When 'Gladiator' And 'Shark Tank' Collide: 5 Ways To Promote Innovation


Sports is all about competition. This makes it even more striking that the most frequently used word at today’s Innovation Showcase hosted by Major League Soccer and R/GA Ventures has been “partnership.” All this week, Atlanta has been taken over by the MLS All-Star Game, which will be played tomorrow at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

As a precursor to the game, MLS and R/GA created an Innovation Showcase to highlight the talents, creativity and products of a handful of technology startups. Five nascent companies were given the chance to showcase their technology and show how the world of sports, particularly soccer, can leverage those ideas to solve pressing business problems. The Innovation Showcase exposed them to a diverse audience of sports professionals, marketing companies and government agencies, interested in promoting the industry and getting a glimpse of the future of how fans will soon be interacting with their favorite pastimes. Given the questions from the audience, it was apparent the startups provided tremendous food for thought and prompted a lot of reflection.

Five themes stood out as ways companies, and entire industries, can promote innovation.’

1. Innovation requires partnerships. 

Keynote speaker Jonathan Tetrault, president and COO of Cirque du Soleil, spoke of the growth and success of his entertainment company. He attributes this success to the partnerships they have established with a wide array of entities, from SAP to the band Imagine Dragons. They have only been able to flourish because of the partnerships they’ve created.

Gary Stevenson, president of MLS, believes the key to success in any business, sports or otherwise, depends on “forward-thinking leaders seeking out other forward-thinking leaders to provide value to each other.” This idea of forming true, meaningful business partnerships was consistent throughout the event.

2. Stay open.

Stephen Plumlee, EVP and global chief operating officer of R/GA Ventures, and one of the main drivers behind the Innovation Showcase, expressed, “Good ideas can come from anywhere.” Tetrault discussed how Cirque du Soleil actually crowd-sourced ideas for how to create a new event. As a result, over a million people had been exposed to the event before it even existed. It takes a brave company to reach out to the broader community to garner ideas.

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Nadia Masri is the founder and CEO of Perksy, a tech startup that is reinventing marketing analytics. Perksy’s phone app has turned taking surveys into a game that earns the player points. She indicated, “We’re moving at the speed of culture.” Of course, when you’re innovating and moving quickly, there are bumps in the road.

We all face challenges at work and in life that require deep thinking and focus. We get stumped sometimes. That’s how we learn to solve problems. Gary Stevenson, the president and managing director of MLS shared, “My father always said, you can’t figure out something until you’re confused.” MLS, according to Stevenson, has been evolving in the last few years. He encourages his team to think broadly, knowing there will be mistakes. “It’s okay if someone has a bad idea. We just want to be ready to pivot when necessary. We call it, ‘Being on our front foot.’”

Tetrault indicated one of his mantras is, “It’s okay to fail, but fail fast.” Although we need to constantly innovate, we must remain conscious of our performance along the way and adjust quickly when something isn’t working.

4. Use technology to your advantage.

Technology used to be thought of as cold computer code. Now, it provides a way for companies to craft the emotional connections audiences seek. One common theme among many of the speakers at the Showcase is that audiences have a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out). Technology allows participation in a way that was unthinkable years ago. Tetreault commented that Cirque du Soleil builds fan loyalty through creating experiences that remind their fans about the fun of the Cirque du Soleil experience. They have transformed from a circus troupe to a lifestyle company whose mission is to help us all “find joy and wonder” in our everyday lives.

Ben Reynolds is the founder and CEO of Spalk. His platform allows viewers to create their own experience of watching a sporting event by creating their own virtual sportscasting studio, accessing commentary from anywhere in the world. As one of the lucky startups on stage, Reynolds shared how the ability to experience a game from multiple, self-selected sources all at once, allows the fan to feel closer to the game and more tightly tied to the experience.

5. Create crossroads for technology to meet creativity.

Almost every speaker commented on the importance of putting the right people in the right places to make innovation happen. Providing a forum for creative people to play with technology is essential in every industry.

The Innovation Showcase included a presentation by R/GA and MLS to the winning team in a recent Hackathon, held during the World Cup tournament. One hundred forty hackers from 26 states who represented 25 universities were given access to huge amounts of MLS player data and asked to use that data to solve a business problem. By “democratizing the data” instead of hoarding it, and by challenging smart people to be their best creative selves, the world of soccer gained a whole host of new ideas. In some cases, they came away with finished products that will help the sport continue to be one of the most forward thinking and innovative within the industry.

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