Want to take a sport to new markets? Speak their language
There’s a trophy cabinet in Spalk’s Auckland office that’s stuffed with an obscure selection of sports paraphernalia. A Rugby World Cup match ball, an NHL hockey puck, a FIBA U17 basketball and, curiously, a model of a great white shark.
Each item represents a stepping stone in growth of Spalk, as it’s delivered sport to new fans around the world. To Ben Reynolds, CEO and co-founder, the cabinet is a reminder of how far the platform has come – from a sofa in his New Zealand graduate house to going global and helping the biggest sports franchises produce remote commentary localised to audiences, no matter where they are.
The business is a powerful mix of tech and talent. The former best represented by its Virtual Commentary Studio, a cloud tool that enables broadcast quality sports commentary to be created and distributed from anywhere with an internet connection – without the traditional overheads.
“Give us a video feed from a stadium, and we can produce it with broadcast quality, custom commentary and graphics for any international audience, without the expense of flying people and hardware to a studio to a stadium,” says Ben. “All while massively reducing costs.”
The latter is a marketplace of commentators spanning a vast array of sports, languages, dialects and regions. Today Spalk boasts more than 2,500 commentators across some 50 countries, covering in excess of 30 sports.
“So if you want a Vietnamese basketball commentator to call your game, we know seven of the best in Vietnam,” says Ben. “You want an Argentinian accented rugby commentator? We've got several of those that we can licence to commentate your event.”
In 2021 alone, Spalk enabled 7,000 broadcasts with 17,000 commentaries in 28 languages. This potential for localisation has made commercial partners and customers take note. Spalk counts the biggest names in broadcast and production in their client book – from World Rugby, World Volleyball and the NHL to TATA Communications and Eurovision.
From NZ to NYC
The seed of Spalk was sown in Auckland, NZ, over more than a few beers on the couch of a recently-graduated Ben Reynolds. On any given night, the sports-obsessed twenty-something and his buddy Michael Prendergast (now CTO and co-founder), could be found crowded around a laptop with a crate of cold ones, making up their own commentary to that night’s game – no matter what was on.
“We'd broadcast our audio on Facebook Live and YouTube Live and a bunch of podcasting platforms, encouraging people to mute their TV and tune into our commentary instead,” recalls Ben. “We had special guests coming on the show – girlfriends of All Blacks, all sorts of random people – and what was really apparent was that there was demand for, and an interest in, alternate commentaries.”
Thousands would tune in for their irreverent chatter, and though they were beginning to believe that the idea of “crowdsourced commentary” might have legs, it wasn’t paying the bills. At the time Ben was an associate at a VC fund and Michael worked as a computer engineer at a local consulting agency. The issue was that while significant audiences could be generated through alternate commentary, the lack of accountability and brand control made landing big commercial deals tricky.
“But just as we started to think about how to work with the broadcasters and sports leagues, we had interest from a local network in New Zealand called Māori Television. They were really the guiding force in us building the business case of working direct with broadcasters.”
In 2016 Māori Television approached Ben and Michael to supply multilingual commentary for basketball in New Zealand. Through the work with Māori Television, the pair discovered major inefficiencies in the way commentary and the related graphics in sports production were traditionally managed. A new business opportunity had emerged.
“Before, it was predicated on in-person, expensive hardware and labour intensive workflows,” says Ben. “Our belief was – and still is – that you can use the power of cloud services to replicate and improve on the quality of on-site production through remote virtual tools. What Spalk is selling to hundreds of sports customers around the world is the idea of content localisation.”
They began to build the solution – one line of code after another.
You’re gonna need a bigger base
By late 2016 it was clear that the business case was there. They also had a solid tech platform in an early edition of the Virtual Commentary Studio. The next step was to scale.
“We had a team of five in New Zealand but needed to get out of our time zone and into the market with the customers we wanted to sell to and the investors we wanted to talk to,” says Ben.
One of the most important early connections for the team was made in March 2017 at a pitch event in Miami called The Shark Tank, named after the prolific entrepreneur, VC and golf pro, Greg Norman. He was impressed, and while Spalk was still too immature for him to invest, the consensus was to stay in touch.
2018 would become a key year. Ben and Michael would see ‘The Shark’ again in spring, when Spalk entered the Stadia Ventures accelerator. At around the same time, FIBA, the world governing body for basketball, partnered with the fledgling business to bring its 2018 Men's U17 World Championships to 5 million viewers across 56 games, in five languages and with a staggering 93 commentators.
“You have to use that first major customer to get the snowball rolling,” says Ben. “And we were really lucky that FIBA saw what we were doing very early on and picked us up. Because then we were in Geneva and suddenly the other Olympic Federations were saying, ‘Oh, we respect what FIBA does, we'll take a look at a look at that.’”
They liked what they saw. Today, Spalk works with 15 Olympic federations.
Next came a seed round in which the Greg Norman Company led $1.5 million of investment, alongside Stadia Ventures, Ice Angels, Sparkbox Ventures and others. “Suddenly you've snowballed from a local broadcaster in New Zealand, to the NFL and the top properties in the world.”
Spalk not Skype
The business continued to grow and word of mouth recommendations meant Spalk was never short of new clients. Then came the pandemic. In the short term, the lack of live sport was worrying, but over time the rolling lockdowns and travel restrictions only proved to underline Spalk’s USPs.
“Covid was definitely a net positive for us, from a purely business perspective,” says Ben. “During Covid we saw everybody moving to Zoom workflows, or Skype workflows, and trying to hack together things that sort of worked, but really delivered a poor quality broadcast experience. Even some Premier League clubs were using Zoom to do remote commentary on events.”
The problem with such a set-up is reliability. If somebody's internet drops out, you lose the signal. Suddenly there’s no audio or video going in, none going out. Spalk, on the other hand, has built a “bonded connection”, which connects producers and commentators via multiple internet connectivity points – generally 4G, WiFi and Ethernet. If the local network drops, or there's a problem with the electricity, the audio or visual feed is still delivered via 4G.
“That means that we can deliver a seamless remote experience without the single point of failure,” says Ben. “We've been really focused on turning remote production into something that is not only less risky than traditional means, but also opens up more opportunities to help broadcasters to use their content.”
Remote production also opens up the potential for significant cost-saving. Flying production teams around the world, putting them up in hotels, hiring tech rigs locally – or transporting owned broadcast kit – takes a massive toll on budgets, time and the environment.
Local and live – in your language
In the midst of the Covid pandemic, in April 2021, Spalk helped localise Canada’s national sport for a new audience – the country’s immigrant population, which is the eighth largest in the world.
Spalk worked with Canadian broadcaster Rogers Sports & Media and Molson Canadian beer to bring ‘Hockey Night in Canada’, a show with a sixty-plus-year history, to Canada’s multicultural population. On April 24, two games (between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, and Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks) were streamed in Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi, Vietnamese, Tagalog, German and Arabic – in addition to the usual English, French and Punjabi broadcasts.
More than 1.1 million people tuned in. And the event generated almost 80m social media impressions.
In July 2021, Spalk announced that it’d completed a $3 million Series A investment round, once again led by Greg Norman. Meanwhile the team had been steadily growing its talent marketplace. This meant that partners looking to break into Central or South America could source Peruvian, Mexican or Colombian commentators, ensuring that the right slang and dialect would be broadcast with their local feeds.
“We've had other things before about Taiwanese Mandarin, very different from mainland China Mandarin. Not only have you got cultural differences there, but you've also got political differences,” says Ben. “So, there's certainly different aspects that we want our broadcasters to understand when they're thinking about their audiences. And we found the marketplaces a great way to give them access to that talent in an affordable and efficient way.”
Onto the next season
Spalk has tripled in size every year for the last three, with revenues forecasted at $5 million for 2022. But Ben is eager to emphasise the restrained approach to scaling – particularly in terms of fundraising and recruitment. Both he and Michael were careful not to get caught out by volatility in the market or an over-inflated valuation.
“We're being very deliberate about only hiring people when we need them. And making sure that we can continue servicing our customers to the high standards they need,” he says.
So what’s next? “For us, it's all about growth, growth, growth,” says Ben. “We’re not dependent on investor capital anymore. We're profitable, so we're not looking at raising more capital. For us, it's about continuing to grow sensibly – making sure that we’re staying ahead of the curve in terms of remote production and content localisation.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to help sports leagues grow their audience through multilingual commentary. In turn, this opens up commercial and cost saving opportunities for broadcasters and sports leagues. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”