The  billion AI mania sprouts a tech incubator program in the unlikeliest place: Major League Soccer

Connie Queline

The $40 billion AI mania sprouts a tech incubator program in the unlikeliest place: Major League Soccer

Why is Major League Soccer soccer launching a startup incubator? And what does it have to do with AI? 

The league is joining the frenzied investments into AI, now the hottest part of the tech industry, in the hopes it can capture the promise of the new technology for itself, its teams, and possibly even spread the wealth to the billion dollar brands that sponsor the league. 

Major League Soccer selected six companies to participate in its inaugural Innovation Labs program. The companies include several AI startups, makers of next generation training equipment, and an augmented reality company. 

Fortune spoke to the startup founders, who said they opted to participate in the program because of the opportunity to fine-tune and field test their products with a league that might one day become their customer. MLS had been in search of a formal innovation program to evaluate which startups could represent the future of sports, as the league has been garnering more attention than ever since last summer’s arrival of soccer legend Lionel Messi. 

“We sit at this really interesting intersection between the tech world in North America, which is obviously very active, and this global sport,” says Chris Schlosser, MLS’ senior vice president of emerging ventures, who led the project.

The initiative mirrors those taken by other American sports leagues including the NBA and the NFL, which in recent years started their own venture arms. In 2022, the NBA started a program called NBA Launchpad that already had two cohorts of companies—one in 2022 and another in 2023. Meanwhile the NFL, which has an investment arm 32 Equity (named for the 32 teams in the league), keeps a lower profile without a formal incubator program like MLS and the NBA, but has made investments in various media and apparel companies. 

500 candidates, 6 finalists

MLS evaluated over 500 companies from across the globe for the program before selecting the six finalists that will participate in the nine-month program, according to Schlosser. Reflecting the global nature of soccer, MLS recruited companies based in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S. At the culmination of the program, three of the six companies will be invited to MLS All Star Weekend in July to meet team owners and MLS commissioner Don Garber. The startups won’t be compensated for their work but would receive significant value through intellectual property designations and access to the MLS, according to those involved. However, MLS reserves the right to invest in any of the six companies, and will evaluate them on a case-by-case basis at the end of the program, Schlosser tells Fortune. “Historically, we’ve done six figure deals, and we’ve done 10-figure deals, it just depends on the life stage of the company,” he says. 

Some of the companies selected were recommended through existing connections either with league officials or commercial partners before entering a formal request for proposals and interview process. For example, Staidium, the American arm of German TV production company Sporttotal, which makes AI-powered cameras, was introduced through Adidas, the league jersey sponsors, according to Staidium managing director David Cochrane. Fitogether, a South Korean startup that makes GPS fitness trackers that go in the bralettes soccer players wear during games and practices, is already a FIFA-preferred partner and was introduced via MLS’s official data provider Sportec Solutions, says Fitogether CEO Jinsung Yoon. Regardless of their funding levels or the specific product they made, all the companies had to be ready to participate in the real-world scenarios MLS would hope to one day use for their products—or, in Schlosser’s words, “Are they ready for primetime?” 

At a kickoff event in Phoenix during the six-day MLS Next Fest in December, the league’s tournament for youth teams, each startup presented to the chief soccer officers from all 29 MLS clubs. “There is no chance they’re getting that kind of visibility to pitch 29 soccer clubs, at the highest level in one meeting, anywhere else,” Schlosser says, a sentiment several founders echoed.

Kilian Saekel participated in Techstars Melbourne in 2020 with his startup A-Champs, which makes training equipment to improve players’ reaction times. Saekel, who previously sold a startup, says this exposure to the clubs was more valuable to him than a traditional accelerator, where he would mostly expect to receive advice on the fundamentals of building a startup, learning things like Lean Startup methodology.

Schlosser concurs: “This isn’t for somebody who just has an idea and wants six or nine months to build a business; we want folks to come in with a real product that is ready to be battle-tested.”  

For most of the foreign companies, the program was an opportunity to break into the lucrative North American market, something they’ve been eager to do. In the U.S., the NBA, the NFL, and MLB each top $10 billion in league revenue. The sporting goods market is also booming, forecasted to be a whopping $109 billion in 2024, according to market research firm IBISWorld. Even the $19 billion youth sports segment is big business in the U.S., making for a market of very ambitious parents some startups were eager to tap into. 

In the U.S. “parents are willing to spend something on their kids to really make them better,” says Saekel, the A-Champs founder. 

AI-powered sports broadcasts

Other founders told Fortune they were attracted to the prospect of working with MLS’ biggest commercial partners, especially Apple, which signed a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal with the league. Schlosser says the league’s biggest commercial partners had “absolutely” expressed interest in some of the companies participating in the Innovation Lab but declined to name them. 

The deal is unique in that affords Apple TV+ global streaming rights, making a single broadcast available worldwide. MLS is already eyeing several startups that could be used in the future of its broadcasts. Staidium, the subsidiary of the German company, and Reeplayer both make AI-operated cameras, which the league is particularly interested in using for the roughly 10,000 various minor league and youth sports matches played across the country, Schlosser says. 

The youth games in particular draw small, very local crowds consisting of parents and the odd superfan. Many of these games usually don’t warrant their own production crews but with an AI camera that could replicate the work of a human cameraman, they could be aired with the same quality of a professional broadcast. 

Schlosser described a possible network of cameras placed at soccer fields around the country that could be controlled from a single, central control room, allowing any game to be live streamed. If that were to come to fruition, “college coaches or Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa could watch the game from wherever they are—whether that be Apple season pass or the MLS Next website, we’ll figure that out down the road,” he says. 

Tech-assisted translation

MLS is also interested in the possibility of broadcasting those games in different languages, recruiting the UAE-backed AI translation startup Camb.AI to the Innovation Lab, which is able to translate live streamed video into different languages, according to chief technology officer and cofounder Akshat Prakash. For a sports broadcast, that would mean a single announcer could call a game and then have their voice translated in real time into hundreds of languages—keeping the same emotion, slang, and theatrics of color commentary. 

The implications of the Apple deal, which encompasses all global media rights, but currently only broadcasts in English, Spanish, and French, are far-reaching, Schlosser says. He said it would be “unbelievable” if the league could give a user anywhere in the world the chance to select their native language “and still keep the nuance and excitement of the announcer who’s calling the game and not have it sound like a robot.” 

For now, Schlosser says he expects to start using Camb.AI primarily for game highlights. 

The possible collaborations are already apparent to some of the founders, who already met one another at the Phoenix event in December. “There’s definitely synergy between these startups,” says Orhan Basak Ajredinovski, CEO and founder of Reeplayer, one of the AI camera companies. 

Ajredinovski says he already sees some possible collaborations with Camb.AI: “We’re working on some really striking features we want to release this year that I can’t disclose, one of which is very complementary to a collaboration that we can do with Camb.AI.” He says there’s a lot of interest.

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