Thursday 22 March 2018

No end zone in sight for STATSports

Alan Clarke tells Sean Gallagher why being the global leaders in elite sports performance monitoring just isn't enough for these innovators

Alan Clarke of STATSports with Sean Gallagher Photo:Tom Conachy
Alan Clarke of STATSports with Sean Gallagher Photo:Tom Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Have you noticed recently while watching your favourite soccer, rugby or American football team, that many players are now wearing a small device that bulges unobtrusively through the back of their jerseys at a point usually in the middle of their shoulder blades?

This device, known as a Viper Pod, is a small but highly complex piece of hardware that monitors the individual player's performance. With the help of advanced software, this data is then streamed live to the laptops of watching coaches to assist them in analysing and manging the fitness and performance of their players. These Pods, along with the technology that underpins them, have been developed by leading Irish company STATSports.

Their story is really one about innovation. The cutting-edge nature of the technology they have developed has seen their system become established as the world's leading performance monitoring tool for elite sports teams around the world.

Today, the StatSports system is used in Premier League, the NFL and the NBA. Set up in 2008 by Alan Clarke and Seán O'Connor, and headquartered in Newry, County Down, with offices in Dundalk, London, Chicago and Florida, the company now employs over 40 staff.

"We work across a wide range of sports including soccer, rugby, American football, basketball, hockey, athletics and cricket," explains Alan, the company's CEO when I visited them recently.

"Our target market spans from teams and athletes within elite sports right down to teams at collegiate level, especially in the United States".

While the company currently work with a number of Irish teams and athletes, 95pc of all their business now comes from outside the country from places that include the UK, Europe, USA, New Zealand, India and Argentina.

"We currently have over 200 clients including the FAI, the English FA and leading clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. In fact, we work with 80pc of the clubs in the Premier League and 60pc of those in the Champions League and last year we worked with both of the teams in the final - Juventus and FC Barcelona," explains Alan proudly.

The company also works closely with the Irish and UK Rugby Football Unions, while in the US, their kit is used by the likes of the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and the Carolina Panthers.

In the test lab, Alan demonstrates how the Viper Pod and associated software actually works. The Pod itself is an ergonomically designed unit which fits neatly into specifically designed Viper vests worn by athletes during training and on match days. Each Pod contains four microprocessors, a state-of-the-art GPS module, 3-D accelerometer, gyroscope and digital compass as well as a long-range radio transmitter and heart-rate receiver. These components log data on each player's activity and then feed this live, to the players' coaches for real-time monitoring and analysis.

"Our Viper system is the most accurate and reliable tool for collecting and measuring both training and match-day data for each player, and is without doubt the world's leading player-performance analysis system available on the market," says Alan.

"It has become an important tool that allows football coaches manage squad-training loads from pre-season right through the entire season, helping to manage player conditioning levels as well as preventing unnecessary injuries."

In rugby too, the ground-breaking software has revolutionised performance analysis. Not only does it measure important metrics such as speed, distance and acceleration, it can now even record and track every individual player's collisions and analyse every scrum that takes place, with impact timing differentials and return-to-feet statistics for each player. Having such real time information now makes it possible for coaches to assess fatigue and hit impact on players over the duration of an 80-minute game.

This technology has become a valuable tool for medical and support staff who are responsible for monitoring a player's rehabilitation and ability to return to play post injury.

"At last, physios and medics no longer need to guess about how close to full fitness a player is. Now, with the help of our technology, they can be scientifically certain," explains Alan. "Our Step Balance data can even allow coaches assess such things as left versus right foot impact to see whether a player is putting more force through his healthy side and therefore going easy on the injured leg. Such data is priceless in helping to determine the recovery process and getting players match fit again," he insists.

Alan Clarke grew up in Dundalk, in County Louth where he graduated from the local Dundalk Institute of Technology with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Growing up, music had been his first love and for the first few years after college, he became a professional musician, playing drums and percussion with a variety of bands and other musicians across Ireland.

In 2008, he teamed up with friend and now business partner Sean O'Connor. Sean had by then completed a degree in Sport Science and Injury Management in the Cardiff Metropolitan University and had also spent the previous three years studying Sports Injuries in the Sheffield Hallam University. Spotting an opportunity to combine their expertise, they decided there was an opening to develop innovative solutions to help improve player performance in the sports sector and in 2008, co-founded STATSports.

"We started initially with the idea of targeting amateur teams and organisations such as the GAA. At the time however, GPS player tracking technology was virtually non-existent even in the professional world of sport so it didn't take us very long to grasp the potential of the space we were in," explains Alan.

The following year, they signed their first client, Leinster Rugby. Not long after, the club went on to win their first ever Heineken Cup and StatSports began to get noticed.

In the early days, the pair used third-party hardware components but quickly realised that to allow coaches the in-depth insights they were looking for into play performance, they would have to build their own more advanced system and software.

"We knew that we could build better hardware and software and that by having our own technology, we would be in greater control of both our brand and the overall strategic direction of the business," explains Alan.

In 2012 the pair built their new Viper system, and soon afterwards they signed their first international client the English rugby team.

"It's important to understand that sport is a much-pressurised industry where there is constant striving for better results and greater player performance. For us too, we never really get to switch off even at weekends. In fact, that's the busiest time where we are constantly checking results of our various teams and players no matter where they are in the world," says Alan.

But he loves it. Business for Alan is also a bit like sport. Both founders play to their individual strengths, with Alan taking the lead role on the sales side of the business while Sean, who is the company's COO, uses his in-depth knowledge of the sport industry to demonstrate the capabilities of the STATSports system to major clients.

"I know it's a bit of a cliché, but there really is no 'I' in team," he explains. "This is not your typical 9 to 5-type job and everyone here, from the sports science intern who started yesterday to the management team that have been here from day one, everyone has worked incredibly hard to get us to this point," he insists.

As they look to the future, the main challenge now for the company is to continue to innovate and to develop new and better devices and software that will help keep them ahead of the competition and, more importantly, will continue to achieve results for their growing list of global clients.

So how have they funded the company so far?.

"We have really bootstrapped things up to this point but fortunately for us, the business has been profitable from the very beginning. While external funding may be required in the future to grow the company to the next level, for now anyway the business has no outside investors and no debt," he adds.

"2016 will be a big year for STATSports as we are looking at new ways of engaging with fans in a way nobody has ever seen before," explains Alan.


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