By Matthew Davison
This past September, the Future of Sport Lab (FSL) held its demo day to showcase its third cohort of new startups.
The FSL was created and managed by Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) and supported by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) in 2019. As the number of companies developed through the program continues to grow over the years, so does its impact on graduating students whose aspirations lie in the sports industry.
FSL’s founder and director, Cheri Bradish—who is also an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM)—said she’s passionate about helping to mould the future of the industry through elevating diverse voices and being open minded to new schools of thought.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2021 report, which tracked sport media outlets like ESPN, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated and more, found that 79 per cent of sports editors where white while 83.3 per cent were men. In addition, 77 per cent of reporters were white and 85.6 per cent were men.
“We try to create a place where we can help companies with new ideas and either accelerate them in sport or make them more impactful,” Bradish said. “We value a diverse cohort and a diverse ideation within the lab. That’s really allowed us to create a lot of really good things in the space.”
“I think it’s all in the name. It’s called The Future of Sport Lab”
When TMU and MLSE came together to launch this lab, it was the first sport tech incubator in North America. Nearly four years later, the lab has developed a number of companies and has collectively raised over $30 million in financing and investment for the startups they mentor.
A recent graduate of TMU’s master of business administration program, Samir Bhatla joined the FSL in January 2022 as the coordinator of marketing and communications. He said he was drawn to the Lab because of its global reach and ability to create change in sports.
“I think it’s all in the name. It’s called The Future of Sport Lab,” said Bhatla. “What FSL does really well is bring in these companies that are solving consumer problems using different innovative methods, ultimately shine the spotlight on them and show how they’re pushing the industry forward.”
One of the most successful companies born out of the lab is The Gist, a female-run digital sports brand founded in 2019. The multimedia company was founded by three women who had recently graduated university and were frustrated with the male-dominated nature of sports coverage.
According to their website, the company’s team has grown to include over 25 women and non-binary people, with an audience of over 700,000 across their various platforms on social media and through their frequent newsletters.
Victoria Park Analytics is another women-founded business to come out of the lab. The company said it prides itself on its internal diversity among its employees.
Fourth-year sport media student Jasmine Yen has noticed the lab’s work and appreciates the spotlight they have shined on women-led businesses especially given that the industry lacks women representation.
Sporting Goods Intelligence (SGI) Europe analyzed the ratio of women and men working in senior leadership positions across leading sports companies in early 2022, finding that only 20 per cent were women.
Yen says not only is gender equity the right thing to do, but also the logical choice.
“It’s a smart business move,” said Yen. “Why would you target only half of the population when you can target the whole population?”
Yen says the same is true for esports, an area she says has traditionally seen pushback from those within the sports industry.
FSL has helped develop multiple esports startups, including Rival.ai, which provides esport scouting reports generated through artificial intelligence. The lab has also worked with Mission Control, a Missouri-based esports platform that facilitates tournaments for esports competitors.
Jashan Jhutty, a fourth-year business management student who is specializing in entrepreneurship, says its refreshing to see new ideas being valued by the lab. He said it’s nice to see new ideas being valued as someone interested in sports entrepreneurship.
“I’m so glad to know that there are resources for other people like me with entrepreneurial interest who do want to get our new and fresh ideas out there,” Jhutty said. “We’re so lucky that we are in the heart of Toronto, the most diverse city in the world. We’re in an environment where there’s so many new ideas.”
Bradish believes it is important for the sports industry to refrain from being stagnant and is proud of the work her lab is doing to push it forward.
“We support challenging the traditional status quo of the sports industry,” said Bradish. “It’s 150 years old in North America, it’s very traditional. So we’re able to really challenge that, and a lot of that has to do with who’s making the decisions and the founders of these companies.”
Yen, who will be graduating this upcoming spring, is optimistic because of entities like FSL, who embrace new schools of thought.
“Old ideas are not working as well anymore. It’s important to foster new ideas and adapt to the new world,” said Yen. “It makes me very hopeful to see that there’s a lot of job creation and hidden opportunities that are being uncovered.”