The year in sports technology saw new media companies nudging into the broadcast rights landscape, increased concerns from pro athletes over biometric data privacy, advanced analytics infiltrating the clubhouse, a Pokémon Go-inspired spate of fan engagement tools, the continued professionalization of esports and an abundance of injury prevention tools led by a jugular-compressing, concussion-preventing collar hailing from the field of biomimcry.
While the recent SportTechie Awards highlighted the very best in class for 2017, this rundown covers some major sports technology headlines for the year that was, from Amazon to Zebra.
The e-commerce behemoth shook the sporting broadcast world with its $50 million play to snatch the NFL’s Thursday Night Football streaming rights for Amazon Prime customers. The Next Gen ATP Finals, the ATP men’s tour (in U.K. and Ireland) and AVP beach volleyball followed suit. Amazon’s sporting ventures also include original series on storied teams like Manchester City and Michigan football, as well as statistical services for MLB’s Statcast and the NFL’s Next Gen Stats and trivia games on Alexa.
Disney increased its investment in BAMTech — the underlying streaming technology that made Major League Baseball Advanced Media a tech giant was spun off in 2015 — to become the company’s majority shareholder. This will power the soon-to-market ESPN+ service, not to mention Disney’s latest play into local markets with the acquisition of 22 Fox Sports Regional Networks.
Known for its elite athlete wearables (in an expanding roster of sports, now including baseball), Catapult expanded its portfolio by releasing the prosumer-targeted PlayerTek tracking device this spring and acquiring AMS (Athlete Management System) to pair with its 2016 purchase of sports video leaders XOS Digital in an effort to offer the entire technology performance stack. In Australia, collectively bargained uses of Catapult tracking data include live broadcast of biometric information — including a cinematic finish to a State of Origin rugby match.
Advanced technology is growing increasingly accessible, even to amateur athletes. While Fitbit and its peers have been within the reach of average consumers for a while, products such as PlayerTek and FieldWiz are among the wearables whose offerings customarily had been geared only toward elite teams, rather than high school and small colleges or even weekend warriors — the so-called prosumer market. The soon-to-be open Brooklyn facility Socceroof plans to replicate the FIFA video game series in real life through novel use of data-tracking chips to give its participants the feeling of pro sports. Companies like DribbleUp aim to extend sophisticated coaching and feedback to users equipped only with a smartphone and a soccer ball or basketball; MasterClass offers instruction from luminaries such as Serena Williams and Stephen Curry. These are but a few examples of the new tools and options coming on the market that are available to athletes of all levels.
As a sign of esports’ continued maturation as a professional sport, Riot Games assigned 10 League of Legends franchises in North America, held the first player draft in conjunction with its second Scouting Grounds combine and is trying to promote a sanctioned circuit in the college ranks. There’s even a fantasy game, too. (Among the inaugural draft’s attendees: Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who is collaborating with the shared-ownership Clutch Gaming team.)
As the surest sign yet of its grand plans for live sports streaming, Facebook made a reported $600 million —and, ultimately, losing — bid for Indian Premier League cricket rights. Thus far, the social media titan has focused on smaller piecemeal broadcast deals that include weekly MLB games, some Champions League matches as well as coverage of the Mexican soccer league, Major League Soccer, NBA G League and smaller conference football. Speculation is rampant that Facebook may make a play for English Premier League rights, among other coveted properties.
Golden State Warriors
Sure, they won the NBA title, but the Warriors’ inclusion on this list owes to its cohort of tech-savvy investors. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are all avid tech users taking full advantage of their proximity to Silicon Valley to enter the industry and market an endless array of apps and games.
A seven-year-old girl born with a rare disease called Poland Syndrome that rendered her right hand missing three fingers, Hailey Dawson began using a 3D-printed robotic hand and threw out ceremonial first pitches at a Washington Nationals game in the summer before taking the big stage and performing the honor before World Series Game 4.
After working behind the scenes on the concept for months, the NHL rolled out a pilot program during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs in which each team’s bench could access real-time video on three iPads. The app — called iBench and running XOS Digital’s Thunder video package — was a particular hit in Pittsburgh, where Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he believed his team gained a competitive advantage from its use. The successful trial spawned league-wide use for all regular season games in 2017-18.
Jumbo video boards
The video boards at venues have been redefined by the colossal mountings at such buildings as the New Jersey Devils’ Prudential Center and the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Devils’ screen spans four stories high and nearly 10,000 feet across, making it the largest center-hung board in the world. The Falcons, meanwhile, hoisted a 360-degree circular Halo Board with 62,350 square feet of LED high definition real-estate, not to mention a 101-foot-high, four-sided video column.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea’s PyeongChang have been infused with technology throughout the experience, from a torch-carrying robot to interactive audio commentary of events to Visa’s glove-powered payments to several Intel-driven projects, such as 5G networks, virtual reality, 360-degree replays and drone deployments.
In a clear example of the data collected from advanced tracking technology affecting game play, the Statcast-popularized metric of launch angle — which quantifies the baseball’s trajectory after leaving the baseball bat — proliferated throughout MLB clubhouses, with players and coaches acknowledging its impact on hitters’ approaches and swings in a possible contribution to the recent home run surge.
It’s no secret, of course, that the world is going mobile, but the range of offerings on one’s mobile device — season tickets, live streaming, esports, measuring launch angles, in-venue video and even concussion assessments, to name a few — grew exponentially during the year. So too did previously cumbersome machinery go portable, such as the ability to calculate a pitch’s spin rate, check muscles for injury or even help umpire a tennis match.
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Nike NBA jerseys
Nike’s landmark eight-year deal to become the official provider of NBA jerseys, with technology for consumers stitched in throughout the connected uniforms. Body mapping helped determine mesh locations, micro-nodes in the fabric enhance air circulation and an NFC chip in the jock tag lay the foundation for any number of fan promotions, such as unlocking team-centric playlists.
Over-the-top live streaming became a market rife with rapid expansion this year, even beyond the announcements for headliner ESPN+. Turner launched an OTT channel with Bleacher Report as its portal. CBS planned a 24/7 OTT channel dedicated to sports. NBC launched a service tied to its Premier League rights. Monumental Sports offered direct-to-consumer content to Washington-area sports fans. Even those without live event coverage to offer like Sports Illustrated and Outside magazines formulated plans for their own such service, as did tech-savvy athletes like lacrosse star Paul Rabil, who offers coaching tips and other instruction through a partnership with Amazon.
Published details of the new collective bargaining agreements in MLB and the NBA show pledges to form wearable tech committees to determine how accrued biometric data can be used. Baseball banned the use of the data for commercial use and in arbitration negotiations; basketball prohibits its use in all contract negotiations. The NFL Players Association, meanwhile, agreed with WHOOP on a deal that could enable the licensing of such data — this could lead to a brewing conflict with the NFL, which has tabbed Zebra Technologies as its tracking provider. Several sports leagues in Australia are much progressive and already sanction such use, with the Aussie Football League, for instance, granting a league-wide salary bump.
A device inspired by woodpeckers and mountain rams purports to protect the brain from trauma by light compression on the jugular to increase blood volume in the head and provide a cushion on impact. The Q-Collar sounds like science fiction, but more than 30 peer-reviewed research papers support its efficacy and the device is already available in Canada as the Bauer NeuroShield.
From STRIVR to Monsterful VR and TrinityVR, virtual reality grew in acceptance as a training tool for athletes, not to mention an immersive way for spectators to watch live baseball, golf and NASCAR or gain a new perspective on one’s favorite team. Others preferred mixed reality experiences — Mixed River, for instance, made its NFL debut with the Baltimore Ravens. The subset of MR known as augmented reality, popularized by Pokémon Go and facilitated by Apple’s ARKit, became widespread for fan products, ranging from the debut of new uniforms to at least two AR fantasy games and some tantalizing possibilities for in-game use for fans at ballgames.
The joint-venture, multi-platform sports network Stadium has been innovative in using Twitter chatter to guide studio-show conversations and streaming college football and basketball games on Facebook Live. The social community around the Facebook broadcasts helped generate one of the year’s most feel-good TV moments.
Twitter’s status as a destination for sports was uncertain after Amazon pried away the NFL’s Thursday Night Football rights, but the social chatter site has streamed weekly MLB, NHL and National League Lacrosse games, not to mention live coverage of the WNBA, PGA Tour and unique perspectives inside cars during the NASCAR playoffs. There is also speculation about whether to introduce micropayments whereby fans can purchase snippets of exciting game coverage, as well as the aforementioned Stadium network, studio shows and sports-centric direct message and Happening Now features.
The medical tech known for prenatal evaluations is becoming a rapid and portable diagnostic tool for muscle health. MuscleSound has been working with elite teams for a few years, including the Colorado Rockies, added the SEC champion University of Georgia football team this fall. Electronics giant Philips has its Lumify product running on a smartphone app and handheld transducer, which Dutch soccer powerhouse PSV Eindhoven recently adopted. (Incidentally, the PSV stands for Philips Sport Vereniging, or Philips Sports Union, and originated as a sporting club for Philips employees.)
Verizon recently struck a more than $2 billion deal with the NFL to livestream both in-market and national games beginning with streaming playoff games in January and continuing with preseason and regular season games next fall. Notably, the content isn’t limited to those using Verizon Wireless as their smartphone service carrier and will be available to all football fans through Verizon-owned properties such as Yahoo.
Apple is trying to rebrand its smart watch as a fitness device (while the Boston Red Sox were initially thought to have used the device for some unsanctioned sign-stealing). Fitbit is hoping to broaden the use of its products into more sophisticated health monitoring. WHOOP, meanwhile, hopes its data can be used to add a new dimension to sports storytelling.
While advances in football safety is typically geared toward protection against brain trauma — see above entry for Q-Collar, not to mention helmet innovations from VICIS and Xenith and NFL research into position-specific models — XTECH’s patented-design shoulder pads mitigate the force of impact without restricting mobility. More than 500 NFL players wear the equipment.
The youth sports market had lagged behind its brethren in elite athletics for advances in technology, but 2017 changed that. Blue Star Sports has acquired 18 companies in the past 18 months to build a comprehensive platform of digital offerings for players, parents and coaches. The NBC Sports-owned (but independently operated) SportsEngine provides an exhaustive directory of programs in addition to its own league and team management software. Those companies cater to the organization of youth sports while ScoreStream provides rapid reports of scores from a host of amateur games, garnering partners such as the Associated Press and investors such as Intel Capital.
Zebra Technologies, for years, has been the official provider of shoulder pad-embedded location-tracking chips for all NFL players, but that relationship grew in 2017 to include data chips to be embedded in every single game football for the 2017 season. This new input source is sure to add another dimension to the league’s Next Gen stats and continue to change the way the sport is played and watched.