The GSB Interview

Angela Ruggiero, US Women’s Hockey Legend; Founder, Sports Innovation Lab

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Tenacity, creativity, and a “skating to where the puck will be” mentality were hallmarks of Angela Ruggiero’s game as she became one of the greatest players in U.S. women’s hockey history and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Those qualities have served her well as co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab, a company that exists to “to create bold fan experiences through data-driven technology insights and industry-leading research.” SIL’s particular focus is younger sports fans — the Fluid Fan™. 

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Ruggiero about her hockey career, how that informs her work with SIL, the Fluid Fan, and where the environment fits in.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Angela, it’s great to talk — I’ve been a huge fan of yours, both as a U.S. Olympic hockey legend and, more recently, with your forward-leaning work at Sports Innovation Lab. Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into hockey?

Angela Ruggiero: I grew up in Southern California where there was, surprisingly to many, an ice hockey scene. My dad wanted my brother to play and brought along his two daughters to play as well. Once my sister stopped playing, I became the only girl in the state for a time.

GSB: WOW! How was it to be the only girl to play organized ice hockey in the state? What drew you to the sport?

Angela: I loved hockey so much from the start that being the only girl was not that big a deal.

It really was the perfect sport for me. The need to keep your head in an incredibly fast-paced game, its highly technical nature, its combination of skating, strategy, shooting, passing, and transitioning from defense to offense. The team sport nature of it. I loved it.

 

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Angela Ruggiero speaks at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference (Photo credit: Sloan Analytics Conference)

 

GSB: So, what took you from the only girl playing hockey in California to the top of the sport? 

Angela: Well, I went to the prep school Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut for high school where I got a great education and also was able to develop as a hockey player, playing defense. Then I went to Harvard, which was life-changing. We won the national championship in 1999, and I won the Patty Kazmaier trophy (like the Heisman) which was amazing. But hockey wasn’t the only thing. Academically, I was a government major, got straight A’s and as a senior, won NCAA’s Top VIII Award, for success on the ice, in the classroom, and in the community. I am grateful to Harvard; the whole experience broadened me.

GSB: While at Choate and Harvard you also found time to play for the U.S. Olympic team. What was that like?

Angela: It was incredible — during my senior year at Choate I became the youngest player on the 1998 U.S. Olympic hockey team, and we won the Gold Medal in Nagano, Japan. I was at Harvard when we made a run to the Gold Medal game at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City where we lost to our archrival, Canada, 3-2, earning us a Silver Medal. Four years later in Torino we took the Bronze. And then I went for it one more time in Vancouver 2010, where we won Silver.

 

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Angela Ruggiero passes out the 2018 Olympic Gold Medals to the US Women’s Hockey team after their defeat of Canada in Gangneung, South Korea (Photo credit: Team USA)

 

GSB: What drove you to be able to have such a long, successful career…one in which you became the first woman to actively play in a regular season men’s professional hockey game in North America with the Tulsa Oilers?

Angela: My mindset at Harvard, with the Olympic team or during my pro career, was ‘how do I get better every day?’ I can’t imagine an athlete thinking any other way. I believe others call it the “growth mindset.”

GSB: You also became involved in the Olympic movement after your playing days…

Angela: Thanks for mentioning that, Lew. I enjoy giving back and was happy to be elected as a member of the IOC’s Athletes Commission by the athletes of the world at the 2010 Olympics, which turned into a spot as an IOC member and eventually a Member of the IOC Executive Board when I Chaired the Athletes’ Commission. Eventually I became the chief strategy officer of what became the successful LA 2028 Olympic bid.

GSB: That is phenomenal! What did you learn from these experiences?

Angela: I learned that global sports has such tremendous potential to make positive impacts on peoples’ lives and that it is a human right to play sports. I also learned that the sports world needs to be disrupted if it is to come close to reaching its potential on a variety of metrics.

I studied disruption at Harvard Business School from 2012 to 2014; I saw that the business world was changing but that sports business was not, it was stale, especially when it came to data and technology.

GSB: But what about Moneyballthe use of advanced metrics that helped the low-budget Oakland A’s punch above their weight for 15-20 years?

Angela: You’re right. Billy Beane and the A’s used data to give them an advantage on the field. But the business side of sports was slow to innovate, especially when it came to understanding fans and understanding what sports would look like in ten years.

Like Beane, I was data driven. And so, I launched Sports Innovation Lab with my business partner Josh Walker as a tech-powered market research firm that helps sports brands to create breakthrough fan experiences through technology in ways that will drive the future of sports. At our core, we understand the fan better than anyone in the world.

GSB: How does Sports Innovation Lab create those experiences for fans through technology? Of course that question assumes a post-COVID environment in which fans can safely come back to stadiums and arenas.

Angela: Through workshops, advisory services, and more.

One example is TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins and Celtics. It is now the Hub on Causeway – a mixed-use entertainment district designed to keep fans busy in and out of season. We help them stay on top of emerging trends in fan behavior and the new products and services that could enhance the fan experience.

Another is CLEAR. Their biometric access control technology is best known for helping passengers move through airports quickly. Sports Innovation Lab has worked closely with them to identify the right partners in the sports industry, especially post-COVID, to give the company a strong potential new revenue stream.

GSB: Those are great “future of sports” examples from venues and tech companies. What does the future of sports look like from a fan perspective?

Angela: One of the big trends our research has uncovered is what we call the Fluid Fan™, which is the present and the future of sports.

Fluid Fans, mainly millennials and Gen Zers, are much more likely to follow athletes rather than teams…

GSB: I’ve seen this! I’m definitely more “experienced” than a millennial and so I’m loyal to my team. But young fans? When LeBron James went from Cleveland to Miami, they became Heat fans. Then, when he went back to Cleveland, they went with him. And now they’re with him in LA.

Angela: Exactly! That’s why we helped to create a new league from scratch, Athletes Unlimited, in which athletes playing team sports — women’s softball and volleyball to start — are rewarded based on individual stats and fans bet on the players.

 

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Sahvanna Jaquish of Athletes Unlimited had reason to smile after slugging a grand slam (Photo credit: Jade Hewitt Media)

 

GSB: It’s like making fantasy sports reality. Sounds ideal for Fluid Fans. What else do we know about them?

Angela: Fluid Fans also consume sports differently than their elders, watching short highlight bursts rather than sitting through entire games. Fluid Fans also play fantasy sports and want to bet with their betting apps connecting to their OTT1 platforms. They expect tech to make it easier for them to move between these behaviors. And Fluid Fans also expect their sports teams and players to mirror their values.

All of this has led to a power shift to the athletes — who increasingly are using their platforms, thanks to social media and outlets like The Players’ Tribune, to express their values. We saw this when the NBA and WNBA players took a stand on Black Lives Matter after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more.

GSB: What can the Fluid Fan mean for sports and the environment?

Angela: Let’s look at the Olympics…

GSB:…Who definitely need to be concerned about Fluid Fans!

Angela: And Fluid Fans who care increasingly about the environment and carbon footprints. So that makes the union between the IOC with Dow, in which Dow brings its carbon footprint-reduction technologies to the Olympic Games, a great business partnership for both parties.

Other tech companies want to communicate to fans, especially younger Fluid Fans that they’re leading on green, for example letting them know they’re delivering energy efficient lighting at a stadium or arena.

GSB: I get that, but to me, it seems that most teams do not communicate about their greening initiatives to fans. Why are they so reticent?

Angela: It’s a mistake if they want to reach Fluid Fans. Many share Greta Thunberg’s values. Teams should not only be talking about their environmental programs; they should make them high priorities. Those Fluid Fans will reward these properties and partners because of the alignment of their values.

 

1 OTT refers to ‘Over The Top‘ and refers to any streaming service that delivers content over the internet.

 

Photo at Top: Angela Ruggiero controls the puck on her way to scoring a goal against China during a women’s ice hockey preliminary game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (Photo credit: Team USA)

 


 

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