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September 12, 2017

A whole new ball game: The impact of tech on sport

It’s the clubs who place strategic importance on technology, and commit to finding the right partners, that will ultimately succeed.

By James Nunns

Behind any series of sporting events is a great tech story, and the summer of sport we’ve

Darren Watkins, managing director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

just enjoyed is no different. 

Virtually all professional sports and athletes now use Internet of Things (IoT) technology – where data is captured and analysed to optimise training, improve performance and reduce injury. Harnessing data can make the sports person, team and club successful – and the fan experience richer and more interactive than ever.

But, whilst the future seems expansive for these innovative technologies, the possibilities are limited by issues of complexity and capacity. Extreme spikes in data traffic challenge backend infrastructures, and the benefit of IoT and Big Data will only come to fruition with the right processing, power and storage capabilities behind it.

 

Progress at lightning “Bolt” speed

The idea of capturing data during a sporting event is not new – as long ago as 1958, Charles Reep, an RAF officer and accountant, created a paper notation system to record players’ moves during the 1958 World Cup Final.

However, it was during the 1990s when the pace of change accelerated exponentially – as football, rugby and a raft of other professional sporting clubs started to install cameras which enabled match-play monitoring. Digital cameras, video technology and data tools have all added to the sophistication and precision of sports analysis – and the industry is rocketing.

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While the concept isn’t new, the richness of the data now available and the speed at which it is gathered is. Over the last few years, sports clubs have started to link information from their cameras and video screens with other sources of data – especially information from GPS (global positioning system) satellites and accelerometers worn by players.

 

Capitalising on our love of data; the big capacity challenge

Coaches and fans alike are addicted to data. For sporting professionals, it’s a way to enhance performance – and for fans, it’s a way to engage more with the sport that they love.

The Tour de France was a relatively late arrival to technology adoption. As recently as 2014, real-time information was only available from a chalkboard, held up by a race executive sitting as a passenger on a motorbike driving ahead of the cyclists, but tech is now opening the sport up to new and old fans like never before. In 2014, video clips put out by organisers had six million views; in 2016 that grew to 55 million – and the number of fans interacting with the sport is growing every year.

Social media traffic spikes during sporting events (we tracked two million searches for basketball star Kyrie Irving during just one NBA game in July) show that fans want to share, to engage and to know more about every aspect of a game.

As we move into the autumn, football is yet another major sport enabling fans to immerse themselves in the game so they can get even more passionate about the trials and tribulations of clubs and their players. In 2016, BT Sport re-launched their app for mobile and tablet devices offering a greater in-depth experience for fans watching live sport. When following the football, for example, thanks to real-time data tracking viewers can easily see just who’s making the most passes, covering the most distance and where all the action is taking place on the pitch. And if that isn’t enough involvement, they can delve even deeper and instantly access a whole host of season statistics for any player they chose.

Tech experts know that IoT and big data puts intense pressure on the security, servers, storage and network of any organisation – and that impact of these demands is being felt across the entire technological supply chain. Sporting organisations, just like any other commercial business, need to deploy more forward-looking capacity management to be able to proactively meet the business priorities associated with IoT connections. And big data processing requires a vast amount of storage and computing requirements, which many organisations can’t handle alone.

 

The technology race

Progressive technology use in Formula One racing makes the sport a good case study to demonstrate the capacity challenge. F1 cars have been kept under close scrutiny for nearly 30 years thanks to telemetry. Introduced in the late 1980s, this technology has developed significantly, and today, each car has more than 120 sensors. These measure everything from oil, water, exhaust and tyre temperatures to speed, engine revs per minute (RPM), clutch fluid pressure, G-force and even the drivers heartbeat and data use offers significant competitive advantage.

But there are a huge number of considerations for an effective telemetry data journey. Intense pressure for real time analysis and response, huge data rates, available frequencies and acceptable latency – and system reliability in hostile environments – all require extensive and sophisticated infrastructure.

For some teams, this means high-performance computing (HPC), and the set-up of their own enterprise data centres. One team, Caterham, reports using a portable – almost modular – data centre that can travel with the team to race venues around the world). But as requirements grow ever more sophisticated, third party technology providers are entering the market, offering deep expertise, flexible and scalable technology options, and boundless capacity.

The strategic importance of data in sports, for us, means that ultimately, data centre firms, like VIRTUS, are centre stage in this sporting revolution. Apart from being able to store IT generated data, the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information – very quickly – is vitally important – and gives huge competitive advantages to those that do it well. 

For sports companies, getting their data centre strategy right means that they have an intelligent and scalable asset that enables choice and growth. But – get it wrong and it becomes a fundamental constraint for innovation.

 

Choosing a partner

For many sporting organisations the priority now is to choose a technology partner to help them to capitalise on the data capture and analyst’s opportunities. Building their own data storage infrastructure isn’t just costly and time consuming, it ignores the expertise which resides in the data centre industry, and which can be crucial in helping them to innovate faster. 

Partnering with the right organisation means not having to invest in building systems, saving time and money. Trusted technology partners can also offer security assurance. It’s crucial, of course, that sensitive information that can make or break a team or player, is held in a secure and reliable facility. Intrusion detection systems offered by many providers monitor incoming data and identifies suspicious activities, while firewalls protect the data in the data centre. Data and backup files are often exchanged in an encrypted format or transmitted via secure fibre-optic cables – and the most reliable providers make security a fundamental priority.

Read more: Virtual reality, the future of sport: NBA live streams as the NFL and Premier League play catch up

But, of course, caution must be exercised when selecting a technology provider. Lengthy contracts mean that clubs may find themselves bound to technology which can’t scale, and has the potential to hamper innovation. Other clubs could have more flexibility to adapt to newer systems and give themselves a competitive edge. So, the right technology partner, not just ‘a technology partner’ is critical.

The answer for teams and event organisers must be to partner with technology providers with a commitment to being transparent, and who have a track record for flexibility and innovation. It is vital that competitors and clubs ask tricky questions of providers – about infrastructure, scalability and energy consumption – before they sign on the dotted line.

 

Moving forward in a competitive industry 

The sporting industry has already been radically changed by the application of digital technologies, and the pace of change means that no club can afford to be complacent. The marketing opportunities to engage with fans, and the performance enhancing opportunities to better players’ outcomes, are enormous. 

Whilst nearly every major sporting club has embraced this crucial opportunity to reinvent themselves, those that don’t get the basics right, may ultimately fail. And the key component to success is to ensure that they’re equipped to handle the rigorous demands these tech innovation place on them. For us, it’s the clubs who place strategic importance on technology, and commit to finding the right partners, that will ultimately succeed.

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