From rock‘n’ roll lifestyle to huge global enterprise
Alan Clarke, co-founder of the sports tech firm, talks to Emma Deighan about the business’s impact on the world
STATSports co-founder alan clarke on the success of the newry firm’ s performance devices and some parallels with the music business
Alan Clarke, one half of the founding team of successful sports tech firm Statsports, isn’t the usual corporate high-flyer. In 2007 he decided to swap the rock ‘n’ roll life of a touring drummer for what is now a billion dollar contract-signing firm based in Newry.
And when he and his business partner, Sean O’connor, made an announcement this month that the firm would be employing 237 new team members after a multimillion pound investment, it was clear Statsports was more than suits and signings.
Alan, a former touring musician and engineer, and Sean, a former technology lecturer, stood clad in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and denim, respectively, alongside the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley and Invest NI’S Jeremy Fitch.
That photocall said it all about the company that has gone from concept to global stardom in just over 10 years. It also spoke volumes about a sector here that is breaking stuffy corporate rules and thriving.
“I try to make the company a very relaxed place to work,” says Alan. “There are no airs and graces and there’s no real hierarchy, and even though we are corporate we try to mask that to make it more intuitive.”
Set up in 2007, Statsports has shaken hands with some of the world’s most successful sporting teams — from Brazil to US Soccer (that last one was the big bucks billion dollar deal).
It’s been a whirlwind 11 years for the firm that came about from a passing conversation on a terrace at a football match.
“I knew Sean over the years,” continues Alan. “We bumped into each other and had a fortuitous conversation about sports performance. He was lecturing in Newry tech at the time. We talked about a niche in the market and how it could be filled — it was a loose conversation and from that it grabbed momentum.”
“Grabbing momentum” is a humble reference to the velocity at which his business has gone from concept to contracts.
Statsports’ niche is creating sports tracking devices that can send performance statistics to real-time devices. In basic speak, coaches and team managers can compare and contrast the athletic performance of their players while watching them in action. The devices, most notably the APEX Team Series system, are used by some of the biggest sporting organisations in the world including the Brazil Football Confederation and US Soccer, and is worn by sporting stars including Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Neymar. Statsports says the APEX Team Series is unique in its field, adding “there is no other wearable device on the market that can produce multiple onfield key performance metrics in real-time while utilising the level of accuracy relied upon by the world’s largest and most successful sports organisations”.
It was 2009 when the company welcomed its first high profile customer, Leinster Rugby. It was the name that marked the beginning of a star-studded line-up of clients, from Liverpool FC to the New York Knicks, Nike to Lucozade, and Hong Kong Rugby to Houston Dash — an international portfolio that saw the company open an office in Chicago.
Discussing what was possibly the most lucrative signing in its history, Leinster Rugby, Alan continues: “Even though we were confident from the beginning, you need that fuel to get that lift. When Leinster Rugby signed up in 2009, that was the year they won the European Cup Final.
“Then followed Irish Rugby, also in 2009, when they won the Six Nations and the Grand Slam. And at the time people wanted to know what we were doing. And because this industry is quite niche — a small sector — before you know it, in a whirlwind period, we’d gone from two to three teams to what we have now.”
Neither Alan nor Sean saw the Leinster deal as a lucky break. The pair had unwavering conviction that their product was always destined for the top.
“There was a focus from the start and we were always pretty confident that what we were doing was unique, that it had value and once we got one or two teams on board we knew we would get all these big teams and clients.
“I didn’t think that was a big reach.”
Alan compares the firm’s unflappable confidence to that of a platinum-selling music artist. He says: “If you look at lots of musicians over the years they will also say that when they were doing demos they knew they had hits and it didn’t come as a shock to them that they made it big, the same way as it didn’t come as a shock to us. We knew it was going to happen and we just needed to work at it.” And work at it they continue to do. As part of that job announcement, Statsports revealed that it would invest six figures into research and development to ensure its products evolve at a pace that allows it to continue its current momentum and position in the market. To that end, £5.5m will be invested in research and 26 of the 237 jobs will be solely dedicated to that element of the business.
“We are continually evolving. It’s a bit like the iphone. We now have iphone XS and anybody who has an iphone 4 will struggle and that’s the way we look at our development. We will continually evolve with new sensors and technology.
“We will build our products, enhance and improve them, possibly add ancillary products. The R&D funding will also allow us to branch into different consumer areas like running, recreation and cycling.”
Alan says one of the firm’s biggest targets is to “make things more accurate and fast so decisions can be made in real time”.
“The biggest commodity we have is time so we need to make things quicker.
“That will include a lot of cloud and artificial intelligence,” he adds.
The progress made by the firm, Alan says, wouldn’t have been possible without the financial aid of Invest NI, one of the reasons the Dundalk founders set up shop in Northern Ireland.
“I’m southern Irish and we’re on the border. Invest NI’S support for us has been brilliant over the years and all of that has helped us and made us push forward with our research and development. They have been invaluable in helping our business move on to the next stage of its development. They understand the company and support our plans.”
What’s most extraordinary for Statsports is that its business model is debt and investment-free. “We’ve always been profitable,” Alan says.
“The firm is growing 40% year on year and during the process of acquiring customers, we’ve done it without bank debt and investment at all.”
Statsports’ nearest competitor is Australian firm Catapult Sports but Alan believes his company has the edge when it comes to sealing deals.
He says: “Being Irish is good. We’re often seen as friendly and neutral and there aren’t many egos here as you would find in a lot of other nations. We also have huge technology companies here and when it comes to innovation and creation, Ireland’s pretty much up there and that helps.”
Asked if there are other teams or sports that he’d like to conquer in the near future, Alan explains: “I think we’ve dipped our toe in everything in sports, from rugby to horse-racing but what we’re looking at is the consumer market. We want to make our technology an essential part of a sports kit, just like the shirt and for many of our young that’s already the case.
“I remember when we first started working with the big teams we were seen as big brother, we were seen with disdain and as a stick to beat them with to make them work harder, but now they understand.
“Now it’s second nature that these teams will wear these devices and the younger players coming through, the young pro-players from 14 years old, are wearing these products.
“Even in the IRFU [Irish Rugby Football Union] kids as young as 12 are collecting data. And what we want to do is bring that to the consumer.
“We’ve just begun that process,” he continues. “It’s the same format and it allows consumers to get closer to their idols.
“It’s similar wear technology, perhaps not as in-depth but it gives the metrics and allows amateur players to benchmark against their idols and friends and there’s a big social element to it too.”
Alan says eventually parents will be able to monitor their children’s performance from the side of the pitch and compare and contrast with the stats of some of the biggest sports stars in the world.
“A parent could be standing in Belfast watching their kids play a soccer, rugby or GAA match and connect, see the speed, heart rate and performance all from their phone — it’s evolving,” he adds.
On print, or rather the blue screen, it would seem that STAT-Sports is elevating the performance of the world’s biggest athletes, but Alan’s not willing to take all the credit.
“You need the best players, best coaches, fortune and good luck,” he says.
The past decade has marked big changes for the touring drummer who spent 12 years in orchestra pits and on stages around the world, including local venues like the Eg, Limelight and Queen’s Student Union, but music is not forgotten at Statsports says Alan.
“There’s a synergy between both. What I do now is all about creation and perfection and a lot of what we do is creating graphics and applications so there is a bit of a crossover, albeit you have to look for it, but there is a crossover,” he says.
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Statsports enables players, teams and fans to track performance