Web Summit 2018 - Day 0
5 November 2018; Angela Ruggiero, CEO and Co-Founder, Sports Innovation Lab, poses for a portrait during Corporate Innovations Summit at Academia das Ciências de Lisboa prior to the start of Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Web Summit via Sportsfile
David Fitzgerald / Web Summit / /Sportsfile

Once the Face of Ice Hockey, Olympian Angela Ruggiero (’14-’15) Takes on the Future of Sports

Bridgewater attracts a diverse group of innovative thinkers who are looking to push themselves to their limits and unlock the most complex questions facing the world. Today, four-time ice hockey Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero is uniting her passion for competitive sports with the analytical experience she gained at Bridgewater to disrupt the $500 billion sports industry as CEO of Sports Innovation Lab.

Long before Angela Ruggiero (’14-’15) joined Bridgewater Associates, it became clear that she thrives on the cutting edge. At nine years old, she was cut from an all-star hockey team for being a girl, even though she was among the best players on the ice. Her father gave her a choice. “You can quit and prove them right, or you can get on the horse and prove them wrong,” she recalls him telling her. “I chose the latter, and it was the best moment of my life.”

Ruggiero went on to become a four-time Olympian, winning a gold medal, two silvers and a bronze. She competed in ten Women’s World Championships earning silver or gold medals at each. She was named the best player in the NCAA, and in the world, by Hockey News and was the fourth woman, and only second American, to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. After retiring from hockey, Ruggiero studied disruption at Harvard Business School before interning, and later working as a Senior Management Associate for Bridgewater.

Women's Ice Hockey: United States v China - Day 3
Angela celebrates on ice after scoring at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, where the U.S. team won silver.
Harry How/Getty Images

As a former athlete, “what drew me to Bridgewater was this data driven approach to making decisions,” she says, but witnessing the concrete results of that approach in a professional context is what shaped her career. At Bridgewater, the notion that, “we can analyze individual performance, we can analyze team performance, we can get better each and every day,” fostered a culture of excellence that took the lessons she has learned on the ice and translated them for the boardroom.

Bridgewater also offered a model for women in business: co-CEO Eileen Murray. “Having a strong woman like that at the top was really key for me, because I would say that if you can see it, you can be it,” she says.

Ruggiero’s time at Bridgewater as a Senior Management Associate provided the framework that she needed to propel her into her current role. As a player, she had already pushed against gender bias and perceived limitations in ice hockey. Now as co-founder and CEO of market research at the advisory firm, Sports Innovation Lab, she’s determined to disrupt the $500 billion sports industry.

“I’ve never been someone who thought inside the box,” she quips from her office in Boston.

Founded in 2016, Sports Innovation Lab studies how technology is transforming the industry of sports and evaluates the products and services that will power its future. “Just like Bridgewater, we're data driven,” says Ruggiero. “We have a software platform that allows us to gather data driven insights, market indicators, and things that the human eye can't catch.” She cites industry analysis firms like Gartner and Forrester as models, a reference that she says clients like Google, Ticketmaster, and Oracle instantly grasp; but for clients like the NFL and the NHL, her company’s approach is a whole new ball game.

“The leagues and the teams are very old school. They've operated with a monopoly, for the most part, and traditionally aren’t even aware of what market research is,” she notes. “Now they’re realizing they're not selling sports anymore. They're selling data. They need new ways to engage.” Agencies, which are increasingly reliant on tech to support their brands, and investors interested in the broader, new-media driven market of sports, are also turning to Sports Innovation Lab for insights. “We’re sitting in the middle of that ecosystem as an objective voice,” says Ruggiero. “If we can be the trusted source for understanding the market data, and not just our analysts, that's the gold standard that I'm looking to build.”

Angela weighs in at a sports management CEO Round Table.

Ruggiero founded Sports Innovation Lab to fulfill a need that she discovered firsthand as the chief strategy officer of the LA Olympic bid. “We outsourced a lot of our thinking to help us reinvent the wheel, and I realized that the firm we hired had zero subject matter expertise in tech or in sports,” and least of which their intersection. She sees vast potential for innovation within the sports industry, where the security of live content revenue and increasing team valuations has blinded sectors from evolving to capture future consumers, a demographic that Sports Innovation Lab has dubbed the “fluid fan.”

“The sports industry has to wake up and realize that it can’t operate the same way,” says Ruggiero. “All of our habits have changed. You buy your food online now. You push a button for an Uber.” In a similar way, the fluid fan demands personalization, access, and lower price points; they also vote with their values and engage directly with celebrity athletes in real-time.

“Ten years ago, you couldn’t follow Megan Rapinoe on Twitter because there were no social platforms” she says. And yet, during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, fluid fans that wouldn’t have otherwise tuned into soccer found themselves rooting for a team that had come to symbolize equal pay for women, in part because of Rapinoe’s robust and active platform. Engaging fluid fans requires that sports industry professionals and investors, “build their venues differently, build their media strategies differently, and help their athletes in a more innovative way,” she says. “That’s where we come in as experts.”

Sports Innovation Lab currently operates with 12 full-time employees and serves roughly 45 clients. In the short term, Ruggiero and her co-founder Josh Walker are focused on accelerating investment and raising more capital, but her ultimate vision for the company is to diversify. “We could lift and shift,” she says, “take the platform and build it into other verticals.”

Until then, she’ll be tackling the sports industry, not only because it’s ripe for innovation, but because of the profound affect that sports can have on all our lives, and the lessons in tenacity and the belief in meritocracy that it taught her. Doing what it takes to win — and to make a difference — is just how Ruggiero lives her life.

“Sports, like technology, doesn’t have a language,” she says, it transcends boundaries, biases, and barriers. When Kaepernick takes a knee, Serena Williams shuts down detractors, or South Korean and North Korean women unify to compete as one national ice hockey team, there’s more at stake.

“It's not even about the sport,” says Ruggiero, “it's about what humans are capable of physically. It’s about the emotion and inspiration. It's about giving positive role models and platforms for boys and girls, and for everyone.”

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