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Data is the first step to commercialise sport: Megha Gambhir

Gambhir, the co-founder and CEO of Stupa Sports Analytics, uses tech to help players and coaches improve the game through performance analytics. Now she has the ITTF and multiple international federations on her client list

Published: Nov 17, 2023 11:10:00 AM IST
Updated: Nov 17, 2023 11:10:15 AM IST

Data is the first step to commercialise sport: Megha GambhirMegha Gambhir, co-founder & CEO, Stupa Sports Analytics. Image: Madhu Kapparath

Megha Gambhir quit her cushy corporate job without a plan. It was perhaps serendipitous that, around the same time, her husband, a table tennis coach, was dealing with an interesting problem: How to amp up the performance of his trainees through technology. That’s where Gambhir sniffed a market opportunity—of introducing data and analytics to the sport. She launched her startup, Stupa Sports Analytics, in 2020 and, in a few years, has tied up with the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and over 10 sports federations to bring a futuristic edge to the sport. In the latest episode of Sports UnLtd, Gambhir, the co-founder and CEO of the company, explains how technology has helped improve the performance of the players as well as the experience for fans. Edited excerpts: 

Q. How did you come to be a sports tech entrepreneur?
I come from a technology background, having spent approximately 15 years in technology in companies like American Express, PepsiCo, Cognizant, as a tech consultant, project manager. And as for my interest in sports, I’d say it has always been there. I was a recreational badminton player, and then got married to a man who has a career in sports. My husband, Deepak Malik, is a professional table tennis athlete and a former coach of the national team. So we’ve founded Stupa with his expertise of sports and my expertise of tech. We work with 15+ global clients and we have patented our technology within India. We help players perform better, we help broadcasters engage fans better, and we help sports federations scout and develop sports in a better way.   

Q. What was the trigger for you to make the shift from technology to sports analytics?
The move came as a pure coincidence and at a time when I was going through a lean phase—I wasn’t happy with my job. At that time I was in EY, a big company, a big paymaster, and I was working with partners directly. But, without being able to pinpoint what it was, I felt something wasn’t right. So, I took a break without really thinking about what next. 

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At the same time, my husband was struggling with a problem: A number of players he was coaching were not able to perform in a way they could have with the use of data. During the break, I spent some time trying to solve the problem. This was when I realised that a lot of sports, at the moment, are struggling with this problem statement. Not just at a player level, but even at the sports federation’s level, where they are looking to grow the way cricket, soccer or basketball have evolved. Thing is, these sports have evolved because they have lived their journey of becoming commercialised. And for a sport to commercialise, you need to start from the basics—to have the data in place. And I'm not talking about the performance data—that’s the second step—but even the data for the federations and clubs to manage tournaments, to manage seeding, rankings, memberships etc.   

While I was trying out the proof of concept, I caught the eye of the ITTF who called me to present my work in one of their sports science congresses. And that’s how I started working on this. Two years after working on this problem statement, I founded Stupa.   

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Q. You mentioned the under-par performance of some players as your trigger. Can you elaborate on a few of those cases?
When we started, the problem statement was more related with the Indian team itself because my husband was coaching the team. And with a number of players as part of the team, across categories like juniors, youth, seniors etc, it was very hard for the coaches to actually capture each and everything from each and every match and then plan out their training sessions. If one coach had to watch, for example, five matches or ten matches from one tournament for one player, it would take him/her literally two-three weeks to jot down the data.  

At the same time, he was also working with Manav Thakkar, who was very good at the sport, but was struggling to perform at the international level. But within a year of us figuring out the specific areas to work on, he reached the World No. 1 ranking in the under-19 category. We hadn’t founded the company then, just working on the proof of concept, and we saw live proof of change in a sportsperson. And right after we founded the company, we have seen multiple testimonies within our circle itself.   

Q. When did you commercially release the proof of concept?
The proof of concept that we did before we founded the startup was a basic programme which we wrote to just analyse the performance from the data we were capturing in an Excel sheet. When we officially founded the company, we started working on AI and deep tech, because the biggest problem that we were facing at that point was the data capture. When you see a video, it is an intense amount of work to actually capture each and everything, and that is not quite accurate because you’re watching with the naked eye. So, we started working on building a tech product that took us around 15 months. Initially, we were bootstrapped, but then we received funding from investors. But there’s a catch here. After we launched the product, it worked really well with the competitive segment, which is the professional players. But as a business model, it did not work out. So we pivoted to a different business model and two products.   

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The first is the same AI product which we developed for performance analytics of the players, which was in the form of an app where people can upload their matches and get the analysis. We evolved that product to solve a bigger problem—to engage more fans. Like you see in cricket the heat map of the fours and the sixes and the trajectories of the LBW for commentators etc to build stories, and also for fans to absorb information in real time. So that's one pivot we did in our AI product, not just to help players, but serve TV broadcasters and commentators. We began with table tennis, and now we’re expanding into badminton as well. People can see data like the ball trajectory, the speed, the heat maps on the table where the ball has landed, how many forehands in that game or a match etc. We call this product StupaCast.   

The second product is Stupa Events, which is a B2B SaaS tech product, which helps the federations to manage their day-to-day operations while they’re conducting events, their membership licences etc, and also helps them stream their tournaments within the same platform. Basically this allows sports federations to manage players, rankings, tournaments etc. And immediately after this pivot, we signed global clients, our revenue shot up, and we have established a good product-market fit.   

Q. What sort of technological set-up do you need to capture data and break it down?
Our first product took us 15 months, but the next product for different sports will not take that much time. But first and foremost is to build an engine where it can do automated capturing of data, because that’s the most tedious part. Once the capture is done, the rest of the pieces can be sorted. A typical big-match set-up in tennis or cricket, say, use 8-10 camera set-ups per court to get the view from every angle, and then they process that information. In our case, when we started, because we were bootstrapped, we were short of funds and could not afford elaborate equipment. So we built an economical solution. Instead of an eight-camera set-up, we tried to use the latest technologies and build models which can be run on 60 fps or 25 fps cameras with the use of one two or three cameras at the most. So, for our product, at the moment, we use one single camera for table tennis, for badminton we’ll be using two. But we just keep that one camera at 60 fps at a distance of around 10-15 feet away from the table, and at a height of 15-16 feet, which captures a good view of the entire table and players as well.   

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Q. Can you talk a bit about the next steps of both your product development as well as on the business plans?  
When we started, we were very clear that we would like to establish ourselves, prove the model, have a right product-market fit, and only then we’d expand. Now that we have done that, we are expanding into multiple geographies. We already have a heavy client base in Europe. We are working with 15-plus federations in Europe, and some in the US. But now our focus is to expand geographically. We will be focusing on the Asia and US markets as well as the other sports also.   

The focus now is to expand into badminton, which is a matured sport like table tennis, and also into an emerging sport, either pickleball or paddle. Pickleball, for example, is really emerging in the US, while paddle is growing in the Middle East and Europe. We are also getting into the Indian market to partner with sports federations and also speaking to the Indian government as well to see how we can digitise the Indian sports ecosystem.  

On the technology side, we plan to expand our tech into multiple areas. For example, virtual coaching to enable people in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities access quality coaching. We will also focus more on adding sensor-based technology to help competitive players.   

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Q. You're that rare breed of a woman sports entrepreneur. How easy/difficult has the journey been as a woman?
This is a tricky question. Honestly, without biases towards other sectors, I have to say I’ve seen a lot of women doing lifestyle, fashion, food etc, and few in tech. As a woman entrepreneur, I feel we need to work a lot to undo this as women have been brought up this way across generations. Look at the toys that are being sold for girls—Barbies and kitchen sets, whereas, for boys, you have toys which are more mechanical.     

Fortunately, in my journey of entrepreneurship, I have got really good advisors and handholding from the men around me who have made me feel included. But there have been challenges too. For instance, woman leaders aren’t taken seriously by the men in the immediate layer after you. Taking feedback from a woman, at times, becomes difficult. I’ve had to use my husband at times for that. And this has been the biggest challenge in my journey. 

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