If you are a New Zealander, sports fan or not, chances are you’ve got a few laughs out of slipping “Boomfa” or “Me oh my I have enjoyed that yes boy” into an Instagram caption or general sentence. While personally not the biggest of sports fans, I do enjoy hearing the occasional Scotty ‘Sumo’ Stevenson spiel on Radio Hauraki or observing the latest Justin Marshall comment being parroted by impressionable young New Zealander’s everywhere. The key takeaway here is that while Scotty and Justin provide quality commentary, sometimes we just want to hear someone that isn’t a stereotypical white, 50-year-old male sports commentator who’s come out of a 30-year cricket career.
Of course, when I say “we”, I’m referring to actual genuine sports fans, but given an easily accessible option of listening to whichever commentator I fancy while being forced to watch a rugby game with my boyfriend’s flat, there is definitely potential for me to become an authentic, avid sports follower. Fortunately for me (I think), 2 entrepreneurial young kiwis have the Answer. I sat down with Ben, Co-founder of online sports commentary platform, Spalk, to have a chat about the future of Justin Marshall's sports commentary career.
Natalie: What is Spalk and how does it work?
Ben: Spalk powers sports commentary for some of the world's leading sporting properties. What this means is our software lets TV networks and sports leagues source their own variety of commentators to provide customisable commentary that can target different language and demographic groups. For example, FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) use Spalk to provide 5 - 10 different language commentaries to their fans on all of their basketball tournaments around the world.
There are around three and half thousand commentators through Spalk that range from Guy Williams through to professional cricket commentators in Bangladesh. Before Spalk, the only way to get such a variety of commentators was to fly all of the commentators around the world to every event.
Natalie: Where did the inspiration for Spalk come from?
Ben: Spalk was started by Myself and good friend Michael, who were tired of regular TV commentators. We downloaded an audio streaming tool and started doing our own commentary on live sports events like the All Blacks and Black Caps. We soon had thousands of people who would mute their TV and listen to us instead. The recurring complaint was that viewers were never able to synchronise their audio to the live game video on TV and thus Spalk was built to solve this synchronisation problem.
Natalie: What is Spalk’s point of difference in the sports commentary industry?
Ben: If you have ever watched live sports on TV, you'll know it's a one-size-fits-all product. Typically commentators are men, in their 40's or 50's, wearing a suit and tie. That works really well for some demographics but simply doesn't work for demographics like younger women or migrants who may not understand the sport as well. Broadcasters and sports leagues use Spalk to offer multiple commentary options to their fans so that they are able to grow the number of people that their content appeals to.
Natalie: How have you grown Spalk’s presence in the market?
Ben: So for us to grow the business it has been about taking sensible and manageable steps to build case studies in international markets. Every customer we bring on board is a great case study to bring the next customer on board. We learn from them and how to cater to similar organizations. Maori Television was our first ever customer in New Zealand, we were able to use their case study as a stepping stone to get into the Australian market, then use our experience in Australia to help us break into Singapore, and now we are using the case studies from New Zealand, Australia and Singapore to help us get into the US.
Natalie: What are the biggest challenges in the industry you’ve had to overcome?
Ben: One of the biggest challenges for us was maintaining focus, our technology is very customizable and we had a lot of interest from different people, not just in sports. We were getting inquiries from movie studios wanting to use our technology for doing film translations and governments wanting to use our tech for broadcasting multilingual government proceedings, but we definitely had to be conscious not to stretch ourselves too thin and not try to be everything for everyone. We are focused on seeing how far we can go and how well we can do with a focus on sports first before venturing down other avenues.
Natalie: How have you found being a start-up in New Zealand in trying to take your start-up global?
Ben: New Zealand is a great place to start a business as it is really easy to get to the key decision makers at all of the biggest broadcasters and sports leagues. There really is 2 degrees of separation in New Zealand and you find that in your immediate network, you know someone who knows the person you want to talk to. As a start-up in NZ, it's easy to get those first conversations going, it's all about leveraging those relationships at the start.
However, on the flip side of that, New Zealand is a really bad place to scale a business from because you're so far away from other countries you're trying to do business with and the time zone isn't that friendly. You find that you need spend all your time on a plane or on the phone at ungodly times of the morning. Most NZ start-ups trying to go global will struggle with adapting their product to international markets or not having enough traction to raise money overseas so they miss out on that growth territory. For Spalk, we were focused on the international market from day one and having those international customers are worth their weight in gold.
Natalie: What’s next for Spalk without giving away all your secrets?
Ben: We are really focused on the biggest sports market in the world - the USA! Leveraging the case studies we have from broadcasters in New Zealand, Australia & SE Asia, we are very focused on growth in America. This is being driven by collegiate sports and we have actually just opened an office in Ann Arbor, Michigan to support this growth.
Spalk will offer a lot in this market as there is a lot of interest in student broadcasters. There is opportunity for home team and away team opinions as Spalk will allow audiences to tune into commentators of their preference dependant on whether they are a home team supporters or away team supporters.
Natalie: If you had to give one piece of advice to an up and coming entrepreneur, what would it be?
Ben: "The Team, The Team, The Team" - Bo Schembechler (Michigan Football Coach 1969 - 1989). You can't build a business by yourself and so figuring out quickly how to recruit and retain top talent is pivotal to whether your business is going to succeed.
Seeing two young New Zealanders come up with an idea that is providing value in big revenue, global markets, should strike inspiration in the heart of every Kiwi. Besides changing the culture and uniformity of sports commentary that has been unimaginative and monotonous, pretty much since its invention, Ben and Michael have shown how anyone with an idea and a dream, can create a successful business.