If you’ve never heard of DragonFly Athletics, you’re not alone.
But if you have a student involved in school sports in Alabama, you likely have used one of the company’s many technological platforms.
In 2020, DragonFly was named the technology partner for the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA). Sixteen other states also use DragonFly to manage high school athletic programs and the tech company is broadening its reach into officiating records and extra options for local school programs.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” says Kirk Miller, who founded the sports technology company in Tuscaloosa in 2006. And while many businesses struggled through COVID, DragonFly has more than doubled its number of employees.
“We already all worked from home or remotely, so we were not as affected,” says Miller, who now lives in Hartselle with his wife and their two children. “Plus, we were adding this whole new component…so we had to have more people to do that.”
The worldwide shutdown of so many things spread to high school athletics, and only a few of the states DragonFly serves had fall sports seasons in 2020, giving the company time to fine-tune its systems and operations.
“Accessibility is so important in today’s world,” says Steve Savarese, who retired as the AHSAA executive director last year. “Everyone wants something in a timely manner. DragonFly provides the coach, the school, the parent — everyone — with that accessibility, all in one place, which also streamlines the whole process.”
The sports technology company evolved from a video sharing platform for college football programs to one that encompasses every aspect of high school athletics. Its reach has spread to schools all across the country and shows no signs of stopping.
The Big Idea
Like any good startup story, DragonFly Athletics began with a shared idea, thoughts scribbled on napkins at a local hole in the wall and a leader who created solutions to fit a need — in this case, sports management.
Miller, who had just finished his MBA in management information systems and his master’s in mechanical engineering in automation and control systems at the University of Alabama, was serving as technology director for UA Athletics in the early 2000s. He recognized the inefficiencies of trading video between teams and coaches each week.
After a Saturday game, each university would send an assistant to deliver a game video to coaches of the next game’s opponents — a system both clunky and inefficient.
Troy Finney, former UA graduate assistant and current associate athletic director for sports technologies & innovation at Alabama, remembers those days well. “I was actually the one who had to make that drive to meet up with the other team,” he says.
Basically, Miller took the idea of Napster’s user-friendly file-sharing service and came up with a similar way of exporting the digital video and sharing it, explains Finney. “It definitely was a game-changer.”
Once Miller and DragonFly had established themselves as a reputable company at the college level, they set their sights on the high school market, says Finney, who says he still meets his friend for breakfast at the Waysider when Miller comes to town. “He’s always looking for ways to improve on what he has and to expand it to other platforms and uses.”
Streamlining the Process
DragonFly started using squad management for high school athletic training in 2014, after seeing a need to have a team’s injury information all in one place to help streamline the process for athletic trainers throughout the state.
That started a snowball effect and before long, schools started using DragonFly for their paperwork, rosters and eligibility, says Miller. “So, we went further and looked at scheduling and the other aspects of what goes into putting on an athletic event,” he says.
What they ended up with is “an integrated, comprehensive management platform for high school athletics,” says Miller. “Athletics was one of few industries that did not have that central platform, so we created one.”
Instead of dealing with and keeping up with “mountains of paperwork” for each student athlete or team, says Savarese, all the paperwork is kept on the app for each student. “For administrators and parents, that reduces the repetitiveness involved in filling out multiple forms in multiple formats and in multiple locations,” he says. “This saves time, paper, everything.”
After working on and improving the DragonFly platform for high school athletic management, says Miller, his team started looking at other ways to integrate technology and athletics.
DragonFly recently partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to provide digital solutions for high school officials through the NFHS Center for Officials Services.
Their officiating platform provides a streamlined process for officials to complete certification, schedule games — even get paid — and allows for state associations and the NFHS to share officiating data.
Sky’s the Limit
So what’s next for the growing company?
“There’s a world of opportunity,” says Miller. “We’re always looking ahead to see how we can help streamline or improve athletics for coaches, players, parents, administrators, fans — you name it.”
The company’s new goal is to help fill in the high school sports experience, creating a “hyper-local experience” by creating easier and better ways for coaches and parents to communicate with each other and with student athletes.
“Everybody’s buying their event tickets online now, streaming games, fundraising for their teams, or hosting an athletic camp for elementary school kids,” says Miller. “There are several tools that can do each of these things separately, but we want to bring it all together in one place, in one app.”
“Basically,” he says, “We want DragonFly to be synonymous with high school sports.”
The Handley High School football team was caravanning back to Roanoke City on Interstate 20 in Alabama after a game in October 2018 when the unthinkable happened.
Head Football Coach Larry Strain was in one of three buses when he looked up to see a pickup truck flipping in midair in front of them before it hit the bus and he blacked out.
The bus had been hit by a driver, thought to have fallen asleep at the wheel while going the other direction on the interstate. A steep embankment in the median caused that vehicle to go airborne and slam into the top of the bus, which then crossed the same median and oncoming traffic before hitting the embankment on the opposite side of the road.
“When I came to, it was chaos,” Strain says. He and another coach had been knocked unconscious, the bus driver was unconscious and trapped. “Some of the kids were launched from the back of the bus to the front in the crash…but most kids had already crawled out of the windows — the back emergency door was wedged shut and the whole front of the bus was demolished.”
Emergency vehicles started showing up en masse and emergency personnel and flashing lights were everywhere. With barely time to process what had happened, Strain got to work, assisting emergency personnel with the necessary medical waivers and information needed to transport seven students to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham and another 19 to a hospital in nearby Talladega. The bus driver was air-lifted to UAB Hospital in Birmingham, where one of the coaches was also taken.
“The first questions from emergency personnel were: How many people were on the bus? What is their contact information? We needed to put at least seven kids in ambulances — who’s going with them? Where’s their insurance/medical release information?” says Strain.
“I had it all right there on my phone,” he says.
“I looked up everything using DragonFly,” says Strain. “I could tell them which kids were on my bus, found the contact information for their parents. Then, the moment you walk in the hospital, they need all that medical information for each kid.”
“I had people scattered in two different cities in four different hospitals. I had coaches’ information on my phone, too, and they also had the DragonFly app on their phones, so we were able to access all the information we needed, when we needed it most.”
Strain had been using DragonFly for about a year and had been impressed with the way it streamlined all the paperwork necessary to manage his teams and negated the need to carry folders everywhere for each student athlete. “I never in a million years thought I’d have to use the app for something like this. It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever been through as a coach, but boy, was I glad it was all right there. No telling where all that paperwork would’ve ended up after a wreck like that.”
Jennifer Williams and David Higginbotham are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Hartselle and he in Decatur.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.