Open Data in the Sports Industry – Show me the Money

“We want to make it as easy to book a badminton court as it is a hotel room”

Those are the bold words by Sport England and the Open Data Institute announced last week. This relates to the use of open data and standards to help make it easier than ever for people to get active, by presenting local opportunities to them.

Taken at face value it all sounds good. Booking a badminton court is fundamentally far too difficult. Booking a hotel room is easy. Lets do something about this, open up lots of idle courts in leisure centres and get the UK moving.

But that’s where the challenges begin. For starters, a £10 badminton court isn’t comparable to a £100 hotel room. To make a badminton court easy to book online is surprisingly difficult. Let’s begin with where they are located, which tends to be in leisure centres, schools or sports clubs.

Leisure centres have complicated layers of memberships meaning that their booking systems usually become a victim of their own complexity. Try opening up a system which sometimes has to accommodate over 200 different levels of memberships across multiple sites. Meanwhile in the context of schools, a major source of facilities, for obvious reasons they are incredibly controlling over who sets foot in them. Allowing people to simply click and book their resources isn't practical or desirable for them as they need to screen anyone who books and more significantly,  provide staffing. Staff cost money.  Since the transaction values here (£10-15 hour) are far below a holiday or hotel room, the economics of opening up a school on a weekend for a one badminton court booking often just do not work, particularly in more rural locations.

Furthermore, if we cast our minds back to February 2013, then there is absolutely nothing new about all of this. In partnership with UK Active, Sport England threw £3.3m at the ill-fated Spogo project, which had for its mission statement, yes you guessed it:

“We want to make it as easy to book a badminton court as it is a hotel room”

Undoubtedly the No.1 unifying goal for anyone involved in the sports industry has to be to make it easier for people to get active. Anything which highlights the profound barriers that remain to getting people active can only be a positive thing. So on that basis, we at OpenPlay welcome this statement with open arms.

But what is very clear from all of this is that what they still don’t know, is how to solve the problem.

For example, if they open up free activity sessions all over the country and someone lists them on a website/app, that’s fantastic, but who pays for that? The BBC have been sort of doing this for years under the Get Inspired name (not be confused with Sport England’s Be Inspired) and by all accounts their activity portal is being shelved in March 2017.

So who pays whom and for what? Data simply has to be maintained and enhanced if it is to be put to good use. At OpenPlay we’ve unearthed 1,000s of venues purely because there wasn’t a decent source of venue data so we had to create it.  If they want startups to then innovate around this, startups need funds to sustain themselves and attract the best talent. To attract funds, they need to prove a return on investment to their investors or find generous philanthropists. 

In short, all of this means they need to make money.

So for example, how can you make money listing free activity sessions run for disadvantaged kids? Do you charge the disadvantaged kids or their parents? Do you charge the cash-strapped providers running these sessions? If a session is £5, does someone take a cut of that so less goes back to the provider? Venue costs are high enough as they are and their own operating margins tend to be thread bare too, especially if they have any kind of community focus rather than commercial. 

Added to this are the providers themselves. One of our partners is a large university in London. Do you know how many legal hoops we had to go through in order to work with them? Looking at the contract we signed, there’s no way we can possibly have their data going on any other third party sites. It was hard enough getting permission for us to store customer details and use a third party payment gateway. If we turned around and said to them “we want to push your data far and wide, but we don’t exactly know where”. Forget it as that put us in breach of contract. 

Having launched OpenPlay from scratch on a shoe-string budget, the No.1 thing I have learnt is that cash is king. You can have the noblest mission statement in the world and strong social values at your core, but if you run out of cash or can't earn enough to pay your bills, you are a ticking time-bomb and on a path to becoming obsolete. Sadly the sports industry is now a graveyard of mobile apps and websites who ran out of money or couldn’t get off the ground, it's a very difficult environment to be operating in. 

So our stance at OpenPlay is a simple one. If a sensible, working revenue model evolves out of this, we’ll look at it and get involved. If it doesn’t, as I suspect is the case, we’ll keep cracking on as we always have.

On our to-do list is an expansion to an overseas territory and getting 76 new venues online and bookable by Christmas.

And you’ll never guess what, many of them offer badminton courts.







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