The players are giving it their all, even if it is just an ordinary training session on a Tuesday afternoon. Suddenly the coach pulls two players out and sends them to the changing room. Why? Because he knows that the load on their legs has become high enough that the risk of injury has increased. This is a fairly common scenario for professional football players, but how did the coach know his players were in the red zone? A Danish startup supplied him with the data using sensors located on the players' legs as well as inside the football itself.
"We have developed the first system with sensors that send data live and which sits on the calf. The other systems available today have a GPS sensor positioned on the player's torso, which is like measuring the load on a horse by placing a sensor on the jockey's neck," says Nikolaj Thomassen, founder and director of Next11. The small Danish startup has been hard at work developing the technology since 2018 and the sensor located inside the football proved to be the team's biggest headache. But the system is finally ready for use and being sold across the globe. In fact, it has been picked up by one of the world's biggest football clubs, Paris Saint-Germain.
"They have the resources to be selective about which system they use. Yet they chose ours. That is a fantastic blue-chip endorsement," says Nikolaj Thomassen. Looking at the price, Next11 has positioned itself to be significantly more affordable than competing systems on the market today. The hardware costs DKK 27,500 per team, and then the club pays a subscription of DKK 250 per month. Competing systems cost anywhere between DKK 100,000 and DKK 200,000 per team per year.
"Being able to track players should not be an advantage available only to the wealthy few. We could sell our system at a much higher price, but our goal is to make the technology accessible to as many as possible," says Nikolaj Thomassen. Next11 has already raised DKK 27million and is currently looking to raise a further DKK 20 million in new capital. The finished product has been on the market since December and now it is time to focus on sales and scaling up the entire business.
And this sort of sports technology is by no means a small niche industry, but a massive global business. The total turnover of the industry is expected to double in the next five years, amounting to DKK 285 billion in 2027,according to an analysis by the firm Marketsandmarkets. In Denmark, for example, the company Trackman achieved overwhelming success with its video analysis for golfers –latest accounts showed a profit of DKK 370million. And at Veo, the company behind a camera solution for football clubs, DKK 767 million has been raised from investors.
Next11 isn't quite that far along yet, but with 30 sets sold and a turnover of half a million for the first quarter of the year, things are certainly on track. The potential market is big, explains Nikolaj Thomassen, because Next11has also made a similar system for ice hockey, but without a sensor in the puck. The system has been purchased and is currently in use by all Denmark's national ice hockey teams.
"In North America alone there are 50,000 ice hockey teams, and it is a sport in which they buy sticks at DKK3,000 each. So, it is not a big additional cost to buy our system. And less than one percent of that market uses tracking today," says the Next11 CEO. The task of keeping track of how many minutes each player is on the field in an ice hockey match is currently managed by looking at video recordings, and this method is not nearly as precise, he explains. And the training is intense, so there is a big focus on minimizing injuries.
The football community has even greater potential with 1.7 million teams inorganized clubs around the world, says the entrepreneur. Here people are familiar with tracking systems, but the pricing limits its use to a few teams in top clubs. "There are, for example, the entirely untapped markets of women's and girls' football. These are hugely ambitious players, but who do not have access to tracking and analysis due to the much smaller financial investment in women's football. And we have seen that these clubs are trying our system out on one team and then investing more to equip all their teams," says Nikolaj Thomassen.
Lyngby's youth team
Up until he turned 18, when he began training to become a ski instructor, Nikolaj Thomassen was himself an ambitious football player and a member of Lyngby's top youth team. "It was an eye opener. In football you were told to look at the laces when shooting over the goal. That was the level. When I became a ski instructor in 1993, we used video to analyze skiing. The method was enormously far ahead, and it was a revelation," he says.
The idea of making football training better in the same way has been around for many years. Nikolaj Thomassen's first shot at it was in 2007, when he helped start the company Munin Sport, which is behind physical training aids. He then became a board member at Veo, which has developed a camera solution that records the smallest details of matches automatically. Then, in 2017, a conversation about the possibility of building a sensor into a football with someone from Select, the Danish football manufacturer, changed everything. "The idea was that you could get feedback on your kicking technique. Because you see an incredible number of set pieces like corner kicks that are poorly executed," says Nikolaj Thomassen.
Development was in collaboration with the German institute Frauenhofer, perhaps Europe's best-known technology center, as there were many challenges. "The sensor must be light enough not to interfere with the ball's flight but must still have a battery life of at least three hours. And the transmitters must be powerful enough to send a signal to the receiver on the sideline. It was quite difficult, but we succeeded," says Nikolaj Thomassen as he holds out a ball. The 11-gram sensor is glued firmly inside the football during production and placed exactly opposite the valve, which means the two components balance each other out.
The result of the sensors on players' legs and inside the ball is real-time statistics for every player's performance. And then the system also provides a continuous assessment of the load each player is exposed to in a match or during training. The coach or someone else on the staff can then keep an eye on that value in real time. "You have to be able to follow the players live to see if one enters the danger zone. And you get all the information from just one number displayed on the screen. It is super easy to understand," says Nikolaj Thomassen.
At Paris Saint-Germaine, the system is now being used on three teams with players under the age of 16. And it looks set to spread to more teams at the big French club. Nikolaj Thomassen believes that on the level of the individual player, his system makes a big difference by giving young, promising talents the opportunity to measure themselves against players on the club's first team. "As a player, you can quantify what it will require to take a step up in terms of both physical performance and technical performance. This has not been possible before. Because when the systems are so expensive, you don't buy them for all the youth teams, only for the first team," he says.
The future promises growth and a brilliant business model, but there are no plans to accept large sums from capital funds in order to grow very quickly. The technology is protected by patent, and the partnership with the football manufacturer is also difficult to copy, explains the Next11 founder. "We want to scale up, but I've seen many hurrah-graphs that never come to fruition. We are looking to build a profitable business with a healthy scale-up. And then our plan is to sell for DKK 200 million in 2026," he says.
So far, it is not demand that is lacking, but resources to produce and sell. The next round of capital raising should help with that. "Now we can't keep up. We have inquiries from clubs in La Liga, the Bundesliga, the Premier League, the first division in Switzerland, and from clubs in American football, just below the NFL level. It has been a long journey. But now there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Read article in Danish by Jesper Kildebogaard, JP Finans here https://jyllands-posten.dk/jperhverv/ECE15493075/en-dansk-sensor-i-fodbolden-har-sparket-doeren-ind-til-en-af-verdens-stoerste-fodboldklubber/
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