Sports and Technology

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Image Credit: http://www.unknownium.net

By Bill Owen, Founder, TechNewsBlog.net | May 4, 2019

 

The North American sports market is growing by leaps and bounds and is set to reach $73.5 billion in 2019, according to the PWC 2018 Sports Outlook. The convergence of sports and technology is creating a current and future viewing and stadium experience that will be unsurpassed for fans and teams alike. A rapidly advancing data-driven sports culture as well as cutting-edge technologies are making it all happen.

In 2018, sports betting was legalized. Major mobile ticketing and biometric verification deals were reached at venues, and sports streaming services launched at an unprecedented pace. Cable TV has been feeling the pinch and 2019 will be a pivotal year for many industries. Sports are being disrupted by technology advancements and cultural changes, like most industries. Sports executives are busy adapting to these rapid changes to provide the ultimate experience for the fan base.

The past few years has seen a rapid advancement in athletic fitness and monitoring technology. Athletes push their bodies to the limit on a regular basis. With the advent of incredibly accurate wearable technology, athletes can be monitored for any signs of over-training or over-extension during competitions, revealing either early signs of an injury or alleviating injuries altogether. Other technologies monitor for peak performance/enhancements for reaching greater speeds and/or gaining measurable strength. Sports science is making a huge difference in what athletes eat, how and when they train, how they recover from injuries and how often they are rested from competition.

In 2019, niche sports will continue to grow in popularity as streaming services gain steam, sports betting will become available at venues, biometric IDs will be used to buy beer at games, esports will create further inroads in traditional sports, and athletes and team doctors will further embrace wearable technology, digital video, and virtual reality to enhance their skills and marketability.

Let’s look at some of today’s existing technologies that are having an impact on sports now and into the future.

 

Virtual Broadcasting


In WRAL-TV’s Master Control, operators can see what viewers
will see with the virtual reality set for “The Olympic Zone” . John Renigar/WRAL

The virtual first-down line is now so commonly used in football broadcasts, it’s nearly impossible to think about watching a game on TV without one. But prior to September 1998, it was not available. That Sportvision-created enhancement, has led to similar developments in baseball, tennis, soccer, and other sports, allowing viewers to gain a more accurate sense of what’s happening in a game.

Sports fans seem to be the primary target market for live VR services. In 2017, the National Basketball Association in the US began streaming all of its games in 360 degree video, ESPN has presented some of its extreme sports coverage in VR, and the National Baseball League has begun transmitting weekly games in VR in partnership with Intel.

Speaking at the 2018 VentureBeat GamesBeat Summit, NBC Universal’s EVP for Games and Digital Platforms, Chris Heatherly, said, “It isn’t a business yet. There’s a lot of negativity around VR. I happen to be bullish about the platform, but I think the technology was far from prime time for most users.”

However, there may be cause for optimism – it may simply be that we are still in the early days of this technology, and VR needs to be given time and space to find its feet.

In the US, NBC streamed more that 50 hours of live 360-degree video coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics, along with VR replays and highlight packages. The streams were produced by the Olympic Broadcast Service and were available on a wide variety of devices via the NBC Sports VR app.

Several broadcasters have begun to explore how these technologies can be used to enhance their current presentations and expand the services they make available to their audiences. Although most offerings focus heavily on sport, broadcasters around the world are still exploring how to best use this technology to reach their audiences. Uses range from live, immersive broadcasts, to behind the scenes tours, to stand-alone storytelling experiences.

Companies from outside of traditional broadcasting, like Intel and Google, have launched VR services, and gaming platforms like Steam have introduced their own VR entertainment offers.

 

High-Definition TV


Photo: espn images

HDTV broadcasts, though now long established across the sports industry, had a long and bumpy beginning. After technical specifications for the enhanced video format were first agreed upon in the early 1990s, HDTV made its domestic introduction in 1998.  Initial HDTV prices were very high, sometimes exceeding $10,000 initially. Tie that in with programming that was lean at best, and the result was slow consumer acceptance. As time progressed, there was a significant increase in picture quality and detail, along with measurable price drops. The at home viewing experience was being transformed, with significantly improved resolution, especially for sports like hockey. In 2003, ESPN started an HD channel, and within a few years, sports in HD was commonplace.

 

VAR (Video Assistant Referee)

FIFA VAR expert and former FIFA Referee, Roberto Rosetti explains the four match-changing situations when VAR can be implemented during a game.

The world’s most popular sport was given a major makeover in 2018 with the addition of video assistant referees. Debuting at the FIFA World Cup for the first time, VAR was used by referees throughout the month-long soccer tournament, overturning 16 calls during the first 62 matches alone.

The Russia 2018 World Cup was the first time video replays were used to assist refs at soccer’s biggest tournament after a decade of consideration. The VAR system was comprised of a team of assistant officials, located in a remote video room, who used technology to help make calls.

The system deploys an automated three-dimensional line system (calibrated with lasers before the match begins) that can spot infractions, such as red card offenses or offside penalties. The tech is assisted by multiple cameras placed around the stadium that help with triangulation.

Since the World Cup, a number of leagues have moved to adopt VAR. Both UEFA and CONMEBOL plan to implement VAR in 2019.

Note: This should be a consideration in the not-too-distant future for the NFL and other major professional leagues as well as collegiate sports. After what happened at last year’s NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, the possibility of VAR becoming mainstream is looking better all the time. If the refs were paying attention at all, the play that changed the momentum of the game would have been a no brainer call. Overall, instant replay has been a great enhancement and has provided confirmation of what has just taken place, in most cases. VAR, with its 3D line system, would settle most, if not all, of the “difficult to determine” instant replay calls.

 

Scoreboards


Photo: getty images

Similar to what’s happening in the home with HDTV and 4K video technology, outdoor display technology has become much larger and far more detailed in resolution. Old dot-matrix-based scoreboards, still in use in some markets in the 1990s, have given way to massive video boards capable of displaying high-end video and detailed animation. Even classic ballparks such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field that still use hand-operated scoreboards have also incorporated state-of-the-art video boards. Custom shapes and more elaborate installations, such as the Colorado Rockies’ new mountain-shaped board, have pushed the intricacy even further. Lastly, the new stadium for the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, The Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, slated for completion in 2020, will have an incredible scoreboard, with the latest in technology.

 

Sports Science

  1. Analytics to prevent injuries
  2. Tracking players
  3. Tracking movements
  4. Artificial Intelligence
  5. AI-powered sports analytics
  6. Injury recovery systems
  7. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
  8. Compression Technology
  9. Mental and Emotional obstacles
  10. Sweat analysis

Illustration:TD Athletes Edge

1) Analystics to prevent injuries

The risks of picking up an injury while training or playing sports is common. Many athletes suffer serious injuries that keep them out of action for three months or longer. In fact, it is very rare to encounter a professional athlete who did not have at least one or two serious injuries over their career.

Injuries not only rob players of time they could be spending on the field or court, but they also cost their teams money. The estimated cost of player injuries in the four major soccer leagues in Europe—English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, and Italian Serie A—came to roughly $100 million in 2015. In the American NFL, injury totals are trending upward, despite all the moves the league makes to boost the sport’s safety. Sports teams and athletes want to use technology and data to help understand why athletes are picking up specific injuries and how to prevent them.

2) Tracking players


Photo: nbae / getty images

The origins of player tracking had fairly humble beginnings. Initial questions, such as how fast or how far a certain player runs during a game, were answered using either wearable sensors or optical-based tracking systems that used cameras and mathematical coordinates to track player movement. Those simple beginnings, however, quickly gave way to much more sophisticated systems capable of tracking an array of player biometric data. Player tracking has also generated new ways to measure player performance, such as exit velocity and launch angles in baseball, that have become just as closely followed as a batting average or home run distance, in turn altering how general managers develop their rosters.

3) Tracking movements in real time

An example of such technology includes VU, by Pivot. VU is a device that uses Pivot’s sensors to understand an athlete’s body and performance in real time. The tech is capable of analyzing player landings, cuts, sprints, and other movements to understand an athlete’s performance and technique.

By using this technology, teams and individuals can understand whether specific techniques are causing injuries, or if they are merely suffering because of excessive fatigue or strain. VU is also usable for helping athletes rehabilitate from a major muscular or bone injury, as their movements are tracked and analyzed during each step of their rehab.

It is not possible to understand how each athlete is impacted by different activities or fatigue by applying a “one size fits all” approach. That is why some are taking a very personalized approach to understanding the bodies of elite athletes. Kitman Labs asks players to go through a Microsoft Kinect station daily, where they move different muscles the same way each time. Trainers get the information instantly, allowing them to compare a player’s flexibility and range to other days. If a discrepancy is noticed, further tests can be done to determine the issue.

Some injuries are difficult to prevent, such as contact injuries. But muscular problems are preventable through analysis and rest. If the Kitman Labs system notices a player is moving their left leg differently to previous days, they may be able to spot a hamstring or thigh problem in its very early stages. The player could rest for a week and be back in top condition. If the issue was never noticed, the athlete would keep playing until they tweaked or tore their muscle, which is a much longer and more complicated problem. Per Kitman Labs, they see anywhere from 20 to 33 percent reduction in injury rates among their partner teams.

4) Artificial Intelligence

Nearly everything across the sports industry has now been digitized in some fashion, and computer systems continue to grow more powerful. The next step, then, is allowing those computers to take the data and yield insights, products and content without having to be manually programmed every time. Signs of AI in sports are now cropping up everywhere, including voice-activated news and score updates on a smartphone or home speaker, video highlights automatically created by analyzing crowd noise and player gestures, or internally by a team or league analyzing fan data.

5) AI-powered sports analytics

The sports industry has entered a period of rapid adoption of artificial intelligence (AI). Sports analytics is one of the most prolific areas in sports technology, forecast to grow at a CAGR of 56.66% between 2017–2021.  The interaction between humans and AI is finally reaching the point where sports professionals understand how to ask the machine the right questions.

Assistive AI helps athletes, teams and coaches navigate through complex performance and game analysis and provides them with actionable insights that are backed by factual and contextual data. Today, AI-based sports analytics are already used in scouting new talent, developing strategies for specific opponents, reducing injuries, and boosting individual performance.

For example, in 2018,  Sportlogiq, a Montreal-based AI startup that is working with 24 NHL teams, was one of the first to spot Sean Durzi, a 19-year-old defense player in the Ontario Hockey Leagues. Durzi is, according to experts, at “the top of the list of players expected to be chosen this year” in the NHL draft.

In the world of soccer, a new assistive AI platform, STATS Edge, landed a big win when the Croatian national team reached the World Cup final for the first time in its history. Croatia was the first national team to use the STATS match preparation tool.

6) Injury recovery systems

Cryotherapy is an incredibly popular practice in sports, and it is gaining a lot of attention in the past few years. The concept of cryotherapy is to expose parts of the body to freezing or near-freezing temperature. While it is not the most fun experience, especially for those who hate the cold, it is said to help with recovery during the sports season. CyroUSA’s provides a rundown of their whole body therapy vs. ice bath.

With cryotherapy, it is possible to submerge most of the body into a cryotherapy booth, or target specific areas such as the arms or legs. It helps athletes deal with muscle pain, joint pain, soreness, and it promotes faster healing from injuries. While cryotherapy booths can be expensive, many teams and athletes use ice water baths to achieve the same result. The athlete sits in the ice bath for three to five minutes.

7) Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy


Photo: Hyberbaric oxygen chambers / BioBarica Medical Hyperbaric Systems

Hyperbaric therapies, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, are becoming increasingly popular among sports teams. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is said to repair and regenerate tissue, limit swelling, stop infections, and aid in muscle soreness after intense training sessions.

The process for hyperbaric oxygen therapy is straightforward. The patient breathes pure oxygen in a pressurized room, or through a tube. When in a chamber, it is possible to set the air pressure to three times the regular levels. The increase in air pressure causes the lungs to get even more pure oxygen than is otherwise possible. The pure oxygen is then carried by the blood throughout the body, where it can help muscles, stimulate growth factors, promote healing and help in other ways.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is very good for treating head injuries, such as serious falls or concussions. It is being used at an increasing rate in sports such as American football, where head injuries are a serious concern. But it also helps with other injuries and soreness throughout the body.

There are some risks associated with the therapy, such as middle ear injuries, temporary nearsightedness, lung collapses, or seizures. But the risks are not an issue if the therapy is being performed under the continual supervision of a medical expert. When athletes attempt to buy and use equipment to breathe pure oxygen on their own, it can be an issue, as it may result in overexposure that could trigger a lung collapse or a seizure.

8) Compression Technology

Athletes involved with sports that tax their legs can benefit immensely from technology like the NormaTec leg boots. NormaTec combines sports science and technology to create leg compression that assists athletes in recovery and injury prevention. The system comes with a control unit and attachments that can go on the legs or arms. Compressed air is used to massage limbs and mobilize fluid around the area.

The attachments mold into the exact body shape of the athlete’s legs. Then it begins to compress the area where it is attached, with the compressions going in a pulsing manner to mimic a massage. Athletes can use these attachments after each training session and game, with additional use during moments in the year where they are experiencing increased fatigue. American basketball star LeBron James uses the NormaTech attachments regularly.

9) Mental and Emotional Obstacles

Recovering from injuries is not just about the body, but also the mind. Athletes who suffer bad injuries, such as complete muscle tears or broken bones, may face mental obstacles when they are set to resume training. Many teams are beginning to understand the mental and psychological impact of injuries on athletes.

It is common for athletes to feel sad, isolated, angry, depressed, frustrated and disengaged while injured. It is especially true when the injury keeps the athlete from training for three months to a year. Athletic trainers, team doctors, and coaches are beginning to understand the issue and take it seriously. Many teams now employ therapists so that athletes can have someone to talk to regarding their emotions when they suffer a bad injury.

With one in four people worldwide affected by mental or neurological disorders during their lives, the notion that handsomely paid and highly visible athletes are willing to shed light on a topic historically burdened with a negative stigma is both a positive movement and refreshingly relatable. With each athlete that comes forward, it becomes increasingly apparent that the sports world’s investment in mental wellness is only just the beginning.

10) Sweat Analysis

Teams have begun using smart patches, such as the Kenzen ECHO Smart Patch, to help analyze a player’s sweat as they train and compete. These patches are useful for monitoring health signs, gathering data to boost recovery, and eventually improving athletic performance. Sweat analysis can provide information about the many solutes in a person’s body, such as sodium, chloride, potassium, ammonium, lactate, proteins, peptides, and alcohols.

Since sports teams have benchmark numbers for these solutes on each athlete, the data they gather after every training session and game helps them understand a player’s physical condition, whether they need a rest, and what foods and/or drinks they could use to replenish the body and aid in recovery.

Some of these smart patches can even monitor player vital signs, like their heart rate, respiration, skin temperature, or the heart rate variability. Instead of relying on how an athlete feels, or what a coach is seeing out on the field, teams can use real data to shape their decisions on how their star athletes train and recover.

Each individual is different in how they respond to the intensity of sports. Some may have greater natural recovery, while others need more rest in between training sessions and games. By analyzing sweat, teams can put real data next to everything else they know about their athletes.

 

Wearable Technology

  1. Catapult OptimEye S5
  2. QLIPP
  3. Zepp Baseball and Softball
  4. Playertek (GPS soccer vest)
  5. Wrist and other wearables
  6. Impact of Wearable Technology in Sports
  7. Wearables and Privacy

1) Catapult OptimEye S5

Examples of successful wearable technology include the Catapult OptimEye S5. The device came to prominence when used by English soccer team Leicester City, as they defied 5000/1 odds to win the 2015-2016 Premier League title. Leicester used the OptimEye S5 to track a player’s acceleration, positioning, collision impact, and much more. The data arrives instantly, meaning coaches and team doctors always have data to provide greater context to what they are seeing from a player during games.

The product gives information about volume, intensity, and explosiveness during games and training sessions. Teams around the world, such as the Denver Broncos, Sacramento Kings, the Brazil national soccer team, Newcastle United, and Ajax use the OptimEye S5.

2) QLIPP

Tennis professionals are incorporating products such as QLIPP into their training regimes. QLIPP offers real time data from within a tennis racket, as it attaches to racket strings. The device offers information about the intensity and position each time a player hits a tennis ball with the racket. Coaches can see the information in real time, and tell the player when they are hitting the sweet spot.

3) Zepp Baseball and Softball

Zepp’s Baseball and Softball offering provides players and coaches with real time data regarding bat speed, swing technique, attack angles, and more. Players can use the Zepp Baseball and Softball kit to methodically improve every aspect of how they are swinging their bat and hitting the baseball. Zepp provides additional offerings for golf, tennis, softball, soccer and other sports.

4) Playertek (GPS soccer vest)

Playertek’s pioneering GPS vest that is taking over the soccer (football) world! We look at how the vest tracks the players performance throughout the game to ultimately enhance the overall performance of the team:

With each iteration, wearable technology improves its accuracy and the type of data it can offer to sports teams and athletes. Wearable tech is useful to understand performance over time, improve technique and prevent injuries.

We have merely scratched the surface of how much science and technology can help sports teams and athletes. As more coaches and sports doctors begin to see the benefits of combining their old methods with new technology, players will be fitter, exhibiting better technique, performance, and less likely to suffer muscular injuries due to fatigue.

5) Wrist and other wearables

Apple unveiled the latest version of its smartwatch in September 2018 with FDA approval. The company announced upgraded functionality for its heart rate sensor that puts the Apple Watch in an entirely new category of medical-grade devices.

The Apple Watch sensor can now read a user’s electrocardiogram and alert users when their heart rate is too low or too high and if they’re displaying signs of atrial fibrillation (an irregular, rapid heart rate). Apple’s ECG readings, which are further supported by the American Heart Association, can be taken by a user simply placing their finger on the watch’s crown for 30 seconds.

Fitbit launched Fitbit Care, an enterprise health platform for wellness and prevention and disease management. Fitbit also teamed up with Google’s Cloud Healthcare API to work more closely with doctors to provide personalized healthcare.

The Humon Hex, a device that measures muscle oxygen use in real time to get a read on exertion, helped Jamaican sprinter Briana Williams win the women’s sprint double at the World U20 Championships at age 16, and helped underdog Henry Cejudo defeat reigning-UFC Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.

TAMPERE, FINLAND – JULY 12: Briana Williams of Jamaica crosses the finish line to win gold in the final of the women’s 100m on day three of The IAAF World U20 Championships on July 12, 2018 in Tampere, Finland. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for IAAF)

Smart wearables, tracking sensors and other connected devices have been gaining momentum in the sports industry for a few years. Today, Catapult’s chest-strap is used by over 400 sports organizations across the globe and every uniformed NFL player wears shoulder pads with Zebra sensors. The reason for such sweeping adoption is the immense volume of performance and health data these devices supply to athletes, coaches, and sports professionals. The speed of adoption shows no signs of slowing, and the technology is evolving beyond tracking chips that are integrated into sports equipment or traditional wearables such as smart watches and activity trackers.

As sensors become smaller and all but invisible, they can be woven into the very fabric of equipment or clothing. Wearable technology is now expanding in the direction of smart clothing and electronic textiles, such as the self-heating jackets that the U.S. team wore at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, or Nike’s HyperAdapt shoes with self-tying laces. Tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, and even Apple are all developing smart fabric and interactive garments, which means we will likely see new products on the market soon.

The chips themselves are also becoming more intelligent. Combined with AI and virtual assistants, they can potentially analyze the data they track in real-time and give contextual tips to athletes about their health and training routines. For instance, the world’s first AI earphones with Gait Analysis are capable of “offering real-time voice coaching to guide the user through their running program.” Imagine a smart baseball bat or a smart golf club that can measure your performance and advise on how to improve your skills!

In the future, wearable tech companies will focus not only on hardware but on software and usability components, such as data visualization, predictive analytics, and user experience.

6) Impact of Wearable Technology in Sports

Computer vision


Illustration: GumGum Japan | https://gumgum.com

Defined: Computer vision is artificial intelligence applied to the visual world. It enables us to replicate the abilities of the human eye and the visual cortex.

As the sports world is putting increasingly more focus on the fan experience, AI plays an essential role in shaping the customer journey for sports viewers at home and in arenas.

Computer vision, the ability of a machine to recognize, analyze and contextualize visual data, is one of the most influential and compelling types of AI for sports. The market for computer vision systems is projected to reach $25.32 billion by 2023, at a CAGR of 47.54% between 2018 and 2023, according to ReportBuyer. Many professional venues today are already equipped with high-resolution and motion tracking cameras that track hundreds of movements and data points during games and produce automated video highlights, but the full potential of this technology is yet to be explored.

An excellent example of what computer vision can do for sports came from a California-based company called GumGum, which applied its patented technology to sponsorship valuation by tracking and analyzing branding across sports footage and social media mentions. By providing almost instantaneous ROI metrics, GumGum’s computer vision empowers rights holders and brands to reevaluate their sponsorship spending in the digital economy.

Advancements in deep learning and computer vision account for the rise of facial recognition technology. Sports and entertainment venues are becoming increasingly more invested in utilizing this technology to improve security, combat ticket fraud, and create new tools for advertising and marketing.

Live Nation and Madison Square Garden reportedly tested facial recognition capabilities. It has already been confirmed that facial recognition systems will be used across venues during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, there remain significant privacy concerns associated with the use of this particular technology. If face recognition is to gain a firm foothold in the sports world, the sports ecosystem should begin planning how to address security concerns and create a safe and captivating fan experience.

AR and VR (Augmented and Virtual Reality)


Photo: getty images

Augmented Reality

Computer vision is also vital for augmented reality (AR) development, and together these two technologies have a bright future in sports. Clippers CourtVision, the latest initiative by the L.A. Clippers and sports data analytics firm Second Spectrum, pursues the ultimate goal of creating personalized viewing that puts fans in control of their experience. The combination of computer vision, real-time AI analytics, and augmented reality features allow users to switch between modes that provide different on-screen annotations and animations. Amazon is also testing similar statistical widgets and other interactive features on Twitch during its Thursday Night Football live streams. Most recently, ESPN’s iconic show, Around the Horn, will be reinvented with a new AR look. Will the ESPN+ streaming service be next to follow the trend?

Beyond sports broadcasting, augmented (and virtual) reality stands to enhance the live experience and will be a motivating factor to get fans back to the stadiums. For instance, the San Francisco 49ers, emboldened by the success of their experiments with special AR trading cards and collectibles, recently partnered with MYXR to further expand AR options for their fans at Levi’s Stadium. Minnesota Vikings fans who use the team AR app to unlock special content on the day of the game can even take a VR tour of the Vikings museum at U.S. Bank Stadium to compete with their favorite athletes. This is just the tip of the iceberg. As SportTechie proves by analyzing Panasonic’s futuristic outlook for smart stadiums showcased during CES 2018, the future is closer than we might think.

Virtual Reality

Still a work in progress, the core idea of VR is to allow someone to have an immersive experience as if they are physically present while still being somewhere else, such as attending a game occurring thousands of miles away. In only the last few years, many leagues and broadcasters have developed both live and on-demand VR broadcasts for many sports. Not unlike the evolution of HDTV, consumer adoption has been slow, owing in part to a confusing array of bulky, often unsatisfying VR headsets. But belief in VR among its advocates remains steadfast, and many experts predict VR technology will ultimately be miniaturized and embedded into headsets much more akin to a pair of sunglasses.

7) Wearables and Privacy

In 2018, Whoop, the wearable company that partnered with the NFL Players Association last year to track player strain and recovery, secured a $25 million Series C funding round led by UAE71 Capital with participation from the NFLPA, Kevin Durant, and former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

In 2019, wearables and RFID trackers will continue to be pushed onto athletes to meet the insatiable appetite of fans and coaches for data. But with this proliferation of wearable devices in professional sports, innovation will continue to push against privacy.

The NFL’s CBA is set to expire in 2020. The next wave of negotiations between the league and NFLPA will likely begin in 2019, bringing many of these issues to the forefront. Under the terms of the NFLPA’s deal with Whoop, NFL players maintain ownership of their health data, and are also able to commercialize that data through the NFLPA’s licensing program.

According to Sean Sansiveri, the NFLPA’s vice president of business and legal affairs, if a market for athletes’ biometric data should ever arise, the union will have an established mechanism in place to ensure that professional football players are not only protected but also well-positioned to profit off their private data if they choose to do so. The Supreme Court’s ruling on sports betting in May, and the expanding state-by-state legalization of sports betting, might well create exactly that market.

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Blockchain and cryptocurrencies


Illustration: SportsCastr International Ltd.

The sports industry has not been immune to the hype around crypto. The first real success story of cryptocurrency in sports occurred in 2013, when the Jamaican bobsled team launched its own token, Dogecoin, and raised over USD $30,000 to finance their trip to the Sochi Winter Olympics. However, even as the sports world started exploring cryptocurrency and its underlying technology blockchain, we haven’t seen anything major so far. Between the volatility of cryptocurrencies and the abundance of fraudulent ICO schemes, sports companies have mostly stayed away from the crypto market. However, the tide now seems to be changing.

In the summer of 2018, two major leagues announced crypto initiatives. The NHL announced a partnership with SportsCastr, a decentralized live video streaming platform that rewards users for producing and hosting unique content, such as fan commentary in sync with live games. SportsCastr even has its own currency, FanChain, which is backed by former NBA commissioner David Stern among other investors. At about the same time, Major League Baseball announced the launch of MLB Crypto Baseball, a decentralized game that is similar to the popular game of CryptoKitties. MLB users can buy digital avatars, trade digital baseball collectibles, earn rewards, and more. Both initiatives aim at reaching new demographics while increasingly engaging new and existing fans. An interesting side effect of such projects is that they could potentially have a tremendous impact on fantasy sports and sports betting.

Unsurprisingly, gambling companies were one of the first to jump on the crypto train. Collaboration in the gambling sector ranges from offshore sites that accept cryptocurrency as payment to fully blockchain-based platforms such as Edgeless or Wagerr. Now that the federal ban on sports betting has been lifted in the United Sates, gambling operators and sports leagues are exploring new opportunities. If the idea of an integrity fee falls through, will the leagues try to go into the betting business themselves? For example, the MLB could potentially use their existing MLB Crypto token to launch their own blockchain-based sportsbook.

Despite their current risks, cryptocurrencies present interesting opportunities for both fans and sports professionals. Crypto games, digital collectibles, micro-funding for athletes from their fans — the sports world will definitely be exploring these and other applications in the years to come.

 

eSports (video games)


Photo: Dexerto LTD

With the vast audiences drawn to eSports and the increasing direct ties to professional leagues, we’ve seen players, executives, and owners jumping into the arena as team owners and avid gamers, as well as a way to continue to connect with teammates and fans off the court. As leagues look to continue building and expanding their fan bases, their eSports presence will be a major part of those interactions.

Over the coming year, it is expected that teams and leagues will continue to embrace eSports as a part of the existing major sports leagues, including efforts to integrate eSports opportunities into the existing sports experience, from eSports lounges in Topgolf facilities to an eSports arena in the Real Madrid’s new stadium.

NFL launches an eSports League

While esports and traditional sports merged at an unprecedented rate in 2018 with the launch of the NBA 2K and investments in esports teams by sports franchises, this trend will accelerate in 2019. NASCAR has already announced that it is hopping on the esports league bandwagon heading into the new year. The NFL has been slower to adopt esports, however the league posted a job in 2018  looking for a “head of gaming and esports” that would be based in its New York headquarters and lead the “strategic planning, partner management and execution of the League’s gaming efforts.” Perhaps 2019 is the year that Madden NFL gamers can go pro.

 

Sports Betting

Like these gamblers in the South Point hotel and casino in Las Vegas,

bettors in New Jersey will be able to wager on sporting events

beginning this week. (John Locher/AP Photo, file)

In May 2018 sports technology saw the long-awaited legalization of sports betting, wearable devices promising granular levels of biometric analysis, an FDA-approved smartwatch, video assistant referees at the World Cup, the marriage of digital and brick-and-mortar worlds, and the further adoption of esports personalities in sports.

If 2017 were the year that broadcasters started investing in over-the-top services, 2018 was the year the market was flooded with streaming competition. Interactive games that let people make cashless wagers on game outcomes graduated into real-money wagering.

The SportTechie Awards recently highlighted the best in class for 2018, however this rundown serves to highlight some of the year’s major sports technology headlines.

In what might be considered the biggest sports technology story of the year, the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 moved to allow the legalization of sports betting. The ruling sent data companies (such as Sportradar), fantasy sites (such as FanDuel and DraftKings) and sports leagues (such as the NBA) racing to establish a foothold in the handful of states that have begun legalizing sports betting.

In July 2018, FanDuel, fueled by a takeover by U.K.-based betting house Paddy Power Betfair, opened its first brick-and-mortar sports betting location near Metlife Stadium in New Jersey and partnered with the NHL and NBA to deliver fantasy and betting experiences to fans.

MGM has established itself as one of the premiere sports betting companies, inking deals across major league sports. Meanwhile, the New York Jets are working with MGM to build sports betting enhancements into the Jets’ existing in-app prediction game, “I Called It.”

 

Fans

  1. Mobile video streaming
  2. Apps/Personalizing fan engagement
  3. Free Fantasy Sports
  4. Digital Ticketing/Online secondary ticketing
  5. Social Media
  6. The future of sports is the fans

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images 

Sidenote: This Seahawks fan is ALL IN after the touchdown. Exactly why his season tickets are where they are. Even tight end Nick Vannett is inspired by this guy!

1) Mobile video streaming


Photo: illustration; getty images

When SportsBusiness Journal launched in 1998, fans getting scores on their pagers was still common. But within the next decade, broadband internet, smartphones, the first iPhone and Apple’s App Store all helped pave the way toward fans getting live games on their phones and exponentially growing the notion of fans being able to watch a game wherever they are. Today, every major sports programmer gets most of their digital traffic via mobile, and no rights deal of any consequence is negotiated without mobile video rights.

Streaming and Consolidation

A number of streaming services offering extensive live sports programming launched in the U.S. in 2018, from ESPN+ to DAZN. This has created a fragmented market for sports streaming, while enabling fans to reduce their dependence on traditional cable. In 2019, streaming brands will scoop up new digital rights at a rapid pace, spanning not only major sports but niche ones as well.

We’ve already started to see this, with NBC adding a number of niche sports (from skiing to motocross) on its paid streaming service NBC Sports Gold. ESPN+ has similarly emphasized lesser-known sporting events, while DAZN has entered the U.S. market with a focus on combat sports.

In 2019, digital rights will continue to find their way into the hands of these major players, which will help to tighten their hold on the market. This might also give some of these streaming companies the fuel to begin trouncing (and potentially even scooping up) some rivals, igniting a more mature wave of consolidation within the industry.

 

2) Apps/Personalizing fan engagement


Credit: Doug N. Masters

From checking scores to watching video to finding a particular craft beer stand at your favorite stadium, apps have revolutionized the fan experience. Fans in many markets can now even order stadium food without leaving their seat by using a mobile app and having their order brought to them. App overload, however, has now swung the other way as consumers have grown more selective about what they will download, and the battle for virtual shelf space on a fan’s smartphone has grown fierce. As a result, many leagues, teams and media networks have sought to bake more features into broad-based flagship apps.

While organizations have always collected data from season ticket holders, fan loyalty programs, and other fan engagement sources, many teams house this data in disparate databases and siloed customer-relationship management systems. These organizations, though, are starting to think about the fan holistically, requiring a centralization of these touchpoints into a single source of truth that can drive deeper, more personalized fan engagement—inside and outside of the stadium.

As sports teams and leagues build on and incorporate the successes of the e-commerce revolution, they’ll be able to connect all dots of a single fan’s journey, helping to sell additional tickets while also driving personalized connections and experiences that can increase the lifetime value of fans. Over the next year, we believe organizations will adapt their marketing functions to leverage fan data and become even more nimble and automated.

3) Free Fantasy Sports

For almost 40 years, fantasy sports typically involved a tedious, manual tabulation of statistics to determine winners in a particular league. And even when the internet began to automate that process, it was often a fee-based service appealing to only the most devoted of players. But in the mid-2000s, several leading sports websites began to offer free fantasy leagues with scoring in or near real-time. The shift led to a massive increase in participation and moved fantasy sports from a niche hobby into an industry force.

4) Digital ticketing/Online secondary ticketing

For nearly the entire history of ticketing, access to a sporting event has involved using a paper-based ticket that yields little to no data to the team, league or venue operator as to who is actually in their building. But just within the last several years, ticketing advancements using technologies such as mobile barcodes, near-field communications (NFC), radio frequency identification (RFID) and beacons have opened vast new realms of data on who is going to the games, their individual preferences and their movements from and around a venue.

Mobile Ticketing and Biometrics

In 2019, mobile ticketing might not just become commonplace to pass through many venue gates, but it may become required. Meanwhile fans will be increasingly incentivized to use their biometrics for verification.

In 2018, major ticketing companies, from Ticketmaster to Seatgeek, moved to couple together the primary and secondary ticketing markets to help teams maintain control over prices and attendance data. After the NFL expanded its partnership with Ticketmaster in 2017 in an attempt to control more secondary-market sales, in 2018 a number of teams started to embrace a mobile-first ticketing strategy. This will continue into the new year, but with the added integration of biometrics.

In the MLB, biometric verification company Clear (which has a presence alongside TSA Pre✓ at airports) entered into a multi-year deal in 2018 with the league and its ticketing partner Tickets.com to do just that. As part of the deal, Clear agreed to leverage Tickets.com’s API to enable members to link their Clear profile with their MLB.com account to gain entry into games with a fingerprint scan. In the near future, facial recognition is expected to be added as well. The partnership was piloted at select MLB ballparks in 2018, with a broader roll-out planned for 2019.

Also next year, biometric verification will expand beyond the gates and into venues. Clear was approved in the state of Washington in 2018 to use its services to verify identities of people looking to purchase beer at Seattle Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders games. The company has since been in talks with regulators in other states to expand this elsewhere in the U.S.

Online secondary ticketing


Photo: getty images

Online ticket resale markets took sales activity that had been occurring in stadium parking lots and back alleys into an open and much more transparent forum, allowing buyers, sellers, teams and leagues to get a broad, real-time pulse on what markets were actually bearing. That data in turn has had all sorts of ripple effects, most notably influencing teams’ decisions on how to price their tickets on the primary market. And leagues and teams that once fought such activity now embrace it and form long-term business partnerships around it.

5) Social Media

It’s now hard to imagine being a sports fan without the constant presence of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. But Twitter is only 12 years old and Facebook 14 years old. And in that time, Twitter has become how sports news is broken, how we create larger communities of fandom, and stay deeper in the moment as sports are happening. Players have been particularly active on social media, showing off their personalities and giving voice to issues, whether it’s their contract status, important social causes, or just the state of their latest workout.

Athletes as content creators

Gone are the days of sports fans needing reporters to get news about their favorite players. Over the past few years, athletes are increasingly becoming content creators in their own right—be it through Instagram, Twitter, or long-form stories on websites like The Players’ Tribune.

While the athlete’s role as an individual content creator serves as a small complement to traditional media, this trend—buoyed by stars who were raised in the digital age—could become even more impactful and important in the coming years. This platform will enable further expansion and value of personal brands while also opening the door for the next generation of athletes to build their brands before they become household names.

Social Media and how it’s changing sports:

6) The future of sports is the fans!

It is time for the sports industry to put fans first, giving them freedom to choose what, how and when they want to watch. As the sports world adapts to the user-centric philosophy, it is becoming increasingly interwoven with technology. Many technologies are already available for team and venue owners to realize the true value of their content, to enhance stadium experience, and empower athletes and brands to make meaningful connections to the fan base. There is no doubt that we will see more exciting developments in the next year as the future of sports takes shape. Without the fans, none of the teams would exist and there would be no need to pursue the technologies to enhance athletic performances or fan experience.

 

Conclusion

This report covers a lot of ground and sports technology covers many areas of technology and interest from team owners, venue owners, athletes and last but not least, fans. Hopefully, this summary has given you a better overall understanding of some of the latest technologies, why they were created and what the potential is for their use now and in the future. As the technology revolution hurtles forward, we will be witnessing some very awe-inspiring technological advances that will enhance our love of sports, be it from the business, athletic or consumer perspective.