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The Self-Taught Programmer Who Won Over the Entire NBA

by Danny Ecker

As a 6-foot-1 point guard at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1990s, Ross Comerford never showed up on an NBA coach’s radar. Today, not a single coach in pro basketball runs a play without him.

The former Division III player is founder of FastModel Sports, a 10-year-old company born at his parents’ kitchen table that provides software used by nearly every professional and major college basketball coach in the country.

After noticing his college coaches charting plays and churning out scouting reports by hand in notebooks—the way it was done at the pro level, too—the Scarsdale, N.Y., native set out to make things easier by employing technology. It wasn’t a snap. Mr. Comerford, who had degrees in business administration and economics, spent six months teaching himself basic programming and $10,000 getting the business up and running.

His suite of products—think a hardwood version of Microsoft Office—has tools for play diagramming, scouting reports, and practice management. Coaches can search databases of plays they have catalogued and parse statistics any way they wish to compile scouting reports. In July 2013, FastModel launched its line of products for the iPad and other tablets.

“Some teams in the NBA have 20,000 to 30,000 plays they’ve archived over several years,” says Mr. Comerford, 34. “They need to be able to pull that up at a moment’s notice in a staff meeting or have a printout to present to an owner, GM, or players.”

FastModel, which recently moved its 25-person head office to Ravenswood, Ill., is up to seven figures in annual revenue and has been profitable since 2008, though Mr. Comerford won’t disclose specifics.

He landed 10 clients in his first year in business, including the men’s and women’s teams at Duke University and the Boston Celtics. That list grew to 150 college teams and 10 NBA teams by the end of 2006. Now it counts all 30 NBA teams as subscribers, more than 90 percent of all Division I college programs (more than 300 schools) and roughly 5,000 high schools across 75 countries. Much of the expansion has come through word of mouth.

“It’s part of your lifeline every day during the season,” says Kevin Eastman, assistant coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, who uses FastModel play diagramming software to show players how to match up with opponents. “The ability to call something up quickly is very helpful, especially in late-game situations.”

Annual subscriptions range from about $2,500 to $7,500, depending on customization, customer support, and services, though there are cheaper products for high schools starting at $50. Mr. Comerford is targeting youth league coaches with his iPad product, using an undisclosed infusion from Abundant Venture Partners LLC in Chicago. (Mr. Comerford moved from Connecticut to be closer to FastModel’s investor.)

“Making it mobile is going to change a lot about how coaches work,” he says.

Reprinted with permission from Crain's Chicago Business. ©2013 Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

Ross Comerford

Ross Comerford '02.

Photo credit: Stephen J. Serio/Crain's Chicago Business.