The Callum Murray interview - Angela Ruggiero
Angela Ruggiero, the Olympic gold medallist and now IOC executive board member, has just launched her own sports technology research business. She’s young, intelligent and highly capable. Could she possibly be the IOC’s first female president in the making? Author
28th April 2017, 10:31
“I realised in high school that all of the skills I acquired as an athlete could literally be applied to anything else: setting a goal; working out what the steps are to achieve it; working with others; having that grit and determination and just applying that pattern over and over. I realised that if I used that same mindset I had on the ice, off the ice, I could be successful.”
Angela Ruggiero, Capital One Academic All-America Hall of Fame Induction, 2015

What does an Olympic athlete do when his or her career comes to an end?

Angela Ruggiero, who competed for the US women’s ice hockey team at four successive winter Olympics, never failing to win a medal, including a gold medal at her first games in Nagano in 1998, is now an executive board member of the IOC and chair of its athletes’ commission, as well as being on the coordination commissions for both next year’s winter Olympics in PyeongChang and the 2022 edition in Beijing.

Plus, she’s a member of the board of directors of the IOC’s Olympic Channel and chief strategy officer of Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

At the same time, and away from sports administration and governance, Ruggiero has just launched her own company, Sports Innovation Lab, which, she says, seeks to do for sport what Forrester, the US market research company that provides advice on the impact of technology, does for business. “Helping drive innovation in sports through market research and analysis of the latest sports technology,” is how she describes it.

The company’s founding clients include Octagon, the USA-based sports agency, Booz Allen Hamilton, the US management consultancy, Gatorade and IBM. 

Ruggiero speaks during an LA 2024 press conference at the Rio 2016 Olympics
 

In that Hall of Fame induction speech, Ruggiero credited the US college sports system for her ability to maintain an academic (and then business) career alongside her elite sporting one, saying: “I got to do sport and academics. Some young athletes around the world don’t have both… To me, sports is a version of education: having the opportunity to pursue academics and not be limited because you’re a good athlete. One day you have to stop being an athlete, which is hard. And then you have to get a real job, which is even harder.”


Ruggiero’s ‘real job’, since January, has been Sports Innovation Lab (she previously worked at Bridgewater Associates, the US investment management firm). So what exactly does her company do? “We’re trying to aggregate, analyse and uncover trends through market analysis,” Ruggiero says. “Through aggregation we uncover where the industry is ripe for consolidation or where there are gaps in the market: in predictive performance, there needs to be more invested in AI [artificial intelligence], for example.”

Initially, Sports Innovation Lab is targeting four segments of the sports technology industry, described by Ruggiero as the ‘quantified’ athlete, smart venues, immersive media, and next generation sponsorship.

“With Gatorade, we’re asking: ‘how do we use new technology to understand hydration in the market?’, she says. “To me, whether you’re a host city or a brand or anyone that just wants to progress in sports, you need a third-party analytical, objective voice in the market to demonstrate when companies are being innovative and that it’s not just spin. Why does every other industry have a Forrester, given how much technology does to change the game?”

In the field of next generation sponsorship, the company is focusing on eSports and its methods of engaging young people. “They’re all on Twitch [the leading video platform and community for gamers],” says Ruggiero, “but they’re also engaging, creating content, interacting with video game players.

“Now sports teams are buying eSports teams. We’re working to see what traditional sports can leverage from eSports. We need to lower the barriers of entry, whether it’s the cost of a ticket or engaging in the sport, give the fans a voice, a way to interact with teams and players and feel like they have a say in outcomes.

“eSports are doing that really well. Their model is different. We have exclusivity, they see it as democratisation. Aside from participation and the cost of a ticket, what are the ways we can get kids to consume sport? A lot of digital platforms are being activated to allow the youth to see and consume and engage. When you get that engagement, especially as a young person, then you become a lifelong fan.”


Aside from participation and the cost of a ticket, what are the ways we can get kids to consume sport?


As a board member, what does Ruggiero think of the progress of the Olympic Channel, so far, since its launch last year? “I think we’re off to a good start, especially regarding the demographic,” she replies, cautiously, “but the focus will be on continuing to create content that’s interesting, and creating more user-generated content. There is an opportunity. You have a clean slate. Whether it’s more inspirational videos or silly videos that kids find engaging, or creating their own content, they are hitting the right demographic. It’s how do we get to more countries and both genders?

“Kids are moving away from linear [TV], cutting the cord. We talk about fan engagement, so we have to go where they are. If that’s Facebook and Snapchat, we have to give them content and information that they want. They don’t like the traditional sell - they smell advertising - but they love brands. If you can become a brand, get them to use your content, they will be your best ambassadors.”

Enthused, Ruggiero concludes: “I’m passionate about ensuring sports continue to thrive.”

It’s this passion that is the key to understanding Ruggiero’s continuing involvement in sport, both on the administrative side and her role as co-founder of her company. Barry Maister, the IOC member from New Zealand, tells me: “She has actually put her professional career on hold to give her Olympic work a good go, although she has now developed a real interest in her new business venture which looks and sounds decidedly interesting.

“I personally regard her very highly. We got appointed as IOC members at the same time and I have worked closely with her on several commissions since. She is a great thinker, analyser, processor and questioner.”

Recently, I asked a former legendary track and field Olympic gold medallist if he would ever consider competing in an amateur or seniors event in his discipline. He looked at me with incredulity before replying: “It would pale in comparison. I had the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible. I would not have the motivation. It couldn’t match the phenomenal feeling you get competing in an Olympic Games.”

 

My younger teammates use to make fun of me: 'Angela's always smiling on the ice'

But, asked the same question, Ruggiero says that, while there are no masters competitions in women’s ice hockey as such, “I do play on occasion for fun. I tried to play in a league [after retiring] but I missed half the games [because of her other commitments]. Ice hockey is fun. My younger teammates used to make fun of me: ‘Angela’s always smiling on the ice’. ‘I know’, I said. ‘It’s fun!’”

She also became one half of the first brother-sister team ever to play professional ice hockey when she signed a one-game contract to play alongside her brother Bill for the Tulsa Oilers, of the Central Hockey League.

“I played more games than any other man or woman,” she says. “You have to enjoy it or else you’ll burn out. You have to enjoy what you do, find something you love in life, find joy in your daily existence. If you do it for the contract or just a medal…”

She leaves that sentence unfinished, but it’s clear that she has no comprehension of anyone who would do such a thing. “It’s about the process for me, achieving excellence,” she continues. “How can I get the exact amount of sleep, the exact amount of water to hydrate? Now when you see the results it clicks. But it’s hard to figure out what those inches are if you’re just going through the motions for the wrong reasons. Everyone talks about being in the flow, but you should be able to find flow in your daily existence.”

Ruggiero was born in 1980 in Panorama City, southern California and grew up in that state, not normally regarded as an ice hockey hotbed. Her background was what she has cheerfully described as “very blue-collar” but her father, who grew up in Newhaven, Connecticut, was an ice hockey fan. When he approached a junior side on behalf of his son, the coach, who was short of players, offered him a discount if Angela and her sister were included in the deal (the sport is mixed at junior level), and so the young Ruggiero had her introduction to the sport.

When she was 12, Ruggiero found out that women’s ice hockey was to be included in the Olympics for the first time and, she says, “that became my goal.” At 14, her family moved to the east coast and, having played only mixed hockey until then, she was introduced to the women’s sport and realised, for the first time, that she was good at it.


Everyone talks about being in the flow, but you should be able to find flow in your daily existence.


As her hockey career took off, Ruggiero continued her academic career, one that has prepared her well for launching her own company. She has a BA in Government from Harvard, a Master of Education in Sports Management from the University of Minnesota, and, most recently, an MBA, also from Harvard. In fact it was at the Ivy League university that she met Sports Innovation Lab co-founder Isaiah Kacyvenski, a former linebacker with the NFL’s Seahawks, Rams and Raiders. The company’s third co-founder, Joshua Walker, cut his teeth in research working for Forrester.

Asked if having been an athlete has influenced her approach to business, she replies without hesitation: “Hundred per cent. It’s the reason I’m such a huge advocate for kids playing sport, boys and girls. If you have a boy and a girl and you can only afford to pay for one, you always send the boy. It’s a tragedy. I’m fundamentally a different person because I played a team sport.

“It teaches the ability to persevere, to be a team player, learning success and defeat. You learn more about yourself when you fail. Athletes learn to fail often; it’s an important trait to have in life, and in business. We’re a start-up company and people aren’t going to say yes all the time. Athletes make for good entrepreneurs. My style in life has been dictated by the experiences I had on the ice. It’s not necessarily that I want to beat people but when I set a goal I want to achieve that goal. If there are competitors in the way that’s part of the process but it’s not intrinsic to achieving what I set out to do.”

After graduating from Harvard (for the first time), Ruggiero had to balance earning a living with training and playing hockey. “My parents didn’t have any money,” she says. “I went to prep school on a full ride. Harvard gave me financial aid. When I graduated, I had to figure out if I needed to work in a full-time job or part time.

“I worked for the Islanders [the New York-based NHL ice hockey team]. Then I started my own hockey camps coaching girls, and did it for 10 years. I loved it. It was fun to coach kids and hire my teammates to coach with me. They would do camp and train mornings and evenings with me. They were fun summers outside, playing games and teaching kids to skate. Towards the latter part of my career I went back to school and got my Masters two years before the 2010 Olympics [her last games].

“I also did consulting for NBC’s new business department, and dabbled in commercial real estate. One of the reasons I went back to Harvard business school was that I went to a session and it was so inspiring and I was still young enough not to be the oldest in the classroom, so I could play catch-up with my peers. I could get more relevant world experience and get up to speed on life skills.

“We don’t talk enough about the hard transition athletes have, especially if they don’t have an education or a degree. In reality, they need more support in that transition. What happens to most athletes is not the happiest story. You only hear about the winners.”

Ruggiero is highly regarded by Thomas Bach and other IOC members

Ruggiero was elected chair of the IOC’s athletes’ commission last year with a mandate to create a new strategy for it. She says: “We need to empower other athletes’ commissions to create better channels of communication with leaders of the [Olympic] movement. We have an athletes’ career programme with [recruitment specialists] Adecco, creating career opportunities, helping life skills from being an athlete to finding a second career.


“We’ve put together a five-year plan which we’re circulating with stakeholders to fine-tune the implementation portion. We aim to bring it to the [IOC] executive board in July and I hope the final version will be approved, and circulated at the IOC’s athletes’ forum in November.”

Maister says: “She is a great strategic thinker. Her approach to the athlete commission reform is very process driven. She put it up and worked hard - and, I think, successfully - to get the members to buy into it. She is very determined to make a difference in the Olympic movement, and I would back her to do so.”

By the time of the IOC athletes’ forum in November, Ruggiero will, however, no longer be an IOC member (her eight-year term is due to expire at the end of next year’s winter Olympics in PyeongChang). How will she feel about that, in view of signs of a worrying growth in the perception of the IOC and its members as elitist, entitled, self-serving and, at worst, irrelevant? And how can the IOC address that problem?

Ruggiero’s answer is illuminating, reflecting her path to the IOC via a sport which – at least in its women’s version – is far from conforming with that perception. “I wouldn’t view us as elite,” she says. “I think of us as more of the underdog. [Olympic] athletes are largely not doing it for the money or the fame. The games are technically non-profit; we redistribute the money that comes in the door.”


Perhaps in my wildest moments, I could even see her [Ruggiero] as a future IOC president.


Referring to the many critical articles written in the run-up to last year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, covering a range of issues from the zika virus to water pollution and the financial and corruption crises that befell the host country, she adds: “The thing that frustrates me sometimes is that when the Olympics are discussed and the movement is damaged, ultimately it’s the athletes that are damaged. In the lead-up to Rio, how many amazing athletes were taking part and we never even learnt about a fraction of them?

“The Olympics creates 10,500 role models every four years, and 3,400 winter role models. Continuing to involve those people in society as role models is an important part of what the Olympics do, especially now we’re moving away from linear to digital and you can Google any athlete and have a conversation with them.”

There are some who think that Ruggiero’s departure would represent a serious loss to the IOC, still regarded by many as an old boys’ club. One member goes so far as to tell me: “Perhaps in my wildest moments, I could even see her as a future IOC president. Probably an outrageous suggestion, but if she grows into her Olympic role, commits to it, and gets offered the chance to stay on after next year, who knows?”

A (female) Olympic insider tells me Ruggiero is highly regarded by IOC president Thomas Bach and other IOC members, albeit there is a minority of those ‘old boys’ who “talk about her not conforming with their sense of what ‘women are supposed to be like’.

“There are still those ‘Bill O’Reilly’ types” in the IOC, the source adds, in reference to the Fox News host recently fired over a series of sexual harassment claims.

Asked about her future career, Ruggiero is careful not to make any reference to the possibility that she might at some stage in the future return to the IOC, saying only: “I would like to stay involved with the Olympic movement in some capacity. I’ve never served on a national federation, like USA Hockey, so maybe running to be on the board would be interesting. I’m on the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation] athletes’ commission for a four-year term, so I’ll stay involved in hockey. My company was partly founded to help with innovation strategies, to help them [sports organisations] to improve, to be the team behind the team, to support them in decision-making and to accelerate change.”


Ruggiero with other members of the LA 2024 bid team
 

But could her involvement in a commercial venture in sport potentially create conflicts of interest, if she aims to continue moving up the sports administration and governance ladder, I wonder? After all, the combination could give her company privileged access to the most senior decision-makers in sport.

Her answer is a reminder that, like most of us, Ruggiero needs to work to live. “Right now, we’re building the business, based on Joshua and Isaiah’s experience, and my experience serving on boards,” she says. “I see it more as, by spending this time I see what are the problems that need to be solved.

“My term is up in PyeongChang. We all have careers. I have to work for a living, this is what I wanted to use my degrees on. I don’t know how many opportunities I received. My parents were blue-collar, but because I played ice hockey the world opened up to me. I got to compete in four Olympic Games and get a great education. I want every athlete to have those opportunities, to realise their potential.”

Sportcal