After more and more tennis professionals were reporting disappointment with their costly PlaySight SmartCourt system, we sent out a questionnaire to you, our readers. The results were mixed but we also found some red flags and concluded the technology - at least as it was sold to tennis clubs - may be on the way out.
End in Sight for PlaySight Tennis?
A critical look at a concept that "promised much and delivered little"
By Rich Neher
Wikipedia writes about PlaySight, "In 2010, PlaySight was founded in Kfar Saba, Israel, using technology with roots in the Israeli military. After years developing weaponry and war simulators for the Israeli army and other defense clients, the three partners looked to apply their skills and knowledge to a new challenge. After one of the partners, Evgeni Khazanov, observed his daughter’s tennis practice, he wondered why a sport with so much money did not have any advanced technology to help players improve their game. It was from that idea that PlaySight was born.
PlaySight has continued to grow through partnerships and investment from players in the tennis industry including Billie Jean King, Ana Ivanovic, Chris Evert, Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic, Tommy Haas, Paul Annacone, and Darren Cahill. Other notable investors include Bill Ackman, Mark Ein, Dr. James Loehr, Gordon Uehling III, and George Mackin. Since the technology was commercialized in 2013, the technology has been adapted for numerous other sports including soccer, martial arts, volleyball, squash, handball, gymnastics, dancing, hockey and wrestling. So far, PlaySight has raised over $20 million and now has offices in Kfar Saba, New Jersey and Los Angeles.
In June 2017, Verizon Ventures and golfer Greg Norman announced an $11 million investment in PlaySight to further SmartCourt expansion in tennis, basketball and other sports and to also introduce the technology to golf.
PlaySight installed its first SmartSchool in 2017. A SmartSchool is a fully connected high school, college or university campus (including Trinity-Pawling School, Oaks Christian School and Sierra Canyon School with PlaySight technology across several sports and venues – basketball, ice hockey, soccer and more. To date, there are over 20 SmartSchools across the country at the prep school level alone.
In 2018, PlaySight added new strategic investors, including SoftBank Group's Asia Ventures investment arm, CE Ventures, and Naver Corporation, an Internet content service company headquartered in Seongnam, South Korea that operates the Korean search engine Naver. "PlaySight’s vision is to become the technology platform of choice used by the mass market of youth, amateur and professional sports," Jay Choi of SoftBank Ventures Korea said in the press release."
For us simple tennis folks it reads like a lot of investors interested in a piece of the pie but soon enough we come to realize that tennis is not at the foreground of PlaySight's business model anymore. Or, maybe it never was? Is it possible that the tennis industry was just a convenient provider of cash flow while the company was planning a broadcasting and streaming solution for other sports all along? Or did the planners in Israel honestly think selling costly hardware to tennis clubs and colleges was the future at a time when innovation provides a slew of competitors that are sometimes better and often faster to market?
New systems coming to the market include Zennitz, a Finnish product consisting of 30 sound sensors and 3 video cameras. Swiss company Photon Focus is selling 2D and 3D camera systems for tennis courts. The ITF lists all "approved" PAT products (Player Analysis Technology) here. A number of smaller companies have recently emerged with inexpensive line-calling cameras, chomping at the bits to pry the tennis market wide open.
Another newcomer in the market is the German company simi reality motion systems. and their "markerless motion capture" process. They partnered with Microsoft featuring Coco Gauff on their website writing, "It uses eight high-speed cameras to determine the silhouette of Coco’s body, carefully measuring her motion—from the way her hips rotate to the exact angle of her racquet during a swing. That produces millions of data points that are processed on Microsoft Azure, enabling Coco’s coaches to discover insights that would be nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye."
Remember the 2016 ad that promises clubs to "generate additional revenue?" Well, it really didn't happen in most cases, as we're told. (Click on the ad below)
Did U.S. tennis clubs finance PlaySight's expansion
into non-tennis markets?
2016 PlaySight ad we found on Vimeo
What triggered our critical look into PlaySight? Well, first and foremost, I often heard negative remarks whenever I talked to owners of the systems. By digging a little and seeing who is involved and what type of investors are attracted to the company, we decided to do the survey.
Our survey was neither scientific nor did it produce a big sample size with 96 returns. However, we were able to extract a lot of insight. From the 12 facilities that had PalySight installed, we learned
3 facilities had 1 unit installed
3 had 2 units installed
2 had 3 units installed
2 had 4 units installed
1 had 6 units installed
1 had 10 units installed
Facility with 8 courts and 2 PlaySight installed:
Paid: Way too much
Pro acceptance: Saw it as a gimmick
Members acceptance: Virtually no interest
Usage in that facility: Never
Good investment: Not at all
Comment: It is a fad item. Did not do as promised. The hidden costs are significant ... upgraded internet, etc. Also, installation did not include wiring, etc ... I had to pay for all that to prep for PS to put up cameras. Privacy issues are also a big problem and rendered our system unusable at times. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but we are preparing to take it all out.
Two facilities had gotten rid of their PlaySights after about 2 years. When it comes to the question of how PlaySight was or is being used at the 12 facilities, their answers were:
6 facilities: Sometimes
4 facilities: Rarely
2 facilities: Never
In other words, none of the facilities see (or saw) their PlaySight being used often or all the time, even those who indicated they were happy with the investment. Now that is an interesting observation, isn't it?
Facility with 13 courts, had 1 PlaySight installed:
Paid: $15,000 upfront, $300+ per month
Pro acceptance: Surface level engagement here and there
Members acceptance: Very few wanted to pay for it
Usage in that facility: Rarely
Good investment: Not at all
Comment: It was not a good investment. I also felt Playsight’s customer service was lacking. They promised several tech upgrades that ended up taking well over a year to come out when they said it would be a month or two. When we brought up issues with usage, inaccurate functioning, and other concerns, they blew us off. We were one of the first 10 private clubs in the US to purchase PlaySight, but they were arrogant to work with.
Asked whether the purchase of PlaySight was a good investment, we received these replies:
1 facility: Very good
5 facilities: It's OK
6 facilities: Not good at all
Facility with 18 courts, 4 PlaySight installed:
Paid: Not sure
Pro acceptance: Pros love it
Members acceptance: Younger members are very impressed and intrigued. We play mostly doubles at the club the doubles drills are fantastic but there is only video for doubles, no stats.
Usage in that facility: Sometimes
Good investment: Very good
Comment: We are breaking through to members and we have great events with the system.
Another interesting outcome of our survey is how much facilities paid for their PlaySight equipment. The numbers were all over the place:
4 units: Pay per use
1 unit: $15,000/$300+ per month
1 unit: $12,500/$750 per month
1 unit: ?/$800
6 units: $30,000/$2,000 per month
3 units: $50,000/$325 per month (maybe per unit?)
2 units: $25,000/?
2 units: Way too much
Facility with 15 courts, 4 PlaySight installed:
Paid: Pay per use
Pro acceptance: The tech is a bit shaky. Doesn't work all the time, so frustrating.
Members acceptance: Competitive players and coaches appreciate its functions. Regular club players do not.
Usage in that facility: Sometimes
Good investment: It's OK
Comment: If it worked well 100 percent of the time, it would be a great investment. Lots of pay to play potential. But we're not there yet.
OTHER PLAYSIGHT INSTALLATIONS NOT CAPTURED BY OUR SURVEY
The question is, was that survey representative for PlaySight installations in the U.S.A.? We weren't quite sure, so we made some calls to known PlaySight clients. Here's what we found out.
Malibu Racquet Club, Malibu, California: Had one unit. It's gone.
The Paseo Club, Valencia, California: Had two units. They're gone.
Stanford University, Stanford, California: Have one unit. Not in use.
Bay Club, San Francisco Bay area, California: Had 12 units in 5 clubs: They're all gone.
The Bay Club Company
Headquartered in San Francisco, The Bay Club Company operates 9 clubs between Portland, Oregon, and San Diego.
Larry Krieger, former VP of Racquet Sports: "I was intrigued by the concept. We started out with 1 unit at the San Francisco Tennis Club and added more over time. We ended up with 12 PlaySights. The support was a little sketchy. Our pros tried it out but our members didn't want to use the systems. As far as I know, they are all gone by now.
Gordon Collins, Director of Tennis Operations, The Bay Club Company: "The concept was good but we bought too early. Our biggest challenge: doubles analytics. It was promised for 4 years but they couldn't get it done. We paid about $400-500 per unit per month. Eventually, we had to dismantle them all. They're all gone."
But there are happy PlaySight users, of course. One Tennis Director of a Los Angeles area country club wrote, "We are happy with PlaySight. We have 6 cameras that allow us to videotape matches. Members like to be able to use as well as the pros. We have 6 courts with PlaySight cameras but no analytics kiosks."
Alan Schwartz, Founder & Chairman, Midtown Athletic Clubs
"We are using our PlaySight SmartCourts…..particularly the younger pros. They are happy to be able to use this technology to augment their teaching skills.
The older pros are generally more reluctant to use new technology and therefore are using it less frequently.
Many members are excited to actually see on the screen what they have been doing right or wrong and focus in accordingly."
USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida
Chris Widmaier - Managing Director Corporate Communications for the USTA wrote to us:
"Overall, I think we are very happy with the system. The USTA National Campus has 84 PS live-streaming courts and 26 PlaySight Smart-courts.
Tim Cass, General Manager of the USTA National Campus: “Having 84 courts with live streaming has been an incredible asset to share with the 1000’s of tournament and collegiate matches played annually at the Campus. We use the PlaySight system to highlight youth, adaptive, collegiate, adult, and professional tennis.”
Casey Clagget, Director, Training Center Operations: “Live Streaming and recording of practice for Player Development have proven to be an invaluable tool especially during a pandemic. PlaySight allows us to send video to coaches and players throughout the country which has opened up coaching opportunities like never before.”
REACHING OUT TO PLAYSIGHT
Unfortunately, the two top PlaySight Executives we approached, decided not to reply. Think of it whatever you want, it's nowadays very common that emails to Executives in any company remain unanswered. On the other hand, a club owner friend of mine (and PlaySight client) sarcastically mentioned it is totally possible that Yair Assaf, Head of Tennis at Playsight Interactive Ltd. in Israel, is out of a job already because of a lack of tennis business for the company. Who knows?
On the other hand, George Mackin, tennis dealmaker par excellence, the man behind some of the biggest transactions in tennis in the last 20 years, may be scrambling to keep the investors in check. Like everything else George Mackin is involved in, his PlaySight activities are shrouded in darkness. How else do you want to explain the fact that his involvement with PlaySight is hardly visible at all online? Some call him the real CEO of the US-operation. The things we know so far:
Mackin was Managing Partner of the Tennis Media Company and partnered with PlaySight in 2015. When the Tennis Media Company was sold to Sinclair Broad Broadcasting in Mackin's master deal together with tennis.com, Tennis magazine, and Tennis Channel, his position became invisible to the outside.
PlaySight Interactive USA Inc. is headquartered in New Jersey although people tell me the real HQ is at Mackin's office in Los Angeles.
Dun & Bradstreet lists the PlaySight Interactive USA Inc. annual revenue at $1.03 million with a staff of 9 employees.
CNN reported that PlaySight Interactive USA Inc. was approved for a PPP loan of $150,000-350,000, based on a staff of 15 employees.
Mr. Mackin has not replied to our request for information.
I was able to speak with two other PlaySight employees, though. Josh Graves is (was) Head of the Racquet Sports Division, based in Chicago. He assured me that tennis sales are as busy as they can be amid a Pandemic. The focus right now is not the installation of SmartCourts, though, it's more the live streaming of events and matches in colleges and high schools. However, before I could thank Josh for talking with me, I heard he's gone. Quit his job to pursue his MBA at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Hmm. All the best to him. His job is not listed on the PlaySight Career page. Maybe they won't replace him?
Then I spoke with Jeff Angus, PlaySight USA's Chief Marketing Officer. Jeff was previously working out of a Los Angeles office but has recently moved back to his homeland Canada. He works out of Vancouver.
Jeff sounded quite upbeat despite the challenges his company experienced during COVID but both live streaming and remote video production benefited from the Pandemic.
He indicated that tennis clubs were probably the wrong market for PlaySight, to begin with, but the bigger targets are colleges now and said the company is "well-positioned with team and technology." It got a little confusing listening to him talking about live streaming, SmartCourt Go, Exo Tennis, Liveview Wifi, and Sport Radar. Not sure how this all somehow fit into the Tennis Channel's operation, but that's what he tried to outline.
Oh, yes, Jeff also explained that George Mackin is the Chairman of PlaySight Interactive USA Inc. Woohoo, now we know. Jeff also sent me an email with a lot of links. Since it didn't say it was privileged information, I'll just post it here:
As mentioned on the call, the past few years have been more of a gradual shift to focus on college, high performance, and pro-level broadcast production. We haven’t abandoned or moved away from the club market… just evolved as a company.
In fact, we had a recent webinar with two club partners of ours – Grand Rapids (MI) and Five Star (IL) talking about their success with PlaySight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjZk3zuwD2U
With regards to our conversation, here are some videos and other attachments to help you with your story:
Exo-Tennis – here’s an article about our work supporting the return of live pro tennis: https://www.sporttechie.com/playsight-is-powering-the-exo-tennis-series-broadcast
A full match video in HD (featuring Dustin Brown), broadcast globally on the PlaySight Sports Network from a GO system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLzw7hpHe2c
We even got onto ESPN’s Top 10… pretty cool exposure for PS and for tennis – this was in early May: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oCUqXnEtrU
GO tennis technology overview (short vid showing how it works): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVnnxv1QKo8
An overview of Darren and Simona using a GO for remote coaching and high-performance training: https://www.tennisworldusa.org/tennis/news/Tennis_Stories/87454/simona-halep-is-supervised-by-cahill-directly-from-australia-with-top-technology/
College tennis – in addition to PlayFair’s successful entry into the ITA rulebook, we’re now working with close to 100 programs. Here’s a release from our newest partner: https://goblueraiders.com/news/2020/7/10/mens-tennis-adams-tennis-complex-installs-playsight.aspx
Looks like Jeff is busy marketing PlaySight. Good for him!
Coco Gauff with Micosoft/simi technology
It looks like there is only one market where PlaySight may be slowly fading from: The U.S. tennis club market. It seems to me that the low-hanging fruit from 2015 turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for the guys in Israel. Why? Because what we have learned from our survey and the phone calls looks like it is only the tip of the iceberg. It appears the company miscalculated how tennis pros and club members would embrace the technology.
I'm sure the reason for that miscalculation wasn't what one tennis director described as the "women don't want to see themselves playing tennis on camera" syndrome. (Although, if I remember right, women spend more than 60% of all dollars in our industry.)
I'm also sure the debacle around the Greg Norman/David Chessler/Verizon-cooked-up shared revenue deal, which was reportedly backed by the Chairman, and resulted in the fruitless hiring of 10 salespeople, wasn't helping the bottom line, either. I have more horror stories on file but promised not to post them here since the club owners don't want their names mentioned.
I see value in purchasing a PlaySight system for the college market (experiencing exponential growth) and maybe for high-performance junior academies. The right age group seems to be key. Jeff Angus mentioned that 90-100 NCAA programs are using PlaySight. That's a good sign.
And then there is the live streaming and broadcasting market. The company must be thinking it can persuade big broadcasters like NBC, ESPN, Fox, to hire PlaySight and use the GO solution to provide them with a live streaming feed of sporting events. I have my doubts here qualitywise. I'm also lucky to count a high broadcast network executive as my friend. Her comment: "That's a mighty big long shot. They are all bound in multi-year, multi-million dollar agreements. And during COVID for no-audience events, they just send a smaller crew." There you have it, folks. I hope PlaySight is not betting on the wrong horse. Again.