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Similar to the process seen on TV shows such as Shark Tank and Dragons’ Den, select startups will make their pitches in November to a panel of industry experts assembled by Ryerson and MLSE.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has had huge success at the box office and increasingly with its teams, but the sports conglomerate is always looking for an edge.

Its latest venture – joining forces with Toronto's Ryerson University, which is always looking to expand on its forward-thinking reputation – is designed to unearth the next great thinkers and their industry-changing ideas.

On Tuesday, MLSE and Ryerson will launch a think tank for innovation called the “Future of Sport Lab” (FSL), one of the first of its kind in North America.

The objective of the FSL is to create a new sports-business ecosystem, which brings together industry leaders, tech startups, faculty and students, to discover and foster new business solutions and technologies. The goals are wide-ranging, and could include anything from improving player performances or the fans' experience.

The first of many initiatives for the FSL will be an incubator for tech startups. It will be open to entrepreneurs from across Canada who have an innovative product or service that could help MLSE or one of its many teams – which include the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Argonauts and their various minor-league affiliates.

Operated under the direction of Dr. Cheri L. Bradish, Loretta Rogers Research Chair in Sport Marketing at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management, the FSL incubator will start accepting applications next month.

Similar to the process seen on TV shows such as Shark Tank and Dragons’ Den, select startups will make their pitches in November to a panel of industry experts assembled by Ryerson and MLSE. From that group, six to eight entrepreneurs will get to test their products or services within an MLSE venue in a program that includes mentorship and access to its staff and teams and even fans.

That piloting phase lasts from January to April, after which the chosen startups get to pitch the newly enhanced product with the knowledge gathered. MLSE may choose to invest in the startup or otherwise foster its growth with the help of its vast network of contacts.

“This is a program that will help bring us the best and brightest minds and find the products that are really relevant to us, but we won’t stop there,” said Humza Teherany, MLSE’s chief technology and digital officer. “We’ll also go ahead and implement the ideas, help those entrepreneurs to capitalize, tell their great Canadian business stories and make the innovation successful. We’re going to look at the whole continuum. Maybe we’ll be able to reshape how coaching analytics happens, or make big change within a particular area of the fan experience.”

The collaboration between MLSE and Ryerson will create various ways to involve Ryerson students at both the undergraduate and graduate level and weave content into the curriculum.

“The intent is to build a smart space to help these startups accelerate, and to grow Toronto into one of the leading sport ecosystems,” Bradish said. “Having taught sport business for a long time, I’m excited that this is a paradigm shift in the way we can deliver sports-business education. It will allow us to have some access to real-world problems and to industry leaders, which will help us accelerate some of the things we’re doing in class.”

The innovation labs will use spaces at Ryerson and MLSE. And because the startups will have developed products, there won't be a lot of money pumped into research and development.

There are similar sports-business incubator models elsewhere in North America, but not in Canada, nor by a company that owns as many franchises as MLSE does.

The Los Angeles Dodgers Accelerator was founded in 2015 and began mentoring startup and growth-stage companies yearly from August to November. Startups incubated in that program include data and analytics software provider Kinduct, point-of-sale platform Appetize and real-time basketball analytics provider ShotTracker. Dodgers Accelerator has since restructured and renamed itself Global Sports Venture Studio, to operate year-round and collaborate with more partners on a much larger scale.

In 2017, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers opened an actual 8,000-square-foot innovation lab as a home to nurture the work of sports-innovation startup companies. Other franchises to start sports-related tech incubators include the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The NFL is harnessing the idea, too, awarding financial help to a handful of startups innovating new player-safety products.

“While there are a lot of individual teams that have gone out and tackled this, we’re different because we have such a large number of major-league and minor-league teams, academy and youth programs, live music as a business and venues,” said Sumit Arora, MLSE’s senior director of strategy. “So we have so many different opportunities to implement some of these startups and their products to pilot them.”

Ryerson has lots of experience with such projects. In 2010, the university launched a business incubator for early stage tech startups called Digital Media Zone (DMZ). It began as a small working space for Ryerson students building digital-media companies and has since helped 350 startups. DMZ has raised $477.2-million in seed funding and helped create some 3,300 jobs.

Ryerson and Joe Fresh joined forces on a business incubator in 2015 that continues to foster Canadian startups in fashion-related fields.

“I think this will separate Ryerson from other schools, being married with the biggest sports and entertainment organization in Canada and one of the best in North America,” said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of MKTG and the executive-in-residence at Ryerson University advising on the sports business curriculum. “The brand recognition will be huge. It’s an attraction for sports business students. It’s going to offer students lots of ways to get hands-on experience.”

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