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Former Super Bowl Champion Turns to STEM to Empower Youth

NFL Veteran and Super Bowl Champion Ellis Wyms has found a passion with computer science.

Adam White

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Breaking into tech can be hard.

It can be even more difficult if you are like Ellis Wyms, who grew up in Indianola, Mississippi, a city in which 30 percent of the population sits at or below the poverty line and median household income is only $26,479.

But, thanks to the game of football, Wyms was able to earn a scholarship to Mississippi State, where he would go on to rack up 120 tackles before being drafted in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

An eight-year NFL veteran with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and Vikings, Wyms won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2003.

Eight years removed from professional football, Wyms is now tackling another project that he’s equally passionate about: empowering youth through computer science.

“When you grow up in that type of environment, you just don’t have resources. There are not a lot of businesses, and educational opportunities are limited. I wanted to provide educational opportunities to communities that needed it the most.”

These opportunities originally started out as fitness-focused ones in which Wyms worked with Microsoft to get Xbox Kinects into community centers. Realizing that it is hard for kids — and adults — to prioritize fitness when they are just figuring out where their next meal will come from, Wyms realized he could make a greater impact by focusing on early education.

READ MORE: Inside the NFL’s New Partnership With ‘Fortnite’

“I wanted to develop a program that could ultimately drive young people toward better career and economic opportunities, and could give them value in the new economy. Today, we have the opportunity to take young people growing up in poor or poverty-stricken environments, and through access to the Internet and advancements in technology, connect them to opportunities that they may have never had before.”

The goal? Being able to shape the perspectives of the children who grow up in communities like Indianola and enable them to believe that they could have any type of career.

With his goal set, Wyms founded Athletes for Computer Science (AFCS), a nonprofit that introduces the fundamentals of computer science to elementary school-aged children. As a way to drive additional interest and excitement, Wyms engages professional athletes who share an interest in computer science and STEM learning to help students as part of their ongoing lessons.

In an economy where skills are at a premium and nearly every industry is being impacted by technology, Wyms see computer science as a necessity when it comes to a successful trajectory.

“The only way you get out of poverty is to learn how to participate in the economy. You can only participate if you have a skill set that’s valuable. That’s kind of the message we want to drive home.”

In the first year of the program alone, AFCS has worked with more 500 kids from second grade to sixth grade, who have written over 100,000 lines of code. AFCS’ program has been implemented across eight schools in four different states through online classes using curriculum developed by Code.org, and helps prepare classroom teachers to support children as they go through curriculum modules.

Going into its second year, Wyms hopes to see AFCS expand to more schools across the country, as well as get more athletes involved to provide inspiration and mentorship to the participating kids.

“Early on, it was about proving the model of marrying athletic influence to a learning opportunity tied to computer science education. Now, it’s about reaching as many children as possible, particularly those living in more under-resourced communities.”

With ongoing conversations between Wyms, and NFL players and teams, the opportunity to have representation from all 32 of the NFL teams is something that Wyms one day hopes becomes a reality. NFL Pro-Bowler Warrick Dunn and two-time Super Bowl Champion Booger McFarland have been early adopters of AFCS.

“I was able to join a class and encourage kids from my hometown of Baton Rouge to learn computer science – I know how important computer science education will be to their future,” said Dunn.  “The AFCS platform gives me a meaningful way to connect with youth and encourage them to learn a skill that will absolutely be an asset to them when they grow to be adults.”

READ MORE: How Riddell Is Changing the Game With New Football Helmet Technology

As AFCS brings computer science to more schools and students, Wyms has been excited to see how enthusiastic the students have been about STEM learning.

“It’s been amazing to see how engaged the kids are with the curriculum. We are helping fulfill a need in many school districts, and also creating an enthusiasm for learning that teachers and administrators love to see from their students.”

While there is still great opportunity to grow AFCS, there is no doubt that when it comes to impact, Ellis Wyms shows that he too is #MoreThanAnAthlete.

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

St. Louis Blues Gamify Western Conference Finals with ‘Enter the Zone’

Enter the Zone represents an early test case for how gamification might play out on a larger level amongst St. Louis’ fanbase.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Blues are gamifying the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Western Conference Final.

Prior to taking to the ice Saturday night for Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks, the Blues launched Enter the Zone, a real-time prediction game for fans, with 2019-20 season tickets on the line. The fan with the best cumulative score over the course of the series will score two full regular-season tickets. Enter the Zone was developed with Tally, the predictive technology company founded by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

With plenty of future potential for technologies like predictive gaming in sports, Blues Vice President of Digital Strategy and Emerging Technology Matt Gardner said the conference finals are a good time to try something new as the fan base is likely more engaged than usual.

READ MORE: Cleveland Cavaliers and Aramark Launch In-Seat Ordering

“We’re always very forward-thinking as an organization and finding new and fun ways to bring our fanbase together,” Gardner said. “The cool thing about this game and what attracted us to it is the fact we could pull something together quickly and utilized not at the crucial moments of the game.”

Enter the Zone provides fans with the opportunity to predict potential outcomes of the game, either prior to or during intermissions. Sample situations include whether Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly or Sharks forward Tomas Hertl will have a higher first-period face-off percentage, or which team will have three shots on goal first.

“We want to make sure fans are locked into action and glued to their TV or at the arena,” Gardner said, adding the game is meant to enhance the action and potentially take off some of the stress off the game for anxious fans.

The cumulative series grand prize isn’t all that’s up for grabs, as each game will also feature prizes for the winners. For instance, the winner of Game 1’s game received two tickets to Game 3, when the series shifts to St. Louis. Other prizes include individual tickets for next season as well as game-used and autographed items. 

“We wanted to make the stakes high for them,” he said. “We want them to know we’d come to the table and give them a big incentive to dive in and play the game.”

Tally CEO Jason LeeKeenan said they want their technology to be user-friendly and free to play for partners, whether those are teams, venues or broadcasts. The deal with the Blues builds off the company’s first partnership with the Portland Trail Blazers for this year’s NBA playoffs.

“It’s great because there’s added excitement to the games,” LeeKeenan said. “We’ve been fortunate to work with teams excited work in the space and kudos to them for rolling it out in the playoffs.”

The Blues will be proactive on their digital channels in reminding fans to play the game, and Gardner said the staff will use a lot of trial and error to determine best practices, even if that means adjusting on the fly. More than anything, though, the series will provide the team with plenty of research. Depending on how the series goes, engagement with Enter the Zone could influence future rollouts of the game or other similar actions, as well how the sponsorship is integrated.

“This is a good opportunity for us to gauge how our fans interact with predictive gaming,” Gardner said. “Sports betting is on the horizon, and this is a good opportunity to see the level of interest our fans have in getting to the predictive-style of gaming.”

The gamification of the series by the Blues is a play toward a trend the industry has heard a lot about in the past year. Between the integration of 5G and the proliferation of sports betting, many prognosticators had long anticipated the arrival of games like Enter the Zone. 

READ MORE: Winnipeg Jets Put Customer Service in the Palms of Fans

LeeKeenan said Tally is meant to be a way for all sporting events to build fan engagement similar to how the Super Bowl does. He and Wilson believe predictive gaming will be integrated into every sporting event within the next 10 years, both live and broadcast.

“We’re here to change the game, and we know these types of predictive experiences will dramatically impact engagement around live sporting events over the next decade,” Wilson said in a release.

Launching in a conference final is a pretty significant endeavor for the Blues. It also provides an exciting opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept. 

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Innovation

Topgolf Lounge Opens New World of Possibilities For Golf

The future of Topgolf is virtual, thanks to the Topgolf Lounges. But could Topgolf also help determine the future of the sport itself?

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Photo Credit: Topgolf

Topgolf has exploded in popularity over the past decade, but the original concept’s physical footprint is a limiting factor of where the golf game can expand. Topgolf believes that limitation will soon be lifted through the introduction of the Topgolf Lounge.

Topgolf Lounges will distill the multi-tier interactive golf game into an indoor experience using the company’s virtual Swing Suite technology and incorporate the entertainment aspects like food and beverage programs into densely packed urban areas and smaller communities. The first location is set to open in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland this fall. The 7,761 square-foot location will have four public Swing Suite bays and a private VIP bay.

“The outdoor experiences have taken communities by storm, and we’re really trying to serve and make golf as accessible as possible,” said Ron Powers, Topgolf Lounge and Swing Suite president. “We know the technology works and the engagement works. Now we need to figure out the balance and an indoor we can extend to highly dense populations.”

READ MORE: Executives Believe Golf’s ‘First-and-10 Line’ Can Help Build the Sport

The Topgolf Swing Suite was developed to offer virtual golf games in compact settings, and the company currently has approximately 130 Swing Suite bays across 50 locations ranging from bars to casinos. Currently, Topgolf licenses out the bays and lets the facility control the pricing and setting.

Within Topgolf Lounges, however, the company controls the whole experience — including pricing, service and food and beverage — and wants to further penetrate markets with their models. Powers called the lounges an “elevated, more intimate” Topgolf experience.

While Powers wouldn’t divulge specific growth plans for Topgolf Lounges beyond the Kirkland debut, he said the company believes the lounge concept is viable in markets across the U.S., specifically two ideal settings. The first is high-density, inner-urban locations — largely on the East Coast in cities like New York, where property isn’t available for the large footprint original concept. For now, the closest access to Topgolf in some regions is 12-to-15 miles on the periphery of a city center, Powers said.

“Now we can bring Topgolf into the core and complement the large facilities,” he said. “It’s thinking about what can we do with the different services to entertain the guests.”

The second is in smaller communities where a full venue might not be justifiable, he said.

“We’re an entertainment platform, but the fact we can mean so much to so many communities and contribute to the game of golf — as an athlete and business guy, I can’t think of a better place to be,” he said. “We have a voracious appetite for growth, and we’re looking to serve communities we’re welcomed in. You’ll see growth, I can guarantee that.”

Powers believes Topgolf can have a place in helping grow the game of golf as well as be an entertainment provider for large swaths of the population. A United States Golf Foundation study found that, of new golfers who’ve played less than three years, 23 percent started at Topgolf. That makes for a considerable opportunity considering that the company welcomes 17 million guests annually between its 53 domestic and four international venues.

In a February article in Golf Digest, World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona discussed the role Topgolf plays in growing the sport. He said there isn’t yet a straight line of conversion to golf from the entertainment category, but it’s doing some good.  

“The piece we think is encouraging, particularly when you look at the golf entertainment models, so Topgolf, Driveshack and, in most cases simulator facilities with social components, that’s introducing people to the game in a fun, relaxed, social and non-intimidating environment,” Mona said. “And these things help to overcome some of the perceptions of golf as being not welcoming and too traditional. So to get people into it in an environment like that, it brings people into golf in a way they associate with it being fun and relaxing, and doing things with friends and the things we think will ultimately cause them into the on-course experience.”

READ MORE: GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

Now, beyond the original Topgolf experience, the company will look toward the future it has in the virtual space to continue its growth as a business and potential entry point into golf.

Powers joined Topgolf in 2015 coming from the game software space, with the idea to grow Topgolf through technology. Following his arrival, the company soon made an investment in Full Swing Golf, which Powers called the “largest and most progressive golf simulator company in North America.” From there, the company partnered with game developers to rewrite the golf simulator software to replicate the Topgolf experience. Now it’s expanding the offerings with games like zombie dodgeball and hockey and baseball experiences.

Topgolf clearly has ambitious plans moving forward, all in the name of greater entertainment. They may just grow the sport of golf while they’re at it.

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Innovation

A Look at Richmond Raceway’s Modernized Infield

FanGrounds is the Centerpiece of Richmond Raceway Reimagined, $30 million Infield Redevelopment Project, at America’s Premier Short Track.

Kraig Doremus

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Richmond Raceway’s modernized infield is set for its spring debut this weekend and offers fans a variety of unique vantage points of all the action taking place at the 3/4 mile D-shaped oval. Image from Richmond Raceway.

When NASCAR rolls into Richmond Raceway for the Toyota Spring Race Weekend beginning  April 12, fans will experience the spring debut of the DC Solar FanGrounds, a key initiative by Richmond to modernize its track.

The FanGrounds launched during Richmond’s first-ever NASCAR Playoff Race Weekend last fall as part of Richmond Raceway Reimagined, a $30 million infield redevelopment project. Track president Dennis Bickmeier expects a positive reaction from race fans for the spring debut.

“People will be surprised by the access they have at our facility,” said Bickmeier. “We could show a video on it and talk about it, but for people to experience it for the first time last fall was remarkable. We’ve taken testimonials from the September weekend to help promote the FanGrounds for this weekend’s doubleheader.”

One of the unique aspects of the FanGrounds is not only the access it grants fans, but also that everything is centralized in one location.

“We’ve programmed the entire infield with driver Q&A’s, music, food and everything fans want for an authentic, engaging race experience,” said Bickmeier. “It’s basically its own village. The access fans get to the cars and race teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage is special and something we’re proud to give them at Richmond Raceway.

From driver appearances to exclusive activations and even the pre-race ceremonies, the FanGrounds contains activities for all racing fans attending the action at Richmond Raceway.

From the beginning, Richmond’s executive team decided on a strategy of involving longstanding partners in the redesign. To that end, they approached the likes of MARS, the  Virginia Tourism Corporation, Markel, Virginia Lottery and Eternal Fan about deepening their ties to the track.

“It was a new attraction and gave us something fresh to have a conversation with our partners about,” said Bickmeier. “We came to the table with a new way for them to engage with their customers, and we knew going in that every partner is different. We went to a variety of prospects and had different conversations with each partner about how we could help them meet their objectives in the FanGrounds.”

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

For MARS, its executives wanted the chance to have one-on-one interactions with fans and promote its brand, while also showing off its No. 18 Toyota Camry show car and allowing fans to sample products.  

The Virginia Tourism Corporation brought its storied“Virginia is for Racing Lovers” messaging to the FanGrounds. In addition to their space in one of the FanGrounds’ neighborhoods, the tourism center has a standalone welcome center to help fans make the most of the experience in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Perhaps one of the most unique activations came following Richmond Raceway’s conversations with the team at Eternal Fan. Eternal Fan got involved with track’s new pedestrian tunnel and launched a Fan Memories program, in which fans can purchase plaques and have them placed on the wall of the pedestrian tunnel, cementing their place as a loyal Richmond Raceway supporter.

“The team at Eternal Fan wanted to be involved with the new memories that fans would make in the modernized infield,” said Bickmeier. “There are many places where you see engraved bricks, but these plaques are truly something different. The Fan Memories idea was not only a first for us but also a first for Eternal Fan.”

Lastly, the track wanted to upgrade its luxury experience and feels it did so with the Victory Lane Club, which will make its spring debut this upcoming weekend and features benefits like access to the driver and crew chief meeting plus a weekend FanGrounds pass. The team at Richmond toured many stadiums through the Southeast, and even nationally, with a focus on what the stick-and-ball sports have done to draw inspiration for the club.

“It’s a small club with slightly more than 100 members,” said Bickmeier. “You see a lot of court and field-level hospitality in traditional stick-and-ball sports. But in racing, hospitality is typically in suites above the grandstands. We wanted hospitality at the ground level, so that’s where our inspiration came from for the Victory Lane Club.”

The Victory Lane Club also features unique vantage points, as fans are able to peer into the garages and see NASCAR teams prepare their cars ahead of the weekend. There’s also rooftop access to see the stock cars rolled out onto the starting grid. . A short trip outside and on to the roof, yes, fans are given access to the roof of the club, provides a breathtaking view of the 3,300-pound stock cars as they are rolled out onto the starting grid.

READ MORE: Understanding Partnerships With an Inside Look at Chip Ganassi Racing’s Strategy

The club is all inclusive with a multitude of benefits including a hot pass, access to the driver and crew chief meeting, and a weekend FanGrounds pass.

With race week officially here and Bickmeier believes Richmond’s upgrades will satisfy fans who have come to expect a willingness from the track to push its boundaries.  

“We’ve gained a reputation at Richmond for being willing to try different things and not just sticking to the status quo,” said Bickmeir. “We did that with the way we structured the FanGrounds and the Victory Lane Club. The reaction in the fall was spectacular and we expect that to continue for the spring debut over the Toyota Spring Race Weekend.”

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