Alysse Soll interviews Angela Ruggiero, 4 time Olympic Medalist and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory and WiST Board Advisor
Angela Ruggiero, Four-time Olympic Medalist (Gold, Two Silvers and Bronze) and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab shares with WiST why The Best Don’t Rest.
WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who embody a more diverse and inclusive workforce, setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
Medal to Mettle
Angela Ruggiero is not your average athlete. She’s not your average academic. She’s not your average CEO. She’s not your average anything. Here is what Angela Ruggiero is: four-time Olympic Medalist for the US Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Harvard University Cum Laude graduate and Varsity Women’s Ice Hockey Team player, Harvard Business School graduate, US Delegate to the IOC, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, author and now, Co-Founder and CEO of The Sports Innovation Lab, a digital research platform that identifies and evaluates technology products and services that will power the future of sports. The medals she earned as an athlete exemplify the mettle she proves every day in the cutting edge world of sports tech innovation.
The Best Don’t Rest
Of the many lessons she learned during her career, perhaps the most important was at age nine, when she was cut from the boy’s youth ice hockey team in her Southern California hometown. “My dad told me, you have two options – you can quit and prove them right or you can be the absolute best player on the ice so they can’t cut you and prove them wrong.”
This challenge, “be the best out there and you won’t get cut” has driven her career, the best Varsity player at Harvard, the best player in the world at the Olympics and now, the best CEO of a sports tech company in an extremely competitive field. “Sometimes, I find myself working twice as hard as others to be the best, because I don’t want to get cut–plain and simple.”
Disruption and Distribution
At the conclusion of her Olympic Career (1998 – 2010), Angela attended Harvard Business School, where she took a class with HBS professor, Clayton Christensen, renowned for his work in Disruption Innovation. She fell in love with disruption. Disruption Innovation explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Seeing all the examples of disruption at work, from steel and utilities, to personal computing, health care, automobiles and laundry detergent, where was the disruption in traditional sports which had been operating with the same enormous infrastructure for over a hundred years? How was the incumbent broadcast content distribution model going to shift to the digital content distribution model without upending the foundation of traditional sports itself? Answering this question became Angela’s mission.
Questions for Angela Ruggiero, CEO and Co-Founder of Sports Innovation Lab
Angela is the trifecta of mind, body and spirit: an Olympic athlete, a visionary CEO and a woman who truly embraces challenge. She is a thought leader and a perpetual student, always seeking new information to fuel her quest for “what if.”
Some Q and A with Angela gives us a peek into her very accomplished life and career.
WIST: Why did you build Sports Innovation Lab? What pain point does it solve?
I have had the unbelievable opportunity to participate in sports at the highest possible levels. After my last Olympics, I turned to the business side of sports, engaging as Chair of the Olympic Athletes Commission, Chief Strategy Officer of the LA Olympic bid (2028), with NBC Sports and the NY Islanders. While I was working towards my MBA, I became completely enamored with the concept of Disruption, looking at how technology changes industry. Technology was changing the athlete, the fans, the venue, media, sponsorship and the business of sports on and off the field, but no one was seeing the big picture.
I saw a massive need to connect the dots of disruption and set a roadmap for sports to understand how to make strategic decisions about critical technologies. I think of Sports Innovation Lab as the Gartner for Sports, an objective market research company that can helps sports stakeholders navigate what’s next. We have built a software platform and portal that provides unique data and insights. Our company is built on software not just analysts.
WIST: Your company just published a thought-provoking white paper, A New Age of Sports, identifying systemic shifts in the sports ecosystem giving rise to the Fluid Fan™, who is driving new models for sports revenue, engagement and content.
As its author, what do you believe is the most important takeaway about the Fluid Fan™?
The core of our thesis is that technology (the great disruptor) is changing fandom. Sports does not have a monopoly on fans like they used to. In fact, our research indicates that fans are harder to understand and pin down than ever before. In this paradigm shift, sports need to service fans to a far greater degree in order to capture and keep them engaged.
There are three fundamental pillars to the Fluid Fan: open to change, power to choose and constantly evolving. This is at work as Fluid Fans consistently change their team allegiances, use technology to power their choices, and view their sports identity as fluid constantly evolving to align with their values and environment.
We live in the attention economy with endless entertainment options and the Fluid Fan demands more to keep them engaged. Consider Fortnite. This technology has enabled fans to have agency over their social interaction within the game. They create their own avatars and direct their engagement. This is what Sports competes for. We believe that technology is the way to retain the Fluid Fan.
WIST: You shared that this is a truly opportunistic time for women’s sports and women in sports. “To succeed in this space, you can’t ‘lift and shift’ the men’s legacy model of sports and expect the same outcome.” This means finding alternate models. What kind of model would that be?
Men’s sports like the NFL, NHL and MLB have had 100 years to define their model, generate fans and build sustainable value for their stakeholders. Take a business, like IBM or Intel which have been building brand equity and stakeholder value for decades. Thanks to SEO technology, a scrappy startup with an untested product can operate completely differently, free from the lumbering business model and cost structure of their incumbent rivals. In a relatively short period of time, the startup can become a viable, sustainable brand for a highly targeted consumer base. Women’s sports are the scrappy start up, upending the perception that the way men play the game is “what good looks like.” That lens is changing.
Technology democratizes access to content. Today, sports can leverage technology to drive stakeholder engagement through content that is highly meaningful to a target audience and easily reached through digital and social platforms. Brands and advertisers pay for the targeted, committed and highly sustainable audiences that women’s sports and female athletes work so hard to generate. As long as these sports have stakeholders who are committed for the long term, they will be successful.
WIST: Playing youth hockey in California, you set your sights on playing Olympic women’s hockey which did not exist at the time. Today, women seek to fill sports roles that aren’t available to them now but could be in the future. How can women set themselves up for future success as you did, on the field and off?
Have a true passion for the thing you are doing. Find the joy. Hard work is always part of the process and being the best takes hard work. Enjoy the process, create the opportunity, don’t wait for it to come to you.
Generations of women before us never had the opportunity to see themselves in positions that did not yet exist. If opportunities don’t exist today, create the opportunity for tomorrow. Playing hockey gave me joy, and as the women’s game grew competitive and mainstream, it became an Olympic Sport. In business, I envisioned a company that didn’t yet exist, a research portal to provide insights, technology and data for the sports world. No one thought to build it, so I did.
I have experienced gender bias my entire life, particularly now at the male dominated intersection of sports and technology. My attitude is the same today as it was when I faced the prospect of being cut from the boy’s team at age nine: be the best so you don’t get cut.
WIST: What is your FAVORITE thing about your work?
I learn every day! I love to learn–about business, industry, technology, sports, venture capital, innovation. My job is to understand the movements in this marketplace and I love to learn from those who have something inspiring and insightful to say. Learning is growth. I hope I never stop growing.
A special thanks to Angela for sharing her story with the WiST community. Angela’s “Be the Best” approach to work, play and life is a reminder that if you can dream it, you can be it. Inspiration comes in all forms.