This week, we’re looking at what football clubs on this side of the Atlantic can take from groundbreaking digital concepts being implemented across the NFL (American football), NBA (basketball), US Open (golf), NCAA (college sports) and MLB (baseball). We have three innovative uses of technology in sport.
1. Using tech to track
Starting this season, all NFL players have been wearing radio frequency identification tags under their shoulder guards. The tags, provided by the NFL’s ‘official on-field player-tracking provider’, Zebra Solutions, track all players movements to within six inches, together with cameras installed on the upper deck of all NFL stadiums.
As well as enabling coaches to use this collected motion data in analysis and improving player technique post-game, with specific applications visualising the movements to review in practice sessions, the data collected is also aggregated using algorithms and then displayed in graphics for fans in real time, creating a ‘deeper fan experience’, both in stadiums and for fans at home.
The NFL has even created a feature called Next Gen Stats, whereby the data is used to compare players and play weeks in terms of speed, movement and acceleration on the NFL site. Individual player’s motion data are also used to create digital avatars for ‘Next Gen Replays’ in the NFL 2015 app for Xbox One, allowing users to toggle between players or select and compare the players that they believe will run the fastest or most in an upcoming game.
Baseball, meanwhile, has struggled to attract younger fans and utilise digital for older fans who aren’t as tech-savvy, and has lagged behind other US sports organisations in terms of the connected stadiums we looked at previously. However, the wider baseball community is employing a wide range of tech innovations in an attempt to step up to the mark, including neural mapping and pitch simulators, as well as several apps measuring baseball player performance, unusual in that they are aimed at grassroots coaches and players.
There’s talk of implementing this kind of tracking technology in golf clubs, with a Kickstarter aiming to fund the implementation of sensors in golf clubs that will collect data from each swing, to be analysed on a laptop or tablet at a later date.
2. Using tech beyond the game
‘Battlefield technology’ is currently being used to monitor concussions in American sports, with particular focus on American Football and boxing. This comes off the back of a $900m lawsuit brought against the NFL in April by thousands of retired players, who accused them of concealing the risks of multiple concussions.
In response, BlackBox Biometrics created a small wireless sensor called Linx IAS which, attached to a fabric headband, detects blows to the head and immediately sends ‘impact data’ to a nearby smartphone or tablet and is then pushed to a cloud, which informs all staff of the severity of the impact; information which medical staff then use to determine necessary treatment and coaching staff to keep track of hits over time, in order to ascertain whether the player needs to modify their technique. The technology was originally used by the military, FBI and SWAT teams, to provide ‘faster and more accurate treatment’.
LA-based start-up Kitman Labs, meanwhile, has been assisting the NFL, the NBA and the MLB in preventing injuries from happening at all. The company captures a variety of data using a 3D video tool called Capture, which scans an athlete’s movements and identifies joints using an infrared light. Along with these results, athletes themselves enter information such as sleep quality, pain levels, and appetite into the Kitman app. Founded by a former Irish Rugby head trainer, the first rugby team to use the Kitman tech reduced injury by 30%.
There is hope for the advancement of tech-based injury prevention in the UK, too; with premiership clubs having recently turned to Kitman Labs for help in keeping players off the bench.
3. Using tech to create a new reality
Six NFL teams (the Cardinals, the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Francisco 49ers, and the New England Patriots) are using virtual reality this season. Previously, players would get a written or verbal explanation of how a ‘play’ worked. NFL players would even take home huge playbooks to memorise plays - this can now be achieved through virtual reality. Players can put on goggles and headphones, and actually live out the play themselves.
The majority of these have come about through a partnership with STRIVR labs, which provides ‘virtual reality instructional technology.’ The labs film training reps and then formulate virtual reality footage of the plays to allow players to re-watch and analyse them from their own viewpoint. In these practices, coaches can see what the player is seeing and instruct them through headphones.
Similar to the tracking technologies, although the technology’s initial implementation was in order was to assist in coaching and technique, there is promise in the virtual reality world for the viewer. STRIVR founder Derek Belch has said “We want to give the fan some access that they never had before? What does one play in practice look like through [a player’s] eyes?”
In fact, the NBA in October made history as the first league to broadcast a live professional sports game in virtual reality. The opening night of the 2015 season, which saw the Golden State Warriors take on the New Orleans Pelicans, was accessible for fans with Samsung Gear VR headsets.