Focus on health key to growth for tech

By Mark J. Burns

For technology companies operating at the intersection of sports, performance and recovery, the COVID-19 global pandemic served as an accelerant for corporations’ strategic road map and further spotlighted the importance of health and wellness, leading to increased deal flow and funding growth.

“The pandemic allowed us to share the message we’ve been sharing with more people, but suddenly now more people also had their antenna up,” said Dr. Jason Wersland, founder of Los Angeles-based technology and wellness brand Therabody, which is known for its popular massage device Theragun. “They were recognizing that whether you’re healthy or not, that dictates whether or not you’re getting sick. And if that’s the message that was being presented, [COVID-19] just elevated our message.”

He explained that the pandemic allowed him and the company to have a different conversation with current and prospective partners about “the wellness of their people and the mental health of their athletes,” talks he now says would not have occurred otherwise. He specifically cited Therabody’s new sponsorship deal, announced in December, with La Liga top-flight club Real Madrid.

Portland Thorns player Crystal Dunn is among Therabody’s athlete ambassadors.

Added Will Ahmed, founder of Boston-based Whoop: “We’re now in active discussions with virtually every major sports league in the United States and internationally.” In 2021, the human performance company focused on training, sleep and recovery via a fitness tracker and inked sponsorships with CrossFit and the PGA Tour while it also extended a relationship with the LPGA Tour for this season.

Like others, Whoop also closed new funding amid COVID-19. In October, the company secured a $100 million Series E round at a $1.2 billion valuation. Therabody, which tripled its overall revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, raised an undisclosed round this February, featuring over 100 celebrities from sports and entertainment, including rapper Jay-Z, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant (Thirty Five Ventures) and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (Rx3 Growth Partners).

Jim Huether, CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based fitness technology company Hyperice, said the pandemic “created a lot of outside-the-box thinking” from pro sports teams and leagues to “figure out creative ways to generate awareness.” Starting inside last summer’s NBA bubble, Hyperice and the league collaborated to feature the Hypervolt hand-held massager built into each player’s chair courtside as part of a multiyear deal. Hyperice also has sponsorship tie-ups with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Lakers and Tottenham Hotspur, all of which were secured in the past 12 months, Huether said.

“We’re working together to continue to improve health and longevity for not only the athletes, but to extend that message to the everyday fan,” he said of Hyperice, which closed a $48 million Series A round in October at a $700 million valuation. One of the chief goals with team and league deals is “maximizing our exposure on TV through exclusive in-game, on-court integrations,” like with the NBA, also an equity owner in the enterprise.

“When you see the NBA do something, you start to see other leagues’ ears perk up and eyes open up wider and start to take a look,” noted Harpreet Singh Rai, CEO of fitness ring maker Oura, which tracks vitals such as sleep patterns, heart rate and body temperature. “That’s precisely what we saw.” In July 2020, the NBA purchased 2,000 Oura rings — they retail starting at $299 — for NBA and WNBA players, coaches and staff in order to notify someone when he or she might be getting sick. The leagues entered their respective bubbles that same month.

“COVID ended up being a way to show that we’re not just a sleep company,” added Singh Rai, saying that both leagues’ use of Oura led to other agreements with the likes of NASCAR, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, the World Surf League and Seattle Mariners, the first MLB franchise to collaborate with Oura. He estimated that more than half of this season’s NBA All-Stars have utilized their smart ring in 2021.

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