An Olympian Explains How Video Games Can Get Kids Active

August 29, 2017  • Angela Ruggiero

After four gold medals, Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero retired from the US women’s national hockey team in 2011. Her new career may be even busier and more impressive. Ruggiero is the co-founder and managing director of Sports Innovation Lab, chief strategy officer of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic bid committee, and an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). On Sept. 6, she will speak at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit on a panel titled, “From Pokémon Go to Esports: Lessons and Opportunities.” Portions of the Summit will be streamed live. See the full agenda here.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, recently spoke with Ruggiero. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on sports tech innovation, improvements to youth sports through the LA 2028 Olympics, and whether the rising popularity of esports video gaming undermines — or actually helps — participation in traditional sports.

The Sports Innovation Lab seems like a great canvas to pursue your many curiosities. Why create such a firm?

Part of my motivation to found the Sports Innovation Lab was all the time I spent on various boards shaping decisions with very little objective and analytic information. I’m obviously curious about business in general. I got my MBA at Harvard and studied how technology has changed multiple industries. I realized if there is a way to help the industry I love — the sports industry — adopt the right technology quicker, accelerate innovation, create the right partnerships, find the right people, and find the right markets, I wanted to do that. We want to help companies that are on offense come in and test out products and services in sports that they could actually leverage into wider markets. Sports is just the test bed, but can be the platform to tell the story.

How do you look at the opportunity around the LA Olympics in 2028?

LA 2028 is unlike any Olympics ever. Usually, there’s a seven-year horizon between the bid selection and the Games. This is the first time ever it will be an 11-year horizon, and on top of that, we’re not building a single new venue. It’s a sustainable bid at the core. We’re going to build a Games that fits the needs of the city, not the other way around. We’ll build some temporary venues, but we’re using existing infrastructure in LA.

So people go, “Well, where’s the budget going to go?” What’s important to us is using the Olympics as a platform to inspire America, inspire Angelenos, and get kids more involved. Starting in 2018, we’re going to create more opportunities for youth sports in LA — a full 10 years before the Games — as a lasting and impactful pre-legacy.

It’s been reported that the IOC will provide $160 million for youth sports programs. It’s very early, but are there specific ideas LA has of how to disperse that money?

Disbursement is at LA 2028’s discretion, but it will fund youth sports in Los Angeles today. It’s basically an advance on the payment that’s typically given during the Games to help endow youth sports today. That’s another innovation in and of itself, where a lot of the focus of this is on the pre-legacy and not the post-legacy.

When I had youth camps, everything was a disguised competition. Kids love that.

The topic of your panel at the Project Play Summit overlaps here a little bit. There’s talk of Paris adding esports to the 2024 Olympic set of sport offerings. How should we feel about that?

I look at sports and think, ok, people huddle around a TV and they watch football and they don’t participate, and they never will participate, but they just love watching. Kids might do the same thing with esports. You can’t deny the numbers.

At Sports Innovation Lab, we’re actually spending a lot of time really understanding the dynamics between sports and esports, and how traditional sports could leverage what esports is actually doing right. Within this trend, esport athletes are engaging with their fans more, they’re creating an atmosphere where no one’s looking on their phones. They’re actually present in the building. It is worth studying and understanding at the very least.

Is there anything that youth sport organizations can learn from esports?

If all you do is sit and play games and watch people play games and you’re never active, that’s definitely not in line with getting active fans to participate in your sport. But, if traditional sports organizations can figure out the mechanism to turn them into participants – maybe they play Madden (the NFL video game) and there’s an easy way for them to sign up and play football. That’s part of the reason the NBA is investing in the NBA2K esports league. The hope is that they’ll convert some of these kids into participants of basketball as well.

Think about adults with Fitbit and a lot of fitness options that they gamify to get more activity into their day. If you think from that same framework then yeah, absolutely, traditional sports and youth sports could learn from esports and Pokémon Go. When I had youth camps, everything was a disguised competition; it was a game. Kids love that. They push themselves a lot harder. Maybe youth sports creates a virtual community so then there are more ways to stay in touch with those kids. There’s a company creating a mechanism for marathoners to meet up with other marathoners in advance so they can train eight months out with someone they know is going to be running alongside them on the day of the race. Suddenly, you’re using technology to bring communities together to do physical sport — to actually move.

You’ve done so much in your early part of your career. What drives you?

What I think I have realized is that you can have a personal impact at a very individual level. When I was coaching kids’ camps — I had a girls hockey school for 10 years — I got to know the girls’ names, I saw them develop, and I stayed in touch with them. But now in my capacity with the IOC or LA or with my company, I’m trying to change the world in a more scalable way – affecting change that’s on a policy level or creating a new business model that doesn’t exist. What drives me is finding those right endeavors and then just putting my heart into those pieces, and seeing real change. I think in some cases I’m driven to win a game (while playing hockey), and in others I want to help shape the world. I want to help change the world in a positive way.

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