South Grenville-based "digital coupon" venture is one of just 10 startups from among more than 900 applicants across 40 countries chosen to take part in the 2023 Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator that began last week in Florida.To use a car-racing analogy, FanSaves CEO Shannon Ferguson knows her digital coupon platform still has a few laps to go before it has a chance to take the checkered flag – but she feels it's in the front of the pack heading into the home stretch. FanSaves is one of just 10 startups from among more than 900 applicants across 40 countries chosen to take part in the 2023 Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator that began last week in Florida. The South Grenville-based company is the only Canadian startup to make this year’s grade. “That validation is priceless,” says Ferguson, who launched FanSaves with McCarthy six years ago. “Being a startup founder is hard sometimes, and you just have to keep digging, you have to keep moving forward, even when you’re hearing, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ “It’s really showing the world that we’re on that level of being not just the next big sports tech company, but the next big company overall.” Run by U.S. telecommunications giant Comcast, the six-month program aims to help early stage sports-tech enterprises scale their operations by matching company founders with mentors from major sports and media companies. SportsTech brings together some of Comcast’s biggest media brands, including NBC Sports and Sky Sports, with other well-known sports organizations such as NASCAR, the PGA Tour, World Wrestling Entertainment – better known simply as WWE – and three U.S. Olympic organizations: U.S. Ski & Snowboard, USA Swimming and USA Cycling. Last week, Ferguson and her fellow founders attended the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and toured Daytona International Speedway, site of the famed Daytona 500. They met with movers and shakers from across sports, entertainment and broadcasting to get a behind-the-scenes look at how organizations like NASCAR and the PGA Tour operate. Membership in the exclusive accelerator club comes with perks such as funding from Comcast and Colorado-based startup accelerator Boomtown. But what’s got Ferguson really revved up about SportsTech is the rare chance to rub shoulders with key decision-makers at organizations like NASCAR, the stock car racing circuit that stages one of the most popular spectator sports in the U.S. NASCAR’s television revenues alone top US$800 million a year, and its network of sponsors includes global brands like Busch Beer and Coca-Cola. SportsTech participants work one-on-one with advisers to fine-tune their go-to-market strategies, fundraising plans, sales and marketing campaigns and other key business tactics. In FanSaves’ case, Ferguson and McCarthy are paired with Craig Neeb, NASCAR’s chief development officer. “As a startup founder, you don’t just get opportunities like this,” Ferguson says. “It’s literally like taking a rocket ship into space. NASCAR is huge. We’re constantly pinching ourselves that we have this opportunity. We feel like there could be really great things there.” It’s the latest sign that Ferguson and McCarthy’s “digital coupon books” could be poised for a breakthrough. Ferguson says FanSaves really came into its own last year, when five times as many electronic coupons were redeemed on its app than in the previous four years combined. Now at eight employees, the company grew its revenues more than 540 per cent in 2022 compared with the previous year. Users who download the FanSaves app can follow sports franchises and other organizations, allowing consumers to access direct discounts from businesses that sponsor teams or members of groups such as BIAs and chambers of commerce. FanSaves works with more than 1,000 brands across North America that offer discounts to fans and consumers via the app. The app tracks all purchases made with electronic coupons, giving FanSaves’ customers a clear view of which sponsors are benefiting the most and which ones should double down or seek out partners with similar profiles. In addition, the app gives sponsors that partner with sports teams a more detailed picture than ever before of exactly who their customers are and which deals are best at converting offers into sales – key intelligence in an age when analytics is king. Jenna Kurath, Comcast’s vice-president of startup partnerships and head of the SportsTech accelerator, says FanSaves is an ideal fit for the scaleup program. NASCAR fans, for example, often spend an entire weekend at the racetrack and spend money at a wide range of vendors, she explains. By tracking every coupon that buyers are cashing in, FanSaves can show NASCAR and its sponsors exactly which offers are runaway leaders and which ones are stalled at the starting line. “Sponsorship is a huge revenue component of every single sports organization,” Kurath says, adding the FanSaves app offers customers “tremendous value on multiple fronts.” Nearly 70 organizations – including 50 teams from 20 sports leagues across North America – now subscribe to the FanSaves platform, up from 30 two years ago. The company expects to launch a pilot program with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators in the next few weeks and is in talks with more than a dozen other major-league franchises. The bootstrapped venture has cobbled together some outside funding over the years, landing $100,000 at a pitchfest in Renfrew County a few years ago as well as support from friends and family. Ferguson says the company is looking to add to its financial warchest as it capitalizes on market momentum and the potential funding opportunities SportsTech may bring. FanSaves hopes to finalize a seed round of between US$2 million and $3 million by the end of 2023. And should the accelerator lead to a deal with a major player like NASCAR, that would add even more horsepower to a growth engine that’s already firing on all cylinders. “We’re getting there,” Ferguson says. “It takes a long time. You have to go through a lot of red tape sometimes. But we’re happy that we do have champions at the major league level.”
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