SportsEngine CEO: How Tech is Transforming Youth Sports

Justin Kaufenberg head shot.jpg

The model for youth sports hasn’t changed much over the past century. It’s a space still largely dominated by community-based organizations, run by volunteers using marketing strategies that are fairly basic. Parents learn about local programs by word of mouth, or maybe a flyer sent home in a child’s school backpack. Children are typically served up with a handful of commonly offered team sports.

Some kids stick with it and advance through the ecosystem. Many others fall away.

Identifying efficiencies in the marketplace, technology companies and even large corporations have begun to enter the space. Among those is SportsEngine, a Minneapolis-based former startup now owned by NBC Sports. You may have seen their ads during the Winter Olympics, driving viewers to a search marketplace that offers a directory of local programs, including those in an array of winter sports.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, caught up with CEO Justin Kaufenberg recently to understand where tech is taking youth sports and his company’s approach to engaging with Project Play 2020, the multiyear initiative that includes SportsEngine/NBC Sports as a founding member. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing youth sports?

Justin Kaufenberg: Getting started. We've got a lot of data that shows interest abandonment, in which parents have shown intent to find their kid a sports organization then they failed to proceed and sign their child up. Which is not terribly surprising. It's a very fragmented marketplace with hundreds of thousands of sports organizations across tens of thousands of communities. More often than not, moms and dads are still finding out about participation opportunities from friends and family and neighbors and word of mouth. That's a pretty inefficient market in a world where we can dial up a taxi by clicking an app on our phone or do any other number of things in an on-demand economy.

Once you get started, though, I do think there are some competitive problems. The drive for year-round participation. There are some fairly concerning data about the number of kids that we see churn out of youth sports at different ages. There's a (attrition) band at 8 years old, and another (at) 12 years old. A fair amount of that is associated with a such a high level of competitiveness where the kids feel overwhelmed or just disenfranchised that they haven't made the top team at a relatively young age. It should be about getting kids involved and having fun. I think there are some solutions and some really good stuff cooking. But I do think we're past the line, a pretty bright red line, in terms of the ultra-competitive pressure on these kids.

Farrey: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for progress?

Kaufenberg: The American Development Model, which is starting to be adopted by the United States Olympic Committee and even national governing bodies that are not your traditional governing bodies. We've been involved with ADM since the very beginning, as a USA Hockey partner when they effectively architected it. We're very big believers in the concept that kids should participate in multiple sports over the course of a year. ADM promotes a lot of in-house and recreational play, that it's not all travel and competitive play. There are very few tenets of the ADM that we are not in violent agreement with. And for the first time in probably my career, it feels like there's a groundswell of movement against the hyper-competitive parents and the hyper-competitive organizations.

Farrey: During the recent Olympics, you built on NBC Sports’ television audience to drive people into new and different sports. What exactly did you learn?

Kaufenberg: We want to demystify sports for families. We want to present them with a database of opportunities on sportsengine.com where they can search by organizations that are near them, sports that fit their price range and family calendar, and sign up with the click of a button. With the Olympics in PyeongChang, we (figured) if you are inspired by these athletes, what better time to find a participation opportunity for your young child? What was exciting to see is that we drove 64 percent more traffic to sportsengine.com and to the national governing body websites than occurred during the (2014 Winter Olympics in) Sochi.

Farrey: Speaking of technology solutions, I have this big idea that is not necessarily anything your team is working on. But let me bounce it off you as just someone who knows technology and what's possible with kids. My 14-year-old, he plays club soccer – but he also plays an awful lot of the EA Sports game FIFA, and occasionally NFL Madden. And he's always trying to build up his Ultimate Team where you can purchase Leo Messi or whoever with virtual currency. He even comes to us saying, ‘Hey, can I spend $10 of my birthday money to buy these virtual players.’ Drives my wife and I crazy – like, don't throw $10 dollars into a virtual world. But I was thinking to myself, what if we could work with an EA Sports and other software companies and set it up so a kid can earn virtual currency if he or she signs up for a sports program in the real world? A program that’s maybe certified through one of the national governing bodies. Tell me I'm not crazy with this idea.

Kaufenberg: No, I think it's a great idea.

Farrey: Is it a difficult thing to do, technically? Hook up a FIFA or Madden game to some directory of yours or otherwise that identifies programs in your area?

Kaufenberg: No, not at all. SportsEngine is no different than EA Sports or anybody else in that it’s a technology platform surrounded by APIs. Our platforms can talk to each other and we can interchange data. You could, for example, leave your virtual world, land on sportsengine.com, then find and sign up for a sports program. We would then have the data we need to pass that information back to EA or whatever your game of choice is and effectively generate or add virtual currency into your account. Closing the loop on that transaction is not technically difficult.

Farrey: Let's make it happen. OK, so now I want you to paint a picture for me. We know from Moore's Law that in technology, change happens at ever-faster rates. So, I know five years from now is way in the future – but five years from now, how will technology impact the sports experience of kids?

Kaufenberg: We envision a world where your virtual profile is portable. Once you've created your SportsEngine account, a player that has all of their pertinent information on it. All the normal data – your first name, last name, address, things like that. But it also has some really critical stuff like any past head injuries you've had or any other important data, and it follows you around. So when your soccer season is over and you want to try baseball you're able to just simply click a button and all of your information is ported into the baseball database. There's no more information you need to enter and you can be managed and actually handled a lot more efficiently because the baseball organization now knows your past history and knows what other sports you participate in. It knows whether or not you've had injuries in other sports and if you need to be monitored more closely.

We can also make a coach profile portable. It would have safety information, for example. SportsEngine works with the largest sports background screening companies in the world. So you could become screened and certified as a safe coach, and that badge follows you around as well. Then parents will have a lot of confidence because they know that there's not a coach allowed in their organization that doesn't have that safe badge. They’ll know they're in good hands.

Farrey: How do you see Project Play 2020 being part of the solution?

Kaufenberg: It's such an important initiative because it's bringing together a lot of the different voices. Industry organizations are competitive – manufacturers, retailers, technology companies, we’re all competitive. But you need unifying initiatives and alliances and Project Play 2020 is exactly that. This is effectively the initiative that we can all get behind in good conscience and use our collective brainpower, audience, reach and technical prowess. It’s the only forum I'm aware of in the world of youth sports that could bring us together under a common mission. At SportsEngine, we certainly have no ego and no pride in authorship when it comes to doing good for kids and getting more kids to participate.

Farrey: How optimistic are you that that the group can actually move the numbers?

Kaufenberg: Very optimistic. There has to be a lot of different factors that come together simultaneously to turn the battleship on something as big as youth sports participation. And I think that’s happening. We are doing this at the same time the USOC is adopting ADM, that companies like NBC and other very large corporations are investing in the youth sports space. Three or four or five distinct efforts are happening simultaneously. For that reason, I actually think this is going to work.

Learn more about Project Play 2020