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Nikki Mandow

Kiwi tech a game changer for athlete privacy

Tennessee University Athletics teams are using the Blinder technology to help keep their young sports people safe. Photo: Supplied

Sports bosses love their players talking to journalists – it fills stadiums and attracts sponsors. But handing out athletes’ phone numbers is intrusive, even dangerous. A New Zealand company is rolling out a tech solution across the world

It was a tough gig. Two founders of a sports technology start-up at the far end of the world on the stage in front of 150 or so US sports leaders, investors and business executives, pitching the idea of a software system that connects journalists with sports people in live conversations – without phone numbers being exchanged.

There were twelve finalists in the pitch, mostly American and with all sorts of sports-related tech. The dozen candidates had been whittled down from more than a hundred contenders, but there were only five places on the prestigious Stadia Ventures sports entrepreneurship and investment programme, says Caley Wilson, chief executive of the Kiwi start-up, called Blinder. 

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And it was touch and go in front of a live audience whether Blinder’s technology was going to make the cut. Would the problems surrounding sports stars and reckless use of media interviews be compelling enough? Might it seem a bit niche – a solution in search of a problem?

And then Roman Harper stood up. He might not be super well-known in New Zealand in 2023, but for 10 years from 2006, Harper was a big deal in American football. And he’s still a powerful presence - his 156 games for the National Football League, including one Super Bowl win, show in his physique; he’s lifted a few weights in his time.

And Harper loved the Blinder concept, Wilson says. 

“He said ‘I totally understand the problem you’ve identified in New Zealand and which is totally relevant for us in the NFL and in America’. He said we were onto a winning idea.”

Support from Roman Harper (R) at a pitch meeting helped launch Blinder in the US market. Photo: Getty Images

Basically what Blinder does is provide a tech platform for journalists to talk to players one-on-one while protecting the privacy of the player, because no one gets to know their phone number. The Blinder exchange schedules the call, and sends out reminders, including one just a few minutes beforehand. Then at the allotted time, the journo rings the Blinder number, puts in a PIN, and that code activates the sports person’s phone to ring. They just have to pick up.

The team communications person can see the call is taking place, and at the end Blinder releases audio (or video) footage and written transcriptions.

Three bad alternatives

It replaces a system with three, all relatively unpalatable, options for when a journalist asks a team PR person for an interview with a player, Wilson says. First, the communications person could hand out a mobile number. The risks are obvious, particularly for younger and more vulnerable players, and as women’s sport becomes higher profile. 

“I mean, in what facet of society would it be considered good practice to be handing out teenage girls’ personal mobile numbers?” Wilson says. “But that’s what we’re doing in pro sport.”

Second option is the sports person rings the journalist at an allotted time, blocking their own number. It’s a perfect solution – in theory, but in practice sports people get busy or forget, says Aaron Heifetz, director of communications for US Women’s Soccer, the star team at the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In his experience, Heifetz says, the likelihood of an interview actually taking place if a sports person is initiating a call is around 75 percent. Maybe 50 percent on a bad day. Kerry Manders, head of communications and marketing at Netball NZ, puts it at about the same.

And that annoys journalists. A lot, sometimes. Like if they are a radio host primed for a live call from someone who just doesn’t ring.

“Relying on players to do things on time is not always a recipe for success," Heifetz says. "This way, all they have to do is set a time and pick up their phone.”

The third option is that the team communications person only grants interviews if it's using their own phone or a team phone to hook up journalist and star. But that’s onerous for the comms people, and restrictive for the journalists – if the players are travelling or training, or the PR person is on holiday, no one gets an interview.

Caley Wilson says the options for most sports media managers is to be restrictive with journalists or reckless with players. Photo: Supplied

“You have options A, B, or C and all of them are garbage, all of them have big downsides.” Wilson says. “You are either being really restrictive by telling someone they can only have an interview in three weeks’ time, or you are being reckless and you are handing out someone’s personal contact details. Just about everyone had given up on the athlete initiating the call, because it didn’t happen.”

So what?

The obvious question is ‘Who cares if journalists have great access to sports people?’ Tell those pesky journalists to leave the players alone. 

But that doesn’t work. Sports codes and teams need and love publicity. Media interviews help promote their games, fill their stadiums, and attract sponsors. They drive crucial revenue.

And that was the conundrum – accessibility versus protection – that American footballer Roman Harper recognised when he stood up in front of the crowd at the Stadia Ventures pitch meeting to support the Blinder project.

He also asked for a t-shirt.

“I think Roman really helped sway the people in that room, who might have been sitting there going ‘I don’t quite understand that; I haven’t experienced that issue myself’. The fact you had a Super Bowl winner saying ‘Yes, that is a problem’. That was probably hugely influential.”

Blinder got the $US100,000 Stadia Ventures investment; Wilson and co-founder Ross McConnell, former chief executive of the Kiwi expats business organisation Kea, got to spend 14 weeks on the business development bootcamp.

The University of Tennessee has 20 sports teams and around 550 athletes. Photo: Supplied

That’s part of the reason Blinder now counts the University of Tennessee Athletics, James Maddison University Athletics and US Women’s Soccer among its customers. Closer to home they work with Netball New Zealand, Emirates Team NZ, Rugby Australia and the NZ Police.

Customers pay from just under $US200 a month for a single user, to up to $US900 a month, or $US10,000 a year for a large professional team.

It's not cheap.

Personal experience

Blinder was born out of a problem Caley Wilson knew all too well. The son of Kiwi journalist Gary Wilson and brother of radio producer Siobhan Wilson, Caley was pretty much on the side of the journalist when in 2012 he got a job as media manager for NZ Rugby League.

But he was also very aware of a duty of care to young, and potentially vulnerable sports personalities

“It’s my first day and a call comes to me from the New Zealand Herald saying ‘Caley, can we chat with Kieran Foran?’” 

"By asking Kieran [Foran] to do a half-hour interview I’m actually putting him permanently on call to the journalist, and possibly his whole organisation, anyone he chooses to share that number with." – Caley Wilson, Blinder

Foran, son of Air NZ chief executive Greg Foran, was then a New Zealand-born up-and-coming rugby league star, in his early 20s and playing with the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, which had beaten the NZ Warriors in the previous season.

Hot property.

He was also potentially vulnerable, as was proven later in his career when he struggled with mental health and addiction.

Wilson wanted to say yes to the Herald – you didn’t grow up in his household without wanting to help journalists do their job, he says. But giving out Foran’s personal phone number seemed like a really bad idea.

“I thought this was a really flawed system. Because by asking Kieran as an athlete to do a half-hour interview I’m actually putting him permanently on call to the journalist, and possibly his whole organisation, anyone he chooses to share that number with.

“I’m helping out the organisation, but in return, I’m rolling the dice with his wellbeing. And that seemed like an utterly reckless way to behave.”

The next year Wilson found himself in Europe coordinating interviews – including for Sonny Bill Williams -– at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. 

It was just awful, he says.

“Everyone in the world wanted to talk to Sonny Bill; he was at the height of his fame. I did every interview for our whole team for seven weeks on the road through my own phone, and with a terrible time zone interaction with New Zealand. I would walk to their hotel room, or meet them in the lobby, hand over my phone, and then sit there for 20-30 minutes before trying to find the next athlete for the next interview.”

If it was stressful for him, it was also infuriating for journalists, who lambasted Wilson publicly for denying them access to the team.

Wilson got back to New Zealand determined to find a solution to what seemed a pretty obvious problem – how to give a journalist the ability to ring a sports person directly without having the number.

Searching for off-the-shelf

There had to be some software out there, Wilson thought, so he started asking around – other sports teams, entertainment promoters, politicians. He talked to the chief press secretary for the Prime Minister, the head of communications for England cricket, and a couple of major record labels. 

“I asked, ‘How are you doing this? Because this feels incredibly uncomfortable for me.’ And I got incredibly underwhelming answers.”

Other people were choosing one of the three options he was unhappy with – A, B or C.

Wilson found himself bouncing ideas for his own product around with co-founder Ross McConnell, and they engaged Auckland digital technology company ClearPoint, which came up with an early version of the software.

McConnell and Wilson set up Blinder in 2015, got some start-up capital from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and later Callaghan Innovation. Then they started getting teams on board. The Mystics netball team were an early customer, and Emirates Team New Zealand, and the Australian Football League, the highest-grossing sporting body in Australia.

“We had a bit of good fortune with the AFL because the then head of media relations, Patrick Keane had previously been in the same role for Cricket Australia when [the late, controversial, cricketing superstar] Shane Warne was playing. And most people quickly recognise that would have been a nightmarish role. Mobile phones and Shane Warne were a dangerous combination,” Wilson says.

“Patrick almost kissed us when we walked into his office and heard about the technology. It was like ‘Show me that it works and I’m in.”

Getting Netball New Zealand over the line was harder. Kerry Manders says she was initially worried about journalists seeing the system as Netball trying to unduly control access to the players.

“It wasn’t my intention to be Big Sister, Big Brother and we didn’t want the media seeing us like that. But I think they realised pretty quickly it facilitated interviews. There are no complaints now."

Kerry Manders of Netball NZ, right, with star Silver Ferns goal shoot Grace Nweke. Photo: Supplied

“I see my job as making it easier to connect journalists with athletes," Manders says. "For example I know one of the players isn’t around because they are going to their Nana’s 90th birthday. In the past there would be journalists calling her and she wouldn’t be answering.”

The Blinder system can also make it obvious to her if one player is doing a disproportionate number of interviews, and she can take the pressure off.

“Often when you are in a team sport, media have their favourites. with this I can see I’ve done 10 interviews with Dame Noeline [Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua] and maybe I’ll give Debbie [assistant coach Debbie Fuller] a chance.

Another advantage with the Blinder software, Manders says, is she can schedule a bunch of media interviews at the same time, and it works out the time zones for her when the teams are travelling.

“It definitely helps my job – and my brain.”

The journo perspective

Newsroom reporter Suzanne McFadden was also sceptical when she first heard about Blinder. She’s been a journalist since the 1980s, and was the founder and editor of LockerRoom, and she worried the new system would make it harder to get hold of interview subjects.

It didn’t work out like that, she says, and anyway with her ‘mother’ hat on, she knew the sports people needed protection.

LockerRoom founder and editor Suzanne McFadden, pictured with former Olympian Sarah Cowley-Ross

“We did put our athletes at risk, handing out their phone numbers willy nilly. It’s risky, particularly when you see the abuse athletes and sports officials get online. If some people had direct access to athletes it could be really dangerous.

“I remember a young Olympic athlete hounded by a tabloid media organisation to the point where her parents had to step in. The journalists had her phone and used to ring her all the time.” 

Caley Wilson has his own bad stories.

“Maria Tutaia came into our office and spoke about her experiences when we were creating Blinder."

The former Silver Ferns netball goal shoot was already in hot demand, even before her marriage to controversial Tongan Australian rugbu union and rugby league wing Israel Folau.

"She’d already had to change her mobile number multiple times after being hounded – and this was before Israel Folau," Wilson says.

“But whether it was an athlete like Maria, or a teenage girl under my duty of care like [now Northern Stars netball player] Holly Fowler, or Sonny Bill Williams, I thought they all deserved a better level of professionalism than was the norm.”

Still, Blinder is expensive (a top package costs $US10,000 a year) and Wilson knows that puts some teams off. The status quo – restriction or recklessness – is free, he says. 

McFadden says it will be out of reach of smaller teams and individual athletes, and that’s a shame.

"A guy put up a post online to say his first child had been safely born, and a few minutes later his phone was ringing and it was an Australian TV channel wanting to get cameras into the hospital." – Caley Wilson, Blinder

Wilson says the company has around 200 teams signed up so far, and six staff. He’s hoping for a boost with the arrival of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which runs for a month from July 20, in New Zealand and Australia.

US Women’s Soccer, whose elite team is the world champion and has won the world cup 40 times, is probably Blinder’s highest profile customer. Communications director Aaron Heifetz is a big fan.

“Before, every one-on-one phone interview was a challenge, and the reason is because you had to rely on the player to call the media member and block her number,” he says. "This is a great tool, not only for sports media, but for all facets of media."

Future prospects

Longer term, Blinder has set its sights on US college sports, with their thousands and thousands of athletes, and on European football. There’s also an opportunity outside sports, Wilson says. The company is already working with a couple of major entertainment publicists providing access to Grammy winning artists through Blinder.

New Zealand Police is another customer.

Police media relations director Juli Clausen (previously a media manager for NZ Rugby) says the organisation gets up to 200 media requests a day, and Blinder allows the it to make its staff more available.

But it’s sport where Wilson imagines Blinder's core being for a while.

“There’s a lot of background there for me. I’ve had the privilege of being heavily involved with the media, but also working with pro sports teams, and sitting down with multiple athletes, who have poured their hearts out to me.

“There was a guy who told me how he put up a post online to say his first child had been safely born, and a few minutes later his phone was ringing and it was an Australian TV channel wanting to get cameras into the hospital.

“Sporting organisations need to get their act together; they must do a far better job.”

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