KU alumnus’ startup making inroads in sports tech industry
A year ago Austin Barone was catching his breath after a 21-hour semester, his last at the University of Kansas.
Not wanting to miss out on sales opportunities, Barone crammed in enough credit hours to graduate in December 2015, freeing himself up to spend the following spring promoting his startup business.
Heading into this year’s industry sales season — Barone leaves Friday for the American Football Coaches Association convention — Just Play Sports Solutions has clients nationwide from high school to at least one pro team, a board of directors with semi-celebrity names, and an optimistic outlook.
“We think that this next year is going to have tremendous growth,” Barone said.
Just Play is a software-to-service platform offering digital coaching tools for football and basketball. It offers multiple features including a learning app to help players prepare for games.
Barone said Just Play offers several different packages for different needs.
Individual coaches can use it to build their own playbooks to keep throughout their careers, or teams can use it to help players learn plays and prepare for games, Barone said. He said Just Play also automates scouting reports for teams, with 300 custom stats for opponents at the Division 1 level or 75 stats for each player at the NAIA level, he said.
Barone, formerly a kicker on the KU football team, got his degree in accounting, he said. He formally incorporated Just Play Sports Solutions in May 2014, and the company launched its first product in January 2015, during his junior year at KU. Barone said support from The Catalyst, KU’s student business accelerator, was a huge boost.
Barone met his co-founder, Andy Wachter, through relatives. Wachter is a former web developer who went to college in Kansas and now lives in New York.
“At first most definitely I was written off because I was a student,” Barone said. “I don’t think people realized how real our company is. Right now we have UCLA and Kansas in men’s basketball — they’re two top-five programs in Division 1 basketball.”
Barone said Just Play now has football and basketball clients across the country from the high school level on up, including a WNBA team. He declined to say an exact number or name the WNBA team, citing business competition, but did say that other recognizable regional teams using Just Play products include the KU and Kansas State University women’s basketball teams.
And, in what Barone called “a tremendous milestone” for his company, the NAIA announced in November that it signed a three year partnership making Just Play the “Official Playbook and Scouting Report Solution of the NAIA.”
Just Play is officially based in Lawrence, though Barone said the company is looking for an office space in the Kansas City area. He’s currently living in Westwood.
He said Just Play has about nine people working for them in some capacity, either as employers or contractors, and is preparing to hire about three or four more.
The company’s four-man board of advisers comprises Jonathan E. Baum, CEO of Kansas City-based investment banking firm George K. Baum & Company; Domonique Foxworth of ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” a former NFL defensive back who later graduated from Harvard Business School; KU graduate Brian McClendon, co-founder of Google Earth and now vice president of advanced technologies at Uber; and Wally Meyer, director of entrepreneurship programs at KU and a former business executive.
Barone said there is competition in his field — one of the “big guys” is a Chicago-based company with about 85 percent of the Division 1 basketball market, for example — but that he believes his product offers something unique.
He said there aren’t as many companies “focusing on the player.”
A lot of coaches out there are still using three-ring binders to organize plays and having everyone collectively meeting to watch film, “which is very, very out of date,” Barone said.
The young men and women those people are coaching grew up learning — from grade school to college — on smartphones, tablets and apps, Barone said. He said Just Play offers features like incorporating existing web technology — such as Hudl, a big company that provides online game film for teams — and quickly creating digital quizzes to make sure players get the information.
Just Play is a one-stop-shop, he said. He said it saves coaches time and helps athletes learn and retain what they need to know when they take the court or field.
“We want to focus on creating an interactive learning environment for the athlete,” he said.