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Game Changers: Why Pro Sports’ Biggest Names Want to Join ShotTracker’s Team

Vol. 25 Issue 11

Post Categories: KC Entrepreneurs, Success Stories

Some of the biggest names in sports have their eye on ShotTracker. Its tech could change the game of basketball … and beyond.

A few years ago, Bruce Ianni was shooting hoops with his 10-year-old son when Ianni had an idea that might—and this is not an exaggeration—change the game of basketball.

“He said, Dad, ‘I really want to get better at this,’” Ianni recalled. “Well, you can’t improve what you don’t measure.”

That’s sound fatherly advice, but Ianni is a little different from other dads. He had recently sold his search-engine startup, Innovadex, a “Google for chemists.” It was a strong, successful exit—early investors walked away with an ROI about 42 times what they put in—and Ianni was looking for his next venture.

What if there were an easier way for basketball players to track their shot attempts and completions? Maybe even chart their position on the court, too. Kind of like a Fitbit for basketball.

Ianni immediately thought of Davyeon Ross, a friend and fellow entrepreneur he’d met through Pipeline, a Kansas City-based fellowship and network for high-growth entrepreneurs.

Ross, who played basketball for Benedictine College in Atchison, had sold his company, Digital Sports Ventures, to one of the country’s biggest networks for online video ads.

“Knowing I played basketball in college and had a computer science degree, Bruce reached out and pitched me the idea,” Ross said. “I asked him for a few days to do some market research.”

It didn’t take days. Ross called back about 7:30 the next morning. He had spent most of the night researching the market. Not only was a “Fitbit for basketball” a massive opportunity, the market was wide open.

Three years later, Ianni and Ross’ startup, ShotTracker, has raised about $10 million, including $5 million from a round that closed in October. Their investors are people like hoops legend Magic Johnson and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

The young company also is finishing up a stint in an accelerator the Dodgers run for sports-themed startups. (Some of the Dodgers’ owners are ShotTracker investors, too.)

Coaches and players love the technology. ShotTracker produced a video featuring praise from Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and coaches from Michigan State, Notre Dame and other schools. Stern pops up, too: “This technology is going to change our game.”

David Stern has decades of experience in the basketball business. He helped elevate the NBA to an international phenomenon. He is not a man who is easily impressed.

“For him to state, ‘This is the future,’ it was probably one of the biggest pats on the back,” said Ross.

Jump Shots Are Like Fingerprints

20161013_tbb_shottracker_0265-copyAs tech guys, Ross and Ianni were well positioned to take on the challenge of ShotTracker.

“Everybody’s jump shot is as unique as a fingerprint,” Ross said. “We had to develop an algorithm and get the right data to be able to solve that problem.”

But ShotTracker is also a physical consumer product. Players wear a sensor on a wristband or shooting sleeve, which interacts with another sensor on the hoop’s net. Stats get fed to a smartphone app.

Neither Ross nor Ianni had developed hardware before, but that didn’t really slow them down. In a couple of months, they had a physical prototype. In nine, they were ready to go to market. They were used to building software, which has faster deadlines.

“We’ve continually shocked people at how fast we’re getting to them,” Ianni said. “But from our perspectives, it was taking forever.”

The first batch of ShotTrackers quickly sold out, just a couple weeks before Christmas 2014.

“And then we stopped production,” Ianni said. “After Christmas, we called all the customers. Now we didn’t reach them all, but we spoke to most of them.”

Literally hundreds of users offered commentary.

“They told us, hey, this is awesome, but tweak this, or it would be even better if you did this,” Ianni said.

The ShotTracker team incorporated those suggestions, then went back to production. That’s one reason why ShotTracker holds a 4.5 star rating on Amazon.

“I also think that timing has been very helpful,” Ross said. “We entered the market when companies like Fitbit and others had already proven that the consumer wanted to get better. The quantified self existed.”

Team Effort

Early next year, right in time for March Madness, ShotTracker will roll out its new product: ShotTracker Team.

The concept for Team grew out of feedback from coaches. They loved ShotTracker for off-season, single-player use. But they needed something for full-team practices.

So Ianni, Ross and their colleagues developed ShotTracker Team. Instead of monitoring a single player, it can provide analytics for 18 players using 18 balls at multiple hoops, all in real time. The system works off sensors in a gym’s rafters, on players’ shoes and in the ball itself. (Basketball manufacturer Spalding, a ShotTracker investor, is a partner in the project.)

Team counts shots, rebounds, turnovers, assists and every other metric that matters. Players can be emailed a performance report as soon as practice is over.

“The level of complexity was off the charts,” Ianni said, “but one of the reasons we were able to solve it was because we had an absolute genius in our midst.”

He was talking about Clint Kahler, the startup’s chief technology officer and a mechanical engineer who once did work for the Los Alamos National Lab. He figured out a lot of the math that runs ShotTracker. The system can simultaneously follow each player and the ball through the X, Y and Z axes of 3-D space, down to the centimeter.

Kahler’s a good example of a ShotTracker strength: The founders made a point of building an all-star team. Not all of those people are based here. ShotTracker employs an electrical engineer in Austin and a project manager from San Francisco. The chief marketing officer—a woman who helped Unilever bring AXE body spray to market—lives
in Chicago.

“Our team is amazing and incredible,” Ross said. “They are the reason we have had the success we have had, and we
are just skimming the surface.”

‘We’re Very, Very Close’

The price of ShotTracker Team starts at $3,000. It’s affordable enough that everyone from an NBA franchise to your local YMCA could buy one. The goal, Ianni said, is to make ShotTracker as commonplace as Wi-Fi in coffee shops.

Over the next few months, the company will open 12 to 20 demo centers around the country. Hundreds of organizations, including NBA teams, say they’re interested in becoming clients.

It’s not hard to see the potential. ShotTracker could assist teams during practice, sure, but what if the technology were deployed during real games? Sports media, fantasy basketball leagues, video-game makers—all of them could be potential consumers of that information.

“We have unlocked a tremendous amount of data that was previously inaccessible,” Ianni said.

A lot of ShotTracker’s innovations could easily be applied to sports like football, volleyball or soccer, too. While ShotTracker is the name everybody knows, the company’s official name is DDSports, short for Data-Driven Sports, Ianni noted.

First, though, they want to establish their beachhead in basketball.

“We want the customer experience to be brilliant and self-
evident, like the iPod was when it originally came out,” Ianni said. “No instructions necessary. And we’re very, very close.”

‘I’ve Got His Back ’Til Death’

ShotTracker operates out of a former Andersen Windows & Doors along Interstate 35 in Merriam. One of the location’s selling points was the 5,000-square-foot warehouse at the back of the building, just the right size for a full-size basketball court.

On a recent morning, the company’s business development guy—Ryan Hoover, a former Notre Dame guard who played in Europe for several years—was helping with product testing (shooting hoops). ShotTracker also has recruited a string of volunteers, including college and professional players, to come in and test their technology.

Ross oversees the technical side of the business, along with project management and networking relationships. Ianni covers sales, investor relations and operations.

Working with a co-founder has been a new and extremely positive experience, Ross said. With his first startup, “I didn’t have that luxury. That was a new thing for me. I don’t think I can go into future deals without a partner.”

The two men share a lot in common—they’re both tech entrepreneurs with a common faith and a passion for sports—but they’re also very different people.

“We disagree a lot,” Ross said, “but it’s so healthy because we disagree with respect.”

They force each other to sharpen their ideas, making the ultimate outcome stronger.

Both men also credit their faith as giving them a common ground, too.

“If Bruce says to me, ‘D, you gotta trust me on this one,’ I’ve got his back ’til death,” Ross said. “And vice versa.”

“We’ve been so fortunate and so blessed,” Ianni said. “And it’s crazy how all the pieces have come together. Our success is inevitable if we don’t screw it up. We’ve been trusted with this opportunity to bring it to fruition. We have to use our God-given talents to make sure we do that.”

(photos by Dan Videtich Photography)