Angela Ruggiero: Use esports to get kids physically active

Q&A with Sports Innovation lab director/Hockey Hall of Famer

Angela Ruggiero was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Today, she is managing director of the Sports Innovation Lab and chief strategy officer of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic bid committee. (Photo courtesy of Angelo Ruggiero)

Angela Ruggiero was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Today, she is managing director of the Sports Innovation Lab and chief strategy officer of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic bid committee. (Photo courtesy of Angelo Ruggiero)

After four gold medals, Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero retired from the U.S. women’s national hockey team in 2011. Her new career may be even busier and more impressive. Ruggiero is co-founder/managing director of Sports Innovation Lab, chief strategy officer of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic bid committee, and an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

On Sept. 6, Ruggiero will speak at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit on a panel titled, “From Pokemon Go to Esports: Lessons and Opportunities.” Portions of the Summit will be streamed live at See the full agenda here.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, recently spoke with Ruggiero. The wide-ranging conversation touched on sports tech innovation, improving youth sports through the L.A. 2028, Olympics, and whether the rising popularity of esports videogaming could undermine – or actually help – participation in traditional sports.

Q: You’ve done so much in your early part of your career. What drives you?

Ruggiero: What drives me is finding those right endeavors and then just putting my heart into those pieces, and seeing real change. I think in some cases I’m driven to win a game (while playing hockey), and in others I want to help shape the world. I want to help change the world in a positive way.

Q: What does changing the world in a positive way mean to you?

Ruggiero: What I think I have realized is that you can have a personal impact at a very individual level. When I was coaching kids’ camps -- I had a girls hockey school for 10 years -- I got to know the girls’ names, I saw them develop, and I stayed in touch with them. But now in my capacity with the IOC or L.A. or with my company, I’m trying to change the world in a more scalable way – affecting change that’s on a policy level or creating a new business model that doesn’t exist.

Q: The Sports Innovation Lab seems like a great canvas to pursue your many curiosities. Why create such a firm?

Ruggiero: Part of it was all the time I have spent on various boards shaping decisions being made with very little objective and analytic information. I’m obviously curious about business in general. I got my MBA (at Harvard) and studied how technology has changed multiple industries. I realized if there is a way to help the industry I love – the sports industry – adopt the right technology quicker, accelerate innovation, create the right partnerships, find the right people, find the right markets, I wanted to do that. …We want to help companies that are on offense to come in and test out products and services in sports they could actually leverage into wider markets. Sports is just the test bed, but can be the platform to tell the story.

Q: Politically in this country, a lot of folks feel left behind by the advances in technology. So how do we push more intelligence and more innovation into the pipeline of sports, including identifying new opportunities to make money for organizations, while doing so in a socially responsible way?

Ruggiero: I would first ask what are you trying to do? I think technology, as it gets cheaper, faster and more effective, is actually the ultimate democratizer. If you can use technology to give a level of service that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, then you’re helping the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Let’s use sports as an example: Twenty years ago, if I wanted to be a successful athlete, I’d need a coach, I’d need a trainer, I’d need a therapist, I’d need a physiologist, I’d need a nutritionist, I’d need a sleep doctor. Your entourage could be massive and very expensive, and there are very, very few athletes or organizations outside of professional sports who could afford that. Today, you can use technology to quickly understand a number of those different performance elements at a fraction of the cost. That is true innovation.

Q: How do you look at the opportunity around the L.A. Olympics in 2028?

Ruggiero: It’s unlike any Olympics ever. Usually, it’s a seven-year horizon (between the bid selection and the Games). This is the first time ever it’ll be an 11-year horizon, and on top of that, we’re not building a single new venue. It’s a sustainable bid at the core. We’re going to build a Games that fits the needs of the city, not the other way around. We’ll build some temporary venues, but we’re using existing infrastructure in L.A.

So people go, “Well, where’s the budget going to go?” What’s important to us is using the Olympics as a platform to inspire America, inspire Angelenos, get kids more involved. Starting in 2018, we’re going to create more opportunities for youth sports in L.A. -- a full 10 years before the Games as a lasting and impactful pre-legacy.

Q: It’s been reported that the IOC will provide $160 million for youth sports programs. It’s very early, but are there specific ideas L.A. has of how to disperse that money?

Ruggiero: That’s at LA2028’s discretion, but it will fund youth sports in Los Angeles today. That’s basically an advance on the payment that’s typically given during the Games to help endow youth sports today. … That’s another innovation in and of itself, where a lot of the focus of this (Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games) is on the pre-legacy and not the post-legacy.

Q: The topic of your panel at the Project Play Summit overlaps here a little bit. There’s talk of Paris adding esports to the 2024 Olympic set of sport offerings. How should we feel about that?

Ruggiero: I do think it’s worth studying. I look at sports and think, OK, people huddle around a TV and they watch football and they don’t participate, and they never will participate, but they just love watching. Kids might do the same thing with esports. You can’t deny the numbers.

At Sports Innovation Lab, we’re actually spending a lot of time really understanding the dynamics between sports and esports, and how traditional sports could leverage what esports is actually doing right. Within this trend, esport athletes are engaging with their fans more, they’re creating an atmosphere where no one’s looking on their phones. They’re actually present in the building. It is worth studying and understanding at the very least.

Question: Is there anything that youth sport organizations can learn from esports?

Ruggiero: If all you do is sit and play games and watch people play games and you’re never active, that’s definitely not in line with getting active fans to participate in your sport. But, if traditional sports organizations can figure out the mechanism to turn them into participants – maybe they play Madden (the EA football videogame) and there’s an easy way for them to sign up and play football. That’s part of the reason the NBA or NFL are investing in the NBA2K (esports) league and others. The hope is that they’ll convert some of these kids into participants of the game of basketball as well. …

Think about adults with Fitbit and a lot of fitness options that they gamify to get more activity into their day. If you think from that same framework, yeah, absolutely, traditional sports and youth sports could learn from (esports and Pokemon Go). When I had youth camps, everything was a disguised competition; it was a game. Kids love that. They push themselves a lot harder. … Maybe youth sports creates a virtual community so then there’s more ways to stay in touch with those kids. There’s a company creating a mechanism for marathoners to meet up with other marathoners in advance so they can train eight months out with someone they know is going to be running alongside them on the day of the race. Suddenly, you’re using technology to bring communities together to do physical sport – to actually move.

Check back here later in the fall for video of Angela Ruggiero’s panel at the Project Play Summit on Sept. 6.

Return to Project Play Summit Coverage Page