Kiwi-founded alternative commentary startup Spalk has raised US$3 million ($4.3m) in a Series A round supported by a clutch of sports personalities - including Steven Adams and Greg Norman.
Spalk was founded by recent Auckland University grads Ben Reynolds and Michael Prendergast in 2015. The pair landed a spot in Vodafone NZ's Xone business incubator the following year to develop their "next-generation sports broadcasting" startup - which syncs alternative commentary offered by bloggers and podcasters with live broadcasters.
Often, the service is used by those after multilingual options. Watching a Euro 2020 match that's only offered in English but to want to hear it with a Spanish or Hindi commentary? A Spalk partner could be able to help.
Spalk can also be used to access an alternative commentary provided by an athlete or social media influencer.
And official broadcasters can use Spalk as part of a cost-saving remote production effort if there are no funds for flying commentators to an event - or even perhaps a local studio.
With little interest from local broadcasters, Spalk looked offshore, and it now numbers streaming services DAZN and Sports Flick among its broadcast partners, and its technology is used by sporting bodies including World Rugby, Six Nations Rugby, FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) and FIVB (the International Beach Volleyball Federation.
Co-founder Reynolds says Spalk built the world's largest talent marketplace of professional commentators, providing access to pre-vetted freelancers in more than 50 languages across 30 sports.
Today, Spalk has a dozen staff across a New York operations office (led by Renolds), a broadcasting hub in London and an Auckland office run by Prendergast.
How did a small Kiwi startup land Greg Norman as a backer?
"We pitched Greg at a Shark Tank-style competition called 'Search for the Next Sports Entrepreneur' that he hosted at the University of Miami in March 2017," Reynolds says. "At the time, we were exploring the US as a prospective market. Following the meeting, Greg led our seed investment round in October 2018."
"The CFO of the Greg Norman Company, Michael Filon, has a board seat and they have been integral to our global rollout and monetisation over the past two years."
And how Adams join the party?
"We met Steven through Greg Norman's family office," Reynolds says.
"Greg and his team do a lot of work with other professional athlete family offices - mentoring, co-investing and sharing deal flow. Spalk was a great opportunity for Greg and Steven to support a company from New Zealand that is succeeding internationally."
The US$3m just raised came mainly from US backers, but Icehouse Ventures also chipped in locally.
Formula E driver Mitch Evans also put money into the US$3m round. And so did Stadia Ventures, a US outfit that specialises in sports-related investments.
Reynolds says Spalk is now starting to hit its marks. Revenue has tripled to US$150,000 per month over the past year, and the startup hit profit for the first time earlier this year.
The new funds will go, in part, to hiring five new technical roles for Spalk's NZ office, in Parnell. It will also be used to boost marketing efforts.
"We do a small amount of business in New Zealand - for example, later this month we are supporting the Steven Adams Invitational for up and coming high school basketball players in New Zealand to gain exposure to US College Scouts," he says (see last year's event here).
"And we will be supporting with Māori and several Pasifika Languages of commentary on the tournament.
"But our primary market is international with Olympic Federations and Global Sports Leagues that require multi-lingual productions - although we are definitely hoping to work with Sky, TVNZ and Spark Sport in the future."
Meantime, there's plenty of overseas work to keep Spalk busy.
"Using our Virtual Commentary Studio, sports leagues and broadcasters no longer have to fly commentators to the stadium or studio to call games – they can do it from a laptop anywhere in the world," Reynolds says.
"We are really proud to have support from Greg, Steven, Mitch and our other investors and are excited to continue leading the industry when it comes to remote commentary production and distribution."
Stadia Ventures managing partner Brandon Janosky says: "Remote production and personalisation of live content represent the intersection of two mega-trends in sport and we are excited to support Spalk as they disrupt this multi-billion dollar, legacy industry."