in comparing the 2017 recruiting season to 2016, show that Northwestern's coaches are landing a higher percentage of the players they make offers to.
Yet another firm, Inflcr (pronounced "influencer"), is trying to make it easier for schools to share their in-house media archives with athletes, coaches and team alumni, all in the interest of helping both sides in the transaction establish and build their personal "brand" in social media and other channels.
The Alabama firm has one client in the ACC, a school company founder Jim Cavale declined to identify because his agreement with it includes a clause saying "we're not allowed to disclose who they are." But he noted that the company's dealings with its first client, the public University of Kentucky, have drawn a lot of attention in part because of that state's open-records policy.
Cavale said social media has helped give athletes "this power to be their own brand" in ways that didn't exist 10 years ago, and teams an incentive to play along to gain advantages in ticket sales, public relations and recruiting.
Social-media users " don't follow brands, they follow people," he said. "They don't follow teams, they follow athletes."
But the challenge for entrepreneurs like Cavale is that the market's evolving quickly. Just from a design standpoint, the company needs to make sure its product can interact seamlessly with Twitter and other social-media platforms, while at the same time not be dependent on them.
"We really have limited the amount of features we've built that are tied to the [programming interfaces] of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter," for fear of the repercussions should a major social-media outlet change its terms of service to the disadvantage of smaller users, Cavale said.
And while Inflcr is focusing on colleges sports for now, Cavale sees growth opportunities not just in the pro-sports ranks, but in the major-events and even political fields. "We didn't build this company just to be in sports," he said.