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Minneapolis-St. PaulBy Alison J. Stein

The Twin Cities have long been a great place for pro sports. Now, thanks to passionate fans and a culture of innovation, the region has become a leader in the booming field of sports technology.

  • Mystic Lake's Club Purple, which caters to fantasy sports fans. Photo by Tiffany Daniels/Mortenson Construction. Courtesy of SMG/U.S.Bank Stadium
  • A Vikings fan shows hometown pride during a game versus the Arizona Cardinals in November 2016. Photo by Rich Gabrielson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • An intern in the Minnesota High Tech Association’s SciTechsperience program at Ativa Medical in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Minnesota High Tech Association

Last summer, the Minnesota Vikings opened the massive, 95-foot-high doors to their highly anticipated new stadium and welcomed football fans on game day for the first time. With a price tag exceeding $1 billion, U.S. Bank Stadium’s soaring, angular glass architecture and super-close-to-the-action seating secured the venue headlines—as well as gigs hosting the 2018 Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in 2019.

Although it didn’t attract as much attention, there’s one feature of the new stadium that may be the biggest symbol of the city’s future fortunes: 33 purple leather couches, located in the stadium’s Mystic Lake’s Club Purple, set up specifically to cater to the needs of fantasy sports fans.

Fantasy sports—in which fans assemble imaginary teams of athletes and earn points based on those athletes’ actual performances on game day—have boomed in popularity in recent years. The number of fantasy sports participants in North America has more than doubled since 2009, reaching 57.4 million in 2016, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. These participants don’t just follow their favorite teams—they’re interested in every team from which they have an athlete on their imaginary roster. As a result, they are voracious consumers of sports information, sports data and related technology. But their obsession also makes them reluctant to leave the comfort of their own homes, where they can more easily juggle multiple stat-streaming devices.

  • Minnesota Vikings versus the Dallas Cowboys at the U.S. Bank Stadium in December 2016. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
  • The SportsEngine offices are conducive to collaboration. Photo courtesy of SportsEngine, Inc.
  • An example of the content available with Sportradar. Photo courtesy of Sportradar

To lure these avid fans back to the stadium, teams across the NFL are offering amenities to reproduce and then surpass the home-watching experience. And so the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium is entirely equipped with fast WiFi, while the aforementioned fantasy sports lounge provides an app-loaded tablet at each comfy couch and is practically wallpapered with screens and displays “pushing fantasy content to the left, right and behind you,” says John Penhollow, vice president of corporate and technology partnerships at the Vikings. In total there are 2,000 screens in the stadium. In Club Purple, in addition to an excellent view of the field, he says, “anyone sitting on those couches can see stats nonstop.” And anyone who gets up from the couches and walks over to Club Purple’s outdoor party deck will get a magnificent views of the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul—where a growing number of companies are working to create the technology that fuels modern sports—both the fantasy and the traditional real-life variety. Quietly, slowly, the Twin Cities have become a hotbed for sports technology innovation. For instance, the stats broadcast on all those screens in the U.S. Bank Stadium—and indeed anywhere the NFL is broadcast—are crunched just a few blocks away at Sportradar, the exclusive data provider for the NFL, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. Sportradar was founded as SportsData in Minneapolis in 2010, and though it’s since been acquired by a Swiss firm, the company plans to stay right where it is. In its commitment to its hometown, Sportradar is not alone. Its sports-tech compatriots include companies like SportsEngine, SportsHub Technologies, LeagueSafe, Bleachr, to name just a few. The presence of businesses like these, and the workforce and research that sustain them, are reasons why the Milken Institute moved Minnesota into its top category for state science and tech hubs in 2016, joining California and Massachusetts, and why Minneapolis ranks in the top 15 out of 50 American cities for its strength at drawing tech talent, according to a 2016 study by real estate firm CBRE.

“Minneapolis has become this weird haven for fantasy sports employers and operators,” says Minneapolis-based Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Putting it in slightly different terms, “Sports tech has become a significant differentiator for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region,” says Peter Frosch, vice president of strategic partnerships at Greater MSP, the local economic development organization. While Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t about to topple the nation’s well-established coastal tech capitals, it’s definitely a force to be reckoned with when it comes to sports tech. “We’re seeing a pretty rapid clustering of sports-tech companies, and an ecosystem developing to support and nurture sports-tech startups,” Frosch says.

Why Minneapolis? For one thing, there’s an intense degree of sports involvement here. “We’re unique in that we have every level of sports organization at our fingertips—besides all the pro sports, we also have college sports, great athletic departments in high schools and youth organizations,” says Carson Kipfer, cofounder of SportsEngine, which provides tech tools to help manage sports teams, from amateur to pro, and was recently acquired by NBC Sports Group. Minneapolis is one of the smallest cities in the nation to have a home team for every major league sport, and finance website WalletHub ranked it 10th among 244 cities for its passionate football fans. “People here have a deep history in the world of sports themselves,” says Kipfer, speaking of sports-tech entrepreneurs. “They’re creating solutions that speak directly to their own needs.”

  • MHTA CEO Margaret Anderson Kelliher during the 2015 Tekne awards, which honors local innovation in science and technology. Photo courtesy of Minnesota High Tech Association
  • Seagate Technology engineers meet with high school students interested in STEM careers as part of an MHTA initiative. Photo courtesy of Minnesota High Tech Association

They’re also likely to have the skills to do so. The city and state have a long history in technology, particularly relating to healthcare, going back to the Mayo Clinic’s founding in 1889. Inventions such as the hearing aid and the battery-powered pacemaker came out of Minneapolis, and the city is home to powerhouses Medtronic and UnitedHealthcare, among other large data-driven companies. These major magnets attract science and technology research, talent and investment—health-related tech accounts for the largest share of venture capital investments in the region over the past decade, says Margaret Anderson Kelliher, president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, a nonprofit that helps to develop the state’s science and tech sectors. In this way, health IT functions as sports tech’s less sexy older brother. Kelliher sees it as a natural progression of skills and expertise from medicine to sports medicine to sports technology. “No doubt this has led to concentration in the sports-tech area,” she says.

To inherent interest and a skilled workforce, mix in a hearty dose of “Minnesota nice,” a widespread reputation for being helpful and supportive that extends to the business community. In focus groups conducted by Greater MSP in 2016, local tech workers reported that in contrast to other cities, colleagues were more willing to offer support and share best practices without expecting anything in return, says Frosch. “We don’t have the kind of bare-knuckled individualism that other markets might have.”

This attitude has coalesced in tangible form in the Pitch, a new incubator and coworking space for sports-tech businesses designed to formalize what had been an ad-hoc arrangement in the Twin Cities. The Pitch is housed on the third floor of SportsEngine, which cofounded the venture. Sports or lifestyle startup companies apply for membership and, if accepted, receive mentorship as well as a place to work—without giving up any equity. “We really want to make Minneapolis a sports-tech hub,” says Cody Haugen, sales manager at Sportradar, which works closely with the Pitch. “This city will support you and the companies here will support you to grow as a true partnership.” This sentiment isn’t all sweet altruism, however: Should the next sports-tech Mark Zuckerberg come out of the Pitch, they’re likely to be another important customer for Sportradar’s analytics empire, Haugen says. Which is why Frosch stresses that “Minnesota nice” is shrewder than a warm smile. “Beyond kindness, it’s productive,” he says.

  • John Penhollow, vice president of corporate and technology partnerships at the Vikings. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
  • Minneapolis winters can be brutal, with the coldest average temperatures of any city in the U.S., so companies must find ways to entice recruits with incentives. Photo by Jim Mone/AP/Rex/Shutterstock

To be sure, the future of the sports-tech industry in Minneapolis is not without its challenges. Fantasy sports, which creates much of the new demand for sports tech, is fighting a state-by-state legal battle to distinguish it from highly regulated gambling; while daily fantasy sports is legal in Minnesota, an effort to have it declared explicitly so stalled in the legislature last year. That kind of uncertainty tends to spook investors.

Separately, the state has also long offered an angel investor tax credit, an important funding source for sports-tech startups. The legislation that supports that tax credit requires new funding and will sunset on December 31, says Kelliher, a former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. “That didn’t happen last round in legislation; we’ll come back to the issue next year,” she says.

What’s more, there are more tech jobs in Minneapolis than there are people to fill them. “The Twin Cities is a great town for a lot of reasons: The lifestyle is excellent, it’s a good place for people to live—but it can be a challenge to recruit the right kind of talent we need,” says Rob Phythian, founder and CEO of SportsHub Technologies and a serial entrepreneur who cofounded the company that was acquired by Sportradar, among other sports-tech ventures. “We have to get potential recruits over the January cold hurdle,” he says. This isn’t just an abstraction—Minneapolis is the coldest major metropolitan area in the U.S., with an average winter temperature just a tick chillier than Anchorage, Alaska. “We just have to dig a little harder, entice them with bonuses and so on,” says Phythian, who compares Minneapolis in January with Phoenix in July.  But Minneapolis and St. Paul do have an advantage: a quality of life so appealing that people who move here tend to stay here.

And no matter how cold the winter, Twin Cities sports tech shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it will soon get another boost in the form of NFL-team-sized seed money. For their next large construction project, the Vikings are building a training facility in Eagan, just south of St. Paul. The plans include a tech accelerator for startup companies, in which the team might eventually invest. Only a handful of other pro sports teams—notably the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia 76ers—have tried such a project, still a relatively untested proposition.

“It’s something we’re taking a very serious look at,” says the Vikings’ Penhollow. “We’re very interested in learning more about companies that are looking for that first opportunity. They may have a great idea and may need some assistance in funding or resources or partners to develop what that idea could be.”

The details are still being hashed out, with an announcement expected within a year. “To be able to launch a company with a great idea?” Penholow says. “That would be a dream scenario.” It sounds like U.S. Bank Stadium won’t be the Vikings’ last addition to the local skyline.

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL

Greater MSP

A private nonprofit, the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership offers information for businesses relocating to the Twin Cities and coordinates workforce development and investment initiatives. 400 Robert St. N., #1600, St. Paul, Cecile Bedor, EVP, cecile.bedor@greatermsp.org, 651.287.1300, greatermsp.org

Minnesota High Tech Association

This nonprofit comprising over 300 tech companies lobbies at the state level to enhance the science and tech industry in Minnesota, and it offers a variety of business support resources. 400 S. Fourth St., #416, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, president and CEO, mak@mhta.org, 952.230.4555, mhta.org

The Pitch

This incubator and coworking space fosters interconnectedness in the growing local sports-tech industry. Its mentors are top executives from the largest U.S. sports-analytics firms. 807 Broadway St. NE, Suite 310, Teke O’Reilly, executive director, teke@the-pitch.com, 612.314.6206, the-pitch.com

The Bachelor Farmer

Exhibiting Nordic flair in its décor and a love of Minnesota’s Scandinavian tradition, this farm-to-table restaurant presents elegant yet simple dishes and a highly acclaimed wine list focused on Northern Hemisphere wines. 50 N. Second Ave., 612.206.3920, thebachelorfarmer.com

Bar La Grassa

This longtime North Loop favorite, owned by James Beard Award–winning chef Isaac Becker, serves Italian small plates and pastas—and it’s always packed. Its gnocchi with cauliflower and orange has an almost cult-like following. 800 N. Washington Ave., 612.333.3837, barlagrassa.com

Saint Genevieve

Chef Steven Brown opened this upscale French bistro in December 2015 to rave reviews. Casual in its décor but serving complex flavors—think red snapper with fiddleheads and dashi, or quail with parsnip and mushroom stuffing—this restaurant in the Lynnhurst neighborhood also offers a rare amenity for Minneapolis: It’s open until 1 a.m. 5003 Bryant Ave. S., 612.353.4843, stgmpls.com

AC Hotel Minneapolis Downtown

Marriott opened this outpost of its European design-focused brand last year in the Hennepin Cultural District. It is connected to the city’s Skyway System of covered pedestrian links between buildings, making it convenient even in the coldest time of year.401 Hennepin Ave., Tiffany Zimmer, GM, 612.338.0700, achotels.marriott.com

Hewing Hotel

This new boutique hotel in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood implements modern décor influenced by Minnesota timber and brick. Its impressive rooftop sauna and pool functions as a private club for locals who pay a yearly membership fee. 300 Washington Ave. N., Pablo Molinari, GM, 651.468.0400, hewinghotel.com

The Hotel Ivy

Set in the Ivy Tower in downtown Minneapolis, this Luxury Collection hotel was renovated in 2015. The penthouse is a popular events venue for visiting sports figures. 201 S. 11th St., Dana Orlando, GM, mod@thehotelivy.com, 612.746.4600, thehotelivy.com

Orpheum Theatre

This historic venue once owned by Minnesotan Bob Dylan and now managed by the Hennepin Theatre Trust brings a robust selection of Broadway musicals to the Twin Cities. 910 Hennepin Ave., 612.339.7007,
hennepintheatretrust.org/theatres/orpheum-theatre

U.S. Bank Stadium

Home of the Minnesota Vikings, this new stadium with a transparent roof will host next year’s Super Bowl. Before football season begins, the venue continues to attract another high-profile events, such as the X Games and concerts by U2 and Coldplay. 401 Chicago Ave., 612.777.8700, usbankstadium.com

Walker Art Center

Best known for its whimsical 11-acre sculpture garden, with the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry as its centerpiece, this visual and performing arts complex houses extensive galleries of contemporary, modern and decorative art. Its dynamic exhibits include a fascinating look at new media and moving images. 725 Vineland Place, 612.375.7600, walkerart.org

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