Dodgers go to bat for Israeli startup’s video technology

If you watch an NBA highlight on Facebook, Twitter or the league’s website, chances are an Israeli startup’s software produced and distributed it — automatically.
October 19, 2016

If you watch an NBA highlight on Facebook, Twitter or the league’s website, chances are an Israeli startup’s software produced and distributed it — automatically. Now, the Los Angeles Dodgers are betting that the company’s groundbreaking technology will dictate the future of sports content creation.

WSC Technologies — which has attracted investments from Microsoft and Intel, among others — is one of five fledgling tech companies participating in the Dodgers Accelerator, a venture capital program that funds and develops sports-focused startups. Originally a passion project intended for use by coaches and scouts, WSC is breaking out in a rapidly changing digital media market.

“We’re still four guys out of Israel and we don’t know everybody, even though we’ve been around for a few years,” said co-founder Aviv Arnon. “[The Dodgers Accelerator] helps us to get to the right people, at the right time.”

Arnon was in Los Angeles recently for client meetings as WSC’s head of business development. 

Arnon and two of WSC’s other three co-founders studied engineering together at Tel Aviv University through Atuda, the four-year, pre-enlistment academic reserve of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Joining the IDF ranks at 22, Arnon put his education to use building video interrogation systems and flight footage analysis; Daniel Shichman, now the company’s CEO, handled transmission and bandwidth for the Iron Dome weapons system. Shmulik Yoffe is now the company’s chief technology officer. They explored the idea of automated sports video editing in their spare time.

“It was kind of a hobby,” Arnon said. “Making this our primary job, we started to figure out where can it scale, where’s the opportunity, and what we wanted as fans.”

Atuda requires a six-year service in the IDF, but Arnon wound up staying an extra 18 months because the late-night coding sessions — building what would become WSC’s core technology — were so productive. 

What emerged from their work by the time they concluded their enlistment in 2011 was AVGEN, an application that automatically parses games into hundreds of individual video clips — including, for example, each of a basketball team’s offensive possessions in a game. The software attaches metadata that indicates outcomes of plays and the players involved based on analysis of the announcer’s voice, facial recognition and other elements of the game. It then streamlines the creation of highlight montages by allowing a user to choose a player, an outcome (such as a field goal, an assist, a 3-point basket), a time period (the previous game, or an earlier game) and a reel length — and then playing the finished product in a matter of seconds.

The WSC founders thought it would be a useful tool for coaches and scouts, which their fourth co-founder, Chief Operating Officer Hy Gal — as someone involved in basketball coaching — could help them market with connections to coaches.

The trouble, Arnon said, was selling it to a coach and training him on the software, only to have to repeat the whole process when the coach was fired. “We were just soldiers in the army,” Arnon said. “We didn’t know exactly the market, who to talk to. It took us a couple of years of figuring that out on our own.”

Then WSC pivoted to suit the more lucrative market of sports media. 

The company got its start producing highlights for the Israeli channel Sport5 and for UEFA Champions League soccer. After a $1 million seed round of venture capital funding, WSC got a meeting with the NBA’s Development League, or D-League, whose executives at first didn’t believe automated highlights were technologically possible. Arnon, Shichman and Yoffe got to work.

Two years later, WSC had full buy-in not only from the D-League but the NBA as well. Last season, 28 of the 30 NBA teams used AVGEN to publish highlights to team sites and social media, garnering hundreds of millions of views.

WSC’s partnership with the Dodgers should be mutually beneficial, though it isn’t yet producing Dodgers highlights. The Dodgers can connect WSC to new business opportunities with Major League Baseball and are hoping their franchise’s globally recognized brand will help WSC extend its market reach to other sports. In exchange for their contribution to WSC’s $12 million Series B round of funding, the Dodgers receive equity in the startup.

“They’re incredibly impressive,” Dodgers Chief Financial Officer Tucker Kain said of WSC’s founders. Kain launched the Accelerator last year in a partnership with R/GA, a digital marketing agency. “It takes an incredible balance of technical skills needed to create a platform like this and then to build out and commercialize it for a variety of different people.”

The AVGEN software has special utility when it comes to international athletes who are followed obsessively in their home countries. Arnon said that when Sport5 posts the highlights of Omri Casspi, an Israeli basketball player on the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, it’s usually the most-watched video clip in Israel that night. 

Arnon has lofty ambitions for the future of sports video consumption and WSC’s place in it. Instead of creating thousands of videos each night, he said, AVGEN eventually will be cutting millions of highlight reels tailored to each consumer’s favorite players, fantasy teams or rooting interests.

“Each fan is his own market,” Arnon said. Someday, he added, “instead of watching ‘SportsCenter,’ you get your own sports personalized newscast. This is the way things are shaping up — it’s happening with or without us.”

The increasing demand for short-form content in all types of entertainment also aligns with WSC’s specialty.

Arnon said his increasingly packed travel schedule reflects the growing interest WSC is seeing in its product. Although the company is still headquartered in Tel Aviv, Arnon joked that his second office is at 30,000 feet. He had trips to Atlanta, Toronto and New York planned for a recent week in the United States, leaving no time for stops at Israeli restaurants along the way, he said. But he’s thrilled that WSC’s once-doubted technological capability is finally being validated.

“We’re no longer coming to pitch it as a few guys from Israel telling a story,” Arnon said. “We’re telling it as the guys who do it for the NBA.”

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