In 2006, football coaches at the University of Nebraska approached Jeffrey S. Raikes about ways to improve the Cornhuskers’ game with technology. Raikes, then president of Microsoft’s (MSFT) business division (now chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), had helped create a computer science-entrepreneurship program for the university in the late 1990s. He suggested its students create 3D training software for the coaches as a class project.
The three undergraduates who signed on, David Graaf, Brian Kaiser, and John Wirtz, quickly discovered that streaming video of the football players themselves was more effective than computer graphics. So they pivoted, developing software for coaches to use to create video clips highlighting athletes’ strengths and weaknesses. “They were smart enough to throw out my idea,” says Raikes, who led a $1.25 million angel investor round in 2007 to turn their software into a business.
Today about 200,000 coaches from high schools, universities, and professional teams in the U.S. use the software, called Hudl, says Wirtz, who serves as chief product officer. The appeal? Hudl solves the biggest hurdles coaches face when using videos for training: editing time and sharing them securely. Wirtz says a coach can use the software to edit, annotate, and post a video for his players in less than an hour. Users can capture video from any device. And Hudl’s apps for smartphones and tablets enable them to stream and download videos.
“Training is much more efficient because [Hudl] captures each play as its own entity,” says Ross Tucker, a former NFL player whose business, Go Big Recruiting, helps high school athletes get their tapes to college coaches. He doesn’t use the software himself but says his clients who do are fans. “Rather than a practice or game and many plays you’d have to fast-forward or rewind to, each play is its own video file,” he says.
Unlike traditional editing programs, Hudl automatically matches camera angles and footage to speed the process and organize footage into specific plays. The system also compiles data about each play—for example, who threw the football, who caught it, and the distance it was carried. Once coaches upload their videos to Hudl’s site, players enter log-ins to watch them. Annual subscriptions start at $800 for high school coaches and $3,000 for college coaches. Subscribers can assign log-ins to up to 40 athletes, who pay nothing.
Now the 65-employee Lincoln (Neb.) business, which Wirtz says became profitable in 2010, is trying to expand its services overseas in about 20 sports, from cricket to soccer. Wirtz says football and basketball, which are more conducive to splicing up than other sports, make up a “big portion” of Hudl’s use in the U.S. But he notes Hudl already has 600 teams using its system outside the country, mostly through word of mouth.
To increase its reach, Hudl snapped up major competitor Digital Sports Video last year and this year bought Apex. The acquisitions helped increase revenue to $9 million in 2011, from $2.5 million in 2010, and Wirtz projects $17 million this year. He won’t say whether Hudl would like to buy one of its remaining big competitors, Krossover.
Hudl wants to make its service available instantly everywhere, but the laws of physics aren’t helping. That’s because signals traveling at the speed of light across oceans and continents don’t provide the real-time experience Hudl aims to give coaches and athletes, says Wirtz. Right now, for example, if a soccer team uploads a video while playing in China, it can’t get instant feedback from a coach in the U.S. because Hudl’s servers are on the East Coast. Hudl’s technology team is tackling this problem by adding servers to new locations around the world and reengineering its server software to help synchronize streaming video across those data centers. It expects this new infrastructure to be in place by the end of 2013.
As it expands, Hudl employees will need to get to the root of what foreign coaches do to win games and why, Wirtz says: “That isn’t easy to dissect.” A British coach strategizes differently about soccer than an Indian coach does about cricket. Hudl is analyzing athletes’ habits—what motivates a pro on the New York Jets (one of Hudl’s 10 NFL teams) or an Italian club soccer player to watch and when.
“Where there is an athlete having a great performance and video, there will be demand for highlights for fans and recruiting tools for coaches at the next level,” Wirtz says. “First and foremost, though, they are great video analysis tools for coaches and athletes to use to prepare themselves to win.”