Sasha Victorine calls Livestrong Sporting Park "a living lab." And whether they know it, Sporting Kansas City's smartphone-clutching, blue-clad fans are the experiment's guinea pigs.
Victorine should know. The former midfielder for the Kansas City Wizards, Sporting KC's previous incarnation, is the director of business development and operations for Sporting Innovations, a venture launched by the soccer club last October to expand the game-day experience for fans with technology and social media.
Starting a sports-focused tech company was a natural progression for Sporting KC, whose ownership group includes Cerner founders Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson.
"They see the value in continuing to push technology. The other part is that they're also sports fans," Victorine says. "They realized that there were holes in the sports environment that technology could fill."
Sporting KC's tech-centric operating style has been lauded since Livestrong opened last summer. Fast Company magazine ranked Sporting the fifth-most innovative sports company in the country — one spot ahead of ESPN.
A tech company being born from a Major League Soccer team was inevitable, Victorine says. Pro soccer wasn't always broadcast on TV, so franchises had to find other ways of exposing the masses to the sport.
"It's a natural evolution of Major League Soccer," Victorine says.
Sporting Innovations' experiments were simple but noticeable during Sporting matches at Livestrong last season. High-density wireless Internet made Web browsing and social-media use easy and fast. Fans who sent messages to the team's Twitter handle, @sportingkc, saw their tweets appear on video boards around the arena. That novelty proved popular; tweets to the team increased by 20 percent.
Later this year, Sporting Innovations' experiments will get more complex. In the coming months, Sporting Innovations plans to offer streaming video to the mobile devices of fans at Livestrong, Victorine says. But why would anybody want to watch video when the game is being played right before their eyes? To see what's happening off the field.
"We think there's content that is behind the scenes, under the stadium, that — as a fan — you never have access to," Victorine says. And Sporting Innovations will give you access.
Sporting Innovations also plans to bring the play-by-play announcers to mobile devices — no transistor radio and headphones needed.
"At halftime, if you want to see what's going on with the broadcast or a pre-game show, you can tie into those things," Victorine says. "The other great thing this will let you do is watch camera angles from the other side of the stadium. If I'm sitting on one side of the stadium and the action is happening on the other side, I can get a camera feed from the other side that gives me a close-up of the goal."
Streaming video could also turn every fan into an unofficial referee on instant replays (which aren't used in MLS matches) on goals and the all-too-common botched offside calls.
"Say a goal happened; you can actually rewind," Victorine says. "Or an offsides happened, and you didn't think it was offsides; you can go back and take a look at it."
Sporting Innovations is expanding beyond Livestrong. The only project that Victorine acknowledges outside KC is with Texas A&M's football program, which is looking at remodeling Kyle Field or building a new stadium. (A&M is contracting with Kansas City company Populous to help make the decision.) Victorine won't identify the other organizations that Sporting Innovations is working with, but he says the company has had discussions with teams in every league in the country.
So it's a good time to be one of the smartphone-clutching, blue-clad guinea pigs in Sporting Innovations' lab.
"A lot of the things that we're doing is stuff that fans don't necessarily see right now," Victorine says. "But later on this year, they'll come to Livestrong and have opportunities that no other stadium in the world has. As a Sporting fan, you'll be the first people to have a chance to look at the new technologies that come through sports. They'll come right through that building."