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Published in Economic Development
An app developed by Grand Rapids-based MaxOne LLC is used to create customized videos for athlete training and conditioning. An app developed by Grand Rapids-based MaxOne LLC is used to create customized videos for athlete training and conditioning. COURTESY PHOTO

High schools, tech companies launch virtual options during atypical sports seasons

BY Sunday, February 28, 2021 06:20pm

Even as a small northern Kent County school with an enrollment shy of 400 students, Kent City High School has viewers from all over the country tune in and watch its sports teams in action.

The Sparta-area school, like an overwhelming number of others, has dabbled in the live streaming of games during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person attendance has been severely limited. 

With a variety of streaming services available, Athletic Director Jason Vogel and his team at Kent City have taken a DIY approach, streaming choice games via YouTube with cameras installed at its football field and gymnasium. 

It’s a feature that he thinks will stick around even after COVID-19 concerns dissipate.

“I think (live streaming) will be a big thing for our community and fans,” Vogel said. “We get a lot of grandparents that fly south in the winter and they can watch their grandkids play sports. Or if you can’t make it to a game you can watch it this way — especially now with COVID, where only so many people can get in.”

The drastic uptick in schools embracing various forms of live streaming is just one example of how sports departments and organizations are tackling the challenges and limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic while promoting their teams and athletes in the process.

Effective communication between high school athletic departments and athlete parents or the community at large has become crucial in light of the pandemic’s disruptions. These include schedule changes and health protocols fans must follow if they want to attend a game in person.

Vogel and his sports department have long placed an emphasis on promoting its teams and effectively communicating with parents and the community. However, the pandemic led the Eagles to try out new tools that would promote a more socially distanced way of life. 

This included an online ticketing solution made available through the Michigan High School Athletic Association during the fall, when the school hosted a volleyball regional tournament.

Shifting demand

Kent City uses a website and other digital tools provided by Grand Rapids-based VNN Inc., a tech company on the front lines of changing trends that have seen high school athletic departments embracing technology to promote sports in a socially distant world.

VNN provides schools nationwide with the software and digital tools to maintain schedules, disseminate information, report game scores, raise funds and sell sponsorships — all completely online.

The company works with more than 2,000 partner schools.

VNN’s flagship product is a user-friendly athletic website, which many partnering schools now use as an information hub for scheduling changes and information on COVID policies.

However, VNN Chief Marketing Officer Romy Glazer said that interest has spiked for other tools, as well.

“Even beyond our flagship product, some of the areas we’ve seen really hot lately are digital tickets, live streaming and video and game highlights,” Glazer said.

VNN has formed a variety of strategic partnerships with other companies to make it easy for partner schools to source vendors. With digital ticketing, for instance, VNN has a partnership with Hometown Ticketing Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio.

VNN can integrate online ticketing into its websites, allowing users to click a single button to order tickets online. Meanwhile, Hometown Ticketing handles processing and fulfillment.

“What we want to do is make sure we’re connected with everyone so that schools don’t have to do a whole lot of work to find somebody,” Glazer said. “We just make sure we work with the people that they like already.”

As is the case in many other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the evolution of technology in sports, and VNN was forced to react.

“We always look ahead to where the trends are going in the market,” Glazer said. “When it comes to video and live streaming, those things have been on our radar. But when it comes to a pandemic, it made the process … happen a lot faster.”

Still, VNN has seen some hardships throughout the pandemic. Selling sponsorships and advertisements for member schools is VNN’s largest source of revenue. Because of the major blow to small businesses, advertising revenue has sagged.

“That side of our business has dropped a little bit,” Glazer said. “The new necessities of software products have gone up. We’ve been pretty diversified, which has helped us. But the advertising side has definitely been hit hard.”

Glazer predicts some of these shifts in demand will be permanent on the other side of COVID.

“Digital tickets, for instance, are here to stay,” Glazer said. “That’s one of those things that now that the train has left the station, no one will ever need to buy paper tickets at a box office at a high school and use cash. It’s pretty old fashioned.”

MaxOne pushes virtual coaching

Jason Mejeur, CEO and co-founder of Grand Rapids-based software company MaxOne LLC, also saw the pandemic accelerate long-term trends that he and his team had been monitoring.

MaxOne has developed an app for coaches, trainers and organizations that is used to create and deliver customized videos for athlete training and conditioning purposes. The app comes with a library of pre-loaded content, but users can also produce their own videos.

“The magic moment for MaxOne is when you, as the coach, can walk into the gym and shoot a video on how you want to teach a drill,” said Mejeur, who is a former varsity basketball coach. “You can upload that to the platform. The athlete sees you — they know you and recognize you. It creates this atmosphere that is personalized for the athletes.”

MaxOne created a second app called SmartCoach that, in its original form, used artificial intelligence to analyze a player’s basketball shot. 

Mejeur said the direct-to-consumer app, which was essentially a proof of concept, has since been pulled back into development for further enhancements after the market responded to it positively.

MaxOne made the app free to try for several months early on in the pandemic and overall has seen an increase in engagement and product usage.

“From now on, there is going to be in-person training — coach-to-coach, which I love — but virtual will be a supplement to every athlete because that’s the world they live in every day,” Mejeur said. “The whole idea is: How do we use this device (athletes) are on six hours a day to get them to pick up a ball more often?”

MaxOne has thrived during the pandemic, recording its first six-figure year of revenue in 2020 and conducting its Series A funding round led by St. Louis-based sports tech fund Stadia Ventures with Grand Rapids-based Wakestream Ventures also participating.

While Mejeur couldn’t yet disclose specifics of the raise, the company raised more than $3.5 million from 42 investors toward a goal of $4.6 million, per federal securities filings. 

Read 2186 times Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021 08:21
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