Tech Projects are Transforming How Sports are Watched
Major sports leagues in the United States have a new game plan. To create a better viewing experience for fans—and improve the overall game—leagues are experimenting with novel ways to collect, use and distribute data.
“If you think about how our games are going to look five years from now, my belief is that it will be dramatically different,” Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), said at a conference in March. “It's one place where there has been very little innovation. The games, except for high definition, look essentially [the same] to the viewer.”
—Adam Silver, National Basketball Association, to conference attendees
The need to evolve is growing. In addition to the NBA, the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) are launching pilot projects to test and eventually introduce new technology. As more customers cease to pay for cable services, leagues stand to lose viewers—and revenue—if they remain stagnant, Mr. Silver said. “If we don't stay current and stay ahead of it, we're going to see a massive drop-off.”
Ball and Change
During its 2018-2019 season, the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers launched CourtVision, a streaming platform that combines data visualization, augmented reality and machine learning to let fans choose their preferred viewing mode.
Latency was an issue from the beginning. Two years ago, there was a 45-minute lag between oncourt action and CourtVision's transmission. This year, the development team was able to decrease lag time to under two minutes. “It's only going to get better,” Rajiv Maheswaran, CEO of Second Spectrum, told the website Engadget. Second Spectrum is developing the CourtVision technology. “The design is going to get better, the latency is going to get better, the number of options is going to get better.”
In coordination with Second Spectrum, the NBA is now testing a streaming service that would bring this viewing experience to the rest of the league.
IMAGES COURTESY OF SECOND SPECTRUM
The NBA's Los Angeles Clippers launched a streaming platform that combines data visualization and augmented reality.
After testing earlier this year, the NHL is hoping to trot out a new tracking system over its 2019-2020 season—the culmination of a six-year, multimillion-U.S.-dollar effort that collects data from sensors placed in players’ shoulder pads and inside the puck. The data can then be used to enhance the viewer experience, feeding spectators statistics such as player speed or the power of their shots.
Getting the puck and pads right was a major challenge for the project team. Developers at Jogmo World, the company designing the tracking system, found that, for instance, the rubber used in traditional pucks wasn't compatible with the technologically enabled ones. “We had to change the puck recipe, the puck mixture, to make that work,” says Martin Bachmayer, CEO and founder of Jogmo. “That was super difficult.” The team also plans to tweak pad designs according to feedback it collected from players. The project team believes it has arrived at pucks and shoulder pads that are indistinguishable from the analog equipment of yore.
On the Radar
As part of a three-year agreement, MLB is working with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB) to trial technology, including a radar-based system to track on-field action. The ALPB's primary goal is to use the data collected via the radar system, called TrackMan, to help umpires call plays more accurately.
MLB, ALPB and the TrackMan project team had to conduct exhaustive testing to confirm the data's reliability. “The system is working in terms of the mechanics and electronics,” says Rick White, president of the ALPB, Denver, Colorado, USA. But because umpires will be the ones relying on the technology, the project team also needed to vet the human side of the arrangement. After being introduced to the system earlier this year, “umpires felt comfortable with the system,” says Mr. White. Further testing and training were conducted to ensure umpires would be ready to actually make use of the technology.
“We believe that we are positively affecting the future of the game.”—Michael Wasney