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This article was published 2/3/2018 (628 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Since mid-January, as Jets ticket-holders settle into their seats at Bell MTS Place in the midst of the growing excitement that Winnipeg is one of the top teams in the NHL, fans are being prompted early in the game to open the Jets NHL app on their mobile devices to "check in to win."
On the app, they are directed to log in with their seat number, which enters them into a draw to win a game-day prize.
That live, interactive engagement is part of a suite of game-day "activation" experiences via fans’ smartphones that is the result of about seven years of development by Winnipeg-based Fannex.
Fans of the Manitoba Moose might be more familiar with the experience: in-game trivia and shell games — from their smartphone — have been a feature at Moose games for a couple of seasons now.
After helping Fannex test the product for several years, True North Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Winnipeg hockey teams and Bell MTS Place, has now become an equity partner in the Winnipeg company founded by Kemal Leslie.
It’s now ready to start pitching products to 800-plus sports teams across North America.
Sports teams are always looking for new ways to engage and entertain fans at their venues. Fannex has a growing portfolio of games and interactions it is rolling out to about a dozen customers that, in addition to the Jets and the Moose, include the Calgary Flames, the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks of the NCAA, the Belleville Senators of the AHL and the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.
"As you look through the bowl during the game, people have their devices out and they are interacting," said John Olfert, True North’s chief operating officer. "We would like them to interact with the game and see our content and engage in our activations. Fannex is a tool that will help us leverage further fan engagement."
Fannex has pilot programs in place with a number of other teams and Leslie said it’s poised to double its customer base in the next three to four months. Over the next 24 months, the goal is to have more than 100 sports teams in North America using Fannex for live interactions in their arenas and stadiums.
In addition to the entertainment value, the teams get to collect data about fan preferences as well as provide a whole other basket of inventory for sponsorship and promotion for their corporate sponsors.
"At first, it was a cold call," Olfert said of the initial exposure to Fannex. "In the subsequent years, we’ve been like an incubator, providing a lab where they have tested the product."
In fact, when Leslie first showed Olfert the product, it was based around the concept of turning fans’ smartphones into integrated pixels displaying graphical effects and animations called "Light up the Stands."
"We quickly realized that was not going to be a business, and so, we pivoted to the interactive engagements," said Leslie, who quit his job with GE Capital six years ago and has bootstrapped the company since.
When he got the chance to see the behind-the-scenes realities of game-day audio-visual production at Bell MTS Place, Leslie and True North started to realize the potential of allowing game-day producers to interact with mobile devices in the crowd, integrating that with the centre-hung scoreboard and power-ring.
"Through the sheer effort from Kemal, they got to the point now where they have a product, customers and revenue, and we saw that what they were developing was scalable and accordingly needed some capital," Olfert said. "Together, with a number of existing and new partners, True North came in as an equity investor. I won’t speak to the percentage of ownership, but collectively, it was a multimillion-dollar investment."
Among those other investors are Marc Caron and other senior executives from Winnipeg-based IC Group, as well as the company itself, which is a global leader in loyalty programs and promotions, as well as Twitter promotions, and has been the go-to shop for Fortune 100 companies such as Microsoft and Wendy’s. It has used its chat-bot technologies, for instance, to process tens of millions of Tweets.
"This is right up our sweet spot," Caron said in an email exchange from London, England. "There are quite likely others that are testing the waters in this space; however, we have not found significant challengers. Fannex, through its experience executing hundreds of live engagements, has developed a unique and powerful business model, which is difficult for others to repeat quickly."
Fannex’s technology can be embedded in existing team apps and is designed for teams to insert their own sponsor images easily in all sorts of configurations. The company will also create an app from scratch, if a team needs that, and it will provide whatever backup support a team requires.
Leslie would not discuss the annualized subscription fees (Fannex can also provide services for one-off events), but all concerned seem comfortable with the monetization strategy.
In the past few months, the company has been ramping up staffing as it seriously starts to hit the market.
Marshall Ring, CEO of Manitoba Technology Accelerator, who has been helping Leslie since the beginning, said the product is now battle tested, having already run at more than 700 live events, and systems are in place to install however many new customers it can land.
"Now, to have a brand like True North Sports & Entertainment on board, an organization that is as professional and well-run as that, is going to speak volumes when they go out to look to onboard other teams," he said. "That’s really going to help."
As for True North Sports & Entertainment investing in the tech space, Olfert said it’s just part of the organization’s entrepreneurial approach.
"When we started, we were in the AHL. Then, we moved to the NHL. Then, we added the Burton Cummings Theatre, the MTS Iceplex. Then, True North Square... lots of things that are not traditional," Olfert said. "It is a vertical integration. It’s part of growing the team."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.