TeamSnap Plays to Win

Competing for the Future of Youth Sports Technology

TeamSnap is swapping the coach’s clipboard for a smartphone. The Boulder-based tech company has taken the market lead in team management software, an emerging category servicing the business of youth sports. Its desktop and mobile applications help coaches and parents communicate about their kids’ teams, easily sharing everything from schedules to payments to photos. It’s thought to be a multi-billion-dollar opportunity, being pursued by large conglomerates in media, retail and investment. To stay out in front, TeamSnap has set an aggressive course to anticipate the future of youth sports, and beat their competitors to it.

Soccer Mom

Did you know the first Soccer Mom was from Colorado? It’s true. That is, this is where the term itself originated. Right here in Denver, in the 1995 municipal elections, as a means of endearing herself to everyday folks, candidate Susan B. Casey made her campaign slogan, “A Soccer Mom for City Council.” She took the Sixth District seat, and the Soccer Mom took her place as an archetype of contemporary Americana.

The moniker resonated with mothers (and fathers) nationwide, whose days off, disposable income and emotional capital were increasingly allocated toward their children’s athletic endeavors. Beyond the expected blood, sweat and tears, all that time, money and passion sum to create tremendous value and commercial opportunity. Multiplied by the 150 million that participate as a player, parent or coach, all the teams, games and tournaments total out to a $15.3-billion-dollar industry in the US alone. Extremely sportswriter voice: little league sports are big money business, no doubt about it.

Like many ascendant industries, youth sports are basking in the warm rays of a tech renaissance. If you’re puzzled as to how one could possibly disrupt soccer practice, consider how technology more than anything has transformed the way we communicate. Remember phone trees? In the analogue age, if say a game were rained out, the parents at the top of the phone tree called the next four parents, each of whom called the four other parents below them, and the information was thus disseminated.

Usually one or more unfortunate and unpaid volunteers were responsible for coordinating these communications, on top of other tedious moving parts — registration checks, car pools, orange slices and the like. In recent years, email, smartphones and file sharing have alleviated the headache somewhat, but longsuffering parents still waste hours manually transcribing rosters into spreadsheets, syncing calendars with season schedules or god-forbid sifting through panicked reply-all responses to a unexpected postponement.

TeamSnap

Enter TeamSnap of Boulder, Colorado, here to take the organization of youth sports into the 21st Century. With a simple click, tap and go, parents and coaches on the TeamSnap platform can make sure their kids show up at the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff. Suddenly all those moving parts — registration forms, practice schedules, field locations, etc. — are easily administered and accessed from one online destination. Better still, TeamSnap once-and-for-all chops down the phone tree. With a single text, coaches can notify the whole squad of any up-to-the-minute scheduling updates.

Dave DuPont, Founder & CEO, TeamSnap

Nearly 20 million global users make TeamSnap the clubhouse leader in “integrated sports management.” In the most recent fiscal quarter, 150,000 new teams joined up, marking a 42 percent increase over the same three-month period last year. With rapid growth fueling considerable investment interest, the company has raised three venture rounds totaling $47.3 million, budgeted in part to bankroll three acquisitions. Impressive statistics by any measure, but founder and CEO Dave DuPont has his sights trained higher yet, eying $100 million annual recurring revenue. The SaaS equivalent of a championship season.

Looking back from pole position, Dave remains nostalgic for the days when TeamSnap was the scrappy underdog. A bootstrapped startup that made a crazy bet on mobile, and paid $10,000 to develop an app that upended the industry. Some seven years later, the title belt weighs heavy, and makes for a big shiny target within an increasingly crowded space of well-armed challengers.

Four Horsemen

The youth sports software management sector, which Dave values somewhere in the ballpark of $2 billion domestically, has fielded more than $1 billion in investment and consolidation within the past two years. Emerging from the fumble pile are TeamSnap’s four most formidable challengers — NBC SportsEngine, SI Play, DICK’S Team Sports HQ and Blue Star Sports — backed respectively by a telecommunications multinational, the most storied legacy brand in sports media, the world’s largest sporting goods retailer and the goddamn Dallas Cowboys.

While team sports are TeamSnap’s core business, organically grown over the course of nearly a decade, the Four Horsemen have synthetically self-engineered through M&A, recruiting existing startups to mesh within the various strategic objectives of their corporate parents. In the case of SportsEngine, the NBC Sports Group has targeted market leaders in swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling and other sports that possess obvious synergies with its tent pole broadcast asset, the Olympic Games. Sports Illustrated Play is a likeminded attempt at cross-platform brand pollination and audience building by Time Inc., which has for years struggled to adapt its old media properties to the new media environment.

DICK’S Sporting Goods, on the other hand, launched Team Sports HQ to sell more sporting goods. Gloves, sticks and balls. The application is part of an omnichannel retail program designed to gather CRM-level data on youth sports users, applied to drive traffic to its ecommerce portal and 821 brick-and-mortar locations. Therefore, whereas TeamSnap and the other three horseman depend on some variation of a freemium subscription model to generate revenue, DICK’S has the luxury of offering its software free of charge.

NBC Sports has consolidated five companies beneath the SportsEngine umbrella. TeamSnap, SI Play and TeamSports HQ have each acquired three of their own. Since incorporating in 2016, over a span of 18 months, Blue Star Sports has bought 18 companies. Founded by a serial payments entrepreneur, and funded with a $250 million warchest, BS Sports is a pure private equity play, called to generate a return on its investors’ capital. Among them, the lowest stake, yet highest profile shareholder is none other than Jerry Jones (yeehaw!), whose personal helipad is visible from the BS Sports headquarters, conveniently located at the Dallas Cowboys business park and practice facility.

The horsemen have pillaged a once highly fragmented industry of many independent innovators, among whom really only TeamSnap remains intact, and triggered an arms race for the future of youth sports technology. Without speaking for the strength of their respective backend infrastructures, they’ve all amassed products with seemingly identical features, i.e. scheduling, payments, messaging and notifications. And while they may be beholden to their benefactors’ strategic whims, they’re also the beneficiary of their vast resources and massive scale.

Nonetheless, rather than dwell on the competition, TeamSnap stays laser-focused on the customer. To keep pace and product fit with the fast-evolving needs of their athletes, parents and coaches, Dave and his team are plotting their long-term growth trajectory across three planes — UP, DOWN and SIDEWAYS. A scouting report of their marketing playbook reveals a fascinating angle into the shifting dynamics of youth, sport, and technology, both here in the US and all over the world.

Up

Growing UP, as Dave explained in a recent podcast interview, necessitates TeamSnap doing business with larger organizations. In the context of TeamSnap as a SaaS provider, this makes perfect sense. Recurring-revenue-model software companies generally have more sustainable success selling to enterprise firms than say small-medium businesses. You understand, bigger clients sign larger and longer contracts, and don’t churn as frequently.

Of all the macro trends affecting youth athletics in America, the most compelling from a monetization standpoint is “sports tourism.” Essentially, tournaments that used to be small, regional affairs between a few nearby communities, have given way to massive multi-weekend events that entire families will travel from far and wide to attend. Between airfare, lodging, food, equipment, registration fees and more, parents can easily spend into the thousands for their kid to play in just one of these mega-bowl jamborees. Meanwhile, local municipalities have met the demand surge by sinking millions into state-of-the-art sports complexes, with the hopes of luring tournament-goers and their tourist dollars.

Now if you dare, picture thousands of families converging onto one small town, cramming into their overbooked hotels, scrambling about an endless expanse of artificial turf, frantic to find their team before game-time. It’s a logistical (and emotional) nightmare, but not if you have TeamSnap! That’s right, you guessed it. TeamSnap’s first upward move is into tournament management, marked by its June 2017 acquisition of FanAppEvents, a Missouri-based company that specializes in exactly that. Users who would have previously had to painstakingly enter tournament schedules manually, can now seamlessly integrate through the FanApp functionality, since rebranded as TeamSnap Tournaments.

Through tapping this complementary market of independent tournament directors, TeamSnap adds a major spoke to its flywheel of customer acquisition, scaling its grassroots brand visibility across thousands more coaches and parents. The tournament factor also opens new doors to B2B deals in travel and hospitality, for further capitalizing on this proliferation of sports tourism. Here TeamSnap has been beaten to the punch by SI Play, which this past June 2017 announced an industry-first partnership with Hilton, enabling users to book hotel rooms through the “Tourney Machine” feature on the app. Snowballing from there, one could imagine similar referral agreements with airlines, rental car companies, chain restaurants, amusement parks and more.

Big Tournament is a big part of youth sports’ future, and TeamSnap is wise to have bolstered its offering for those customers. However, as evidence of SI Play’s success with Tourney Machine, as well as parallel moves made by the other horsemen, sports tourism is already fairly well-trodden territory. Therefore, if TeamSnap truly wants to take flight, and metaphorically dunk on the competition, there’s an even bigger category of partner they should consider. Like Spike told Mike, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”

Shoe companies are the largest organizations with arguably the most vested interest in youth sports today. For a bit of historical context, this dates back to the late 1980s, when Nike signed its first college-exclusivity deal with the University of Miami (it had to be the U). Now that those relationships are standard practice among nearly every institution of higher learning, the big shoe brands have extended their influence into younger age groups. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all host their own youth basketball leagues, camps and tournaments for elite prospects, written off as feeder systems for future endorsement hopefuls. Having invested millions of marketing dollars at the grassroots level, the shoe companies have shown they’re committed to being a force in youth sports for years to come.

Straight up, shoes run the game. As of press time, neither TeamSnap nor any of the Four Horsemen have announced partnerships with the major footwear and apparel brands. So, let this be the first official Front Ranger mortal lock wager: the next big deal in sports management software will get done in Portland.

Down

If not Portland, then perhaps Austin, its sister city in weirdness. There, down deep in the heart of Texas, Under Armour has built up its UA Connected Fitness division into the world’s largest digital sports brand. Coincidentally, TeamSnap has identified servicing the “connected” youth athlete as the DOWN route of its growth game plan. “Where devices become ubiquitous,” as Dave puts it, “integrating them into the team app experience.”

The first step in this direction is a pivot to video, a rite of passage for any digital media company. If my sister is anything like most parents, then every moment of every child’s athletic life is being video documented like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. To that end, TeamSnap has a live streaming video feature in beta. However, given that a complete-game feed of my nephew’s tee-ball game would constitute a criminal waste of cellular data, Dave is more interested in the prospect of condensed video highlights. Another wildly speculative prediction: if they’re not already, these highlights will one-day-soon be filmed via drone, piloted by the tech-savviest of sports moms and dads. Lends new meaning to the term “helicopter parent.”

Digital video obviously can’t be overlooked, but if Bill James and Billy Beane taught us anything, what you see isn’t all there is. Long since big data has taken over the big leagues, advancements in wearable technologies have democratized advanced statistics to the athletic masses. However, since not every coach is a sabermatrician, a cottage industry of tech startups has lined up to neatly collect and package those numeric insights for coaches and parents.

One company in particular has made public its plans to corner the youth market. ShotTracker, whose celebrity backers include Klay Thompson, Magic Johnson and David Stern, has introduced a suite of basketball sensors designed for analyzing players of all ages. “We want ShotTracker to be for gyms what Wi-Fi is to coffee shops,” says founder Davyeon Ross, who also downplays the potential for exacerbating the negative aspects of youth competition. “We try to give data to communicate the positive.”

Down beneath the surface-level, in-game statistics, wearables can now also track biometric data for evaluating player health and physical fitness. Today’s devices can perform a range of sophisticated tasks, from charting player movement, speed and acceleration, to measuring strain of workouts and effectiveness of recovery. With some resistance from their players, US professional leagues have started implementing these technologies, which will no doubt eventually make their way to the youth ranks. Parents of young athletes in contact sports might be especially interested in the nascent technologies for assessing the physical damage caused by blows to the head and other violent collisions.

Bottom line, players, parents and coaches will soon enjoy an overwhelming access to data — video, performance and health. The role of TeamSnap, and its competitors in team management software, will be to streamline those resources in the most comprehensive and consumable fashion. Whoever does so the most seamlessly will win.

Sideways

Despite our American tech obsession and Silicon Valley worship, in many ways the US lags behind the rest of the world in digital sports innovation and adoption. In fact, seeing a star athlete’s heart rate or other vital signs broadcast onto a jumbotron for the spectating fans isn’t an uncommon sight in foreign countries, where a lot of this biometric data tracking technology is being pioneered. With that in mind, wouldn’t global markets be a natural extension for TeamSnap’s SIDEWAYS growth?

Yes, but like anything worth doing it’s not that simple. TeamSnap has customers in 177 countries, which account for 10 percent of its total business. Our friendly neighbors to the north have been especially enthusiastic about the platform, which has an 8x market share penetration in Canada compared to the US, and currently services two-thirds of the national youth hockey market. Not a bad start, eh. Going forward, Dave has even bigger plans to export the product beyond North America, where the Four Horseman have saturated a large share of the market, particularly among large organizations.

Successfully conducting business in foreign countries requires being mindful of inherent cultural differences. Youth sports culture is entirely different in America than say Europe, which given infrastructure and regulatory considerations, is likely a top transcontinental priority to TeamSnap. For one thing, Europeans for the most part don’t take youth sports as seriously as Americans. In the US, high schools will quite often allocate more tax dollars to the student athlete than the actual student. Outside of the UK in Europe, scholastic sports are mostly non-existent. Instead, kids in Germany, France and other EU countries, will sign up for their town’s local sports club, to which they pay a modest nominal fee.

Also in the US, the land of sports specialization, parents will invest large sums to groom their children into elite athletes, hopefully one-day worthy of college scholarships. Within this pay-to-play economy, ironically the best players cost parents the most money, spent on competitive travel teams and private coaching. Meanwhile in Europe, those players identified at an early age to have exceptional talent are recruited to attend exclusive sport academies, which cover the full cost of the child’s coaching, education, room and board.

These organizations, like the one affiliated with the famed Dutch soccer club Ajax, profiled in this 2010 New York Times story on “How a Soccer Star is Made,” take an exceedingly scientific approach to youth skill development. In stark contrast to the American emphasis on competition and winning (as characterized by the aforementioned rise of Big Tournament), Europeans deemphasize organized games in favor of more regimented practice routines (“time touching the ball”), which are also strategically capped to prevent burnout and injury.

The academy model is currently being reproduced in China, where President Xi has made youth soccer growth and World Cup qualification a state-sponsored mandate. With the lofty goal of having 50 million “competent” players by 2025, China projects to have 50,000 soccer academies, each equipped to train 1,000 youngsters on average. The party has also earmarked the construction of 70,000 pitches. Elsewhere in less developed nations, kids that want to participate in sports are largely left to their own devices. Some of the most legendary players in sporting lore were self-made in this way, through pickup games on the best available surfaces. Think baseball in the Dominican Republic, or soccer in Brazil.

Just how McDonalds tailors their menus in foreign countries to vaguely resemble the local cuisine, serving poutine fries to Canucks and meat pies to Kiwis, in its various overseas markets, TeamSnap must modify its own products to comply with local sports customs and business practices. Whatever exactly that entails is for Dave and his teammates to decide. Judging by their track record anticipating and adjusting to the needs of customers here at home, they should be a heavy road favorite.

For the Love of the Game

Sports are fun. It’s easy to lose sight of that. Probably because sports are also important. We use sports to teach our kids, instill our values and strengthen our communities. It’s more than a game. There’s a lot at stake. That being the case, money was always going to factor into the equation. But sports are not an ordinary business. More than any other industry, motivation matters. Oh you like sports? So what. Everybody likes sports. If you don’t truly love, live and breathe the game and those that play it, well you’re in the wrong line of work.

Recall the Four Horseman. What are their motives? To help players, parents and coaches? To better the game? Or to diversify operations, drive customers to adjacent profit centers, achieve an exit? At the end of the day, for each of these stakeholders, their interests in this new and exciting field are just means to a different end. To build a business empire, or maintain what’s left of one.

This is the TeamSnap advantage. The key to the game, so to speak. Its competitors are mercenaries. TeamSnap is on a mission. “The missionary is building the product and building the service because they love the customer, because they love the product, because they love the service,” says friend of the blog Jeff Bezos, the Vince Lombardi of tech entrepreneurship. “The mercenary is building the product or service so that they can flip the company and make money.”

Not coincidentally, that Amazonian obsession for the customer is what motivates TeamSnap. As the company grows in size and expands across new frontiers, Dave takes pains to ensure that deep sense of mission stays core to their identity. It’s the decisive factor in their recruiting — do you have passion for what we’re building, and who we’re building it for — a binary judgement. Put in terms of one last sports cliché, Dave wants players that play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Who understand and embrace that there’s no “I” in “TeamSnap.”

For TeamSnap, this is the part of the movie where the coach gives the big speech. About what being a team means. Trusting in one another, with clears eyes and full hearts. Because great moments are born of great opportunities, and that is what they have here today. So there’s only one thing left to do. Get out there, and show us what they got.

Sources

Thanks for reading!