Panel walks the fine line of sports-tech innovation

Lineup: Former New York Met Keith Hernandez (left), PGA Tour exec Scott Gutterman (center) and NASCAR digital media VP Tim Clark discuss sports innovations Wednesday evening in Southampton.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Properly handled, technological innovation makes for good sports – and properly presented, good sports innovators make for an engaging panel discussion.

So an audience of 30-plus members and guests were both educated and entertained Wednesday evening, when The Spur @ The Station – temporary summer home of The Spur, a private “co-working and entrepreneur’s club” – hosted an interactive conversation featuring four experts of tech innovation, as related to the wide world of sports.

Moderated by Dave Nugent, a member of The Spur and a founding partner of New York City-based digital strategist OmniGon Communications, the panel included Scott Gutterman, vice president of digital operations for the PGA Tour, and Tim Clark, vice president of digital media for NASCAR.

Also sitting in was a face, voice and sweet left-handed stroke exceedingly familiar to New York sports fans: Sag Harbor’s own Keith Hernandez, leader of the storied 1986 Mets and author of “I’m Keith Hernandez: A Memoir,” a freshly minted retelling of the five-time MLB All-Star’s “formative years, and all the struggles I had coming up.”

“People know me in New York and St. Louis for the finished product,” he told Innovate LI. “But they don’t know the tough road it was to get there.”

Keith Hernandez: Tech’s “Mex.”

In addition to plugging his book, Hernandez, who is also a member of The Spur, was on hand to share his perspective on how baseball itself has changed – and innovation, according to the slick-fielding first baseman, famous “Seinfeld” guest star and longtime television analyst, has not always been for the better.

“The game has gone through some radical changes,” Hernandez noted. “The sport has become too technical, more based on analytics.”

But there’s a course correction in effect, he added, as baseball begins to “move away from the neo-Branch Rickeys who thought they were going to change the game … with computers and analytics.”

That’s a refreshing thought for baseball purists – and precisely the kind of inside-baseball observation the sports panel was convened to deliver, according to Nugent, who pulled together the group along with Ashley Heather, founder of The Spur and i-hamptons, a Southampton-based “community and resource guide” for East End entrepreneurs.

Nugent is also chief commercial officer at OmniGon, a big-city digital marketing agency focused on consumer loyalty and content delivery. The 2008 startup counts Fox Sports, the Verizon Indycar Series, the Madison Square Garden Co., the International Swimming Federation and World Wresting Entertainment among its high-caliber international clients, making professional sports a cornerstone for the digital-solutions provider.

OmniGon also works closely with the PGA Tour and NASCAR, putting Nugent in a position to assemble Wednesday’s group discussion.

“Sports marketing is my little corner of the world,” he noted.

The Professional Golfers’ Association, of course, is having a busy week, with the 118th U.S. Open Championship underway at nearby Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. With June 9’s Belmont Stakes horserace – burnished by Justify’s stunning Triple Crown performance – also focusing the eyes of the sporting world on Long Island, this was the perfect time to bring together the diverse experts for a chat on sports-tech innovations, according to Nugent.

The OmniGon exec, naturally, is a fan of technological innovations, particularly on the fan side – but like Hernandez and the others, he warns too much of a good thing is bad for everyone involved.

Dave Nugent: Peripheral vision.

Nugent clearly sees two sides to sports innovation – the “consumer, fan-facing” side and the “innovation that takes place behind the curtain,” involving digital marketing (the changeable, green-screened ads behind home plate, for instance) and other media-based tech, including augmented- and virtual-reality content.

Sports tech walks a fine line, Nugent noted, and the adoption of new technologies “really comes down to the way people behave when they watch sports.”

“Watching sports is basically a social activity,” he said. “So [sports tech] almost needs to be in your periphery.”

Innovators are closing in on less-cumbersome VR headsets – not “all-encompassing,” like current virtual-reality gear, but light and deft and “closer to the promise of what Google Glass was supposed to be” – but such game-changing tech is still years away, according to Nugent.

Until then, a “very complicated landscape of technology” will remain “mostly focused on the experience you get on your phone,” he said – a theme reinforced during the panel discussion.

“Being able to have a conversation with somebody next to you while enjoying the tech and letting it enhance the experience – that’s the goal,” Nugent said.

And sharing those kinds of insights with The Spur’s innovation-focused membership was the panel’s goal, according to Heather, who noted the athletics-themed chat fit nicely with The Spur’s “Wellness Wednesday” discussions, one of several benefits afforded the entrepreneur club’s 160-plus (and counting) members.

“There seems to be a sporting frenzy right now, with this being the week of the U.S. Open,” Heather said. “And since we do Wellness Wednesday talks focused on health and sport, this fit right in with that theme.”


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