You only have a minute? Here are 3 takeaways from this article:
• Over the past six years, the region has seen 52 venture capital deals worth $248 million.
• Countries like Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are ahead of others
• E-sports, gaming and betting are the dominant sectors of the industry.
While football and basketball are among the most popular sports on the planet, they are also the least susceptible to innovation – and this is particularly true for regions like the Balkans, as shown in a new report on the region’s sports technology startup ecosystem.
According to the Balkan SportsTech market reporta collaborative effort by Game Changer Analytics and Innotechnics, even though these two sports are the most popular in the Balkans, some sectors are also taking the lead in capturing the attention and investment of entrepreneurs and investors.
Over the past six years, sectors such as esports, gaming and betting have become the dominant trends, shaping the landscape of the Balkan sports technology ecosystem, made up of almost 300 startups, or 288 for be exact. Since 2017, a total of $248 million has been invested in sports tech startups across the region through 52 venture capital deals, with countries like Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria leading the way, according to The report.
The biggest deal comes from Romania in the form of online gaming company Superbet, which managed to secure a $196 million investment in 2019. Other notable deals include Slovenia’s FitBeat with a $25 million investment. dollars and Croatian social media app. Sporty with 5.3 million dollars, supported by the country’s biggest football superstar, Luka Modric.
However, can this pace be sustained over the next decade and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the ecosystem? Outdated infrastructure, lack of smart money and a mentality where sports executives neglect sport as a product and lack motivation to develop it are only part of the region’s drawbacks.
Investment landscape for sports technology in the Balkans
While different sports do indeed capture the attention of a large part of the population in the Balkans and around the world, for the sector to keep pace with other sectors when it comes to digitalization, there needs to be a greater willingness to adapt to change. .
“Football in Europe is the least digitalized sport – and that’s because it’s so popular and doesn’t need to fight as hard for fans and customers. Other sports that attempt to compete with football are probably much more successful than soccer in this regard. But what we see in football is that technology goes a long way. Even UEFA or FIFA do not allow any other technology in their tournaments apart from optical tracking systems,” Roman Dzhurov, managing partner of the Bulgarian football performance data company. Ubitracksaid during the presentation of the report.
According to him, football and its fans can also benefit much more from the use of such technologies.
“From my point of view, it affects not only performance analysis, but also fan engagement, since you have a lot of statistics for the fans, a lot of things for the production, for the broadcaster, for the industry betting, you have a lot of information that comes from optical tracking. So the big players are coming into this market – not only for engagement applications, but also for deep technologies like what my company does, because until Now it was very difficult to find smart money for sports technologies. I think digitalization brings many opportunities, not only for fans or companies like mine, but also for the whole ecosystem,” says Dzhurov.
As the report also notes, the foundations on which to build and improve are already there in the region, primarily in terms of human capital and talent.
“Our strengths lie in human capital, low costs and taxes for starting projects, high involvement of the population in sports, as well as EU support programs,” says Mark Liepinsh, founder and CEO of Game Changer Analytics.
Fil Rouge Capital, based in Croatia, is one of the largest investors in sports technology in the region. According to its director Stevica Kuharski, although raising funds for sports technology startups is not an easy task, if there is a good business idea, the capital will follow.
“It is not easy to raise funds or subsidies, especially in sports, because all teams have to seize a good commercial opportunity if they want to be supported by investors like us. If there are no good business opportunities, there will be no business and there will be no investment. And that’s the first thing teams and founders should have in mind. So how do you find themes? I am personally present at many events, whether online or in person, from Slovenia to Bulgaria, Albania or Serbia, etc. And even if we are not able to invest in a team, we try to help them,” says Kuharski.
And what are the types of sports technology startups that can attract an investor’s attention? For Kuharski, they need to differentiate themselves from the rest and bring something exciting to the table.
“One example is Sports Tribe: these guys are really great and they are the first ad-free streaming TV service for sports. This is a streaming platform for sports that are not present on the major channels. Imagine a sport in which frogs could jump as far as possible. If this sport existed, Sports Tribal would be streaming it. So it’s basically about helping small football leagues and small sports that can’t access the media to be present around the world,” he explains.
For Marko Matusinskij from the Croatian Football Federation, the implementation of technologies such as AI for example can also prove very useful for different sports in the long term.
“In sports we sometimes try to connect apples and oranges and it’s difficult to compare assessment data with GPS data or heart rate data and combine everything into one meaningful conclusion. So I think the technologies around this are going to be quite interesting, and it’s something that’s going to be a game changer,” says Matusinskij.
The challenges of integrating technology into sport
While some countries in the region, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, are ahead of others in larger sports technology deals, they are also there to show the way for others to follow. , like Serbia or North Macedonia.
When it comes to Bulgaria, it’s about having the talent and business know-how, emphasizes Ubitrack’s Dzhurov.
“First, you have the talent, and second, you have people who know how to integrate it into a business model and profit from it. Sportal.bg, for example, was one of the biggest deals on the Bulgarian market, not just in sports, but in general. So I would say it’s a combination of good ideas, a lot of talent, a good business model and the right time and place. And I suspect other countries will start catching up sooner rather than later. This is a market that will develop over the next ten years and new problems will appear, as well as new opportunities,” says the Bulgarian entrepreneur.
Countries like Serbia attract a lot of attention when it comes to recruiting superstar athletes such as tennis player Novak Djokovic or basketball star Nikola Jokic. However, when it comes to developing different sports and sports clubs at the grassroots level and implementing innovation, the country lags behind other countries in the region.
According to former basketball player Filip Sunturlic, this is mainly due to old habits of viewing sport not as a money-making machine, but rather as something different.
“In the past, sports were not seen as businesses or from an industry perspective, but as a parasite of the state and municipalities. Thus, the lack of enthusiasm and will of employees within each sports organization or club in this region is due to the fact that they are used to this kind of situation where we know that every month we will receive resources of the state or municipalities. The number one problem is to develop sports as a commercial industry, and to do that you have to remove all these financial channels of the past,” adds Sunturlic.
Regarding the use of technology in sports itself, sports personnel themselves need to make much greater efforts to implement it and make their lives easier, the Serbian professional suggests.
“I have so many examples, we brought in so much technology like digital software for coaches etc. to make it easier for them and they were just rejecting the idea of using technology. So you have someone one next to them and you kind of combine the two modes of communication – the modern way of thinking and the old traditional way of thinking. And so through simple words we are going to have a basic communication explaining how they can use certain software and technologies. Sunturlic concludes.