✦ Innovation is a word that lends itself naturally to the world of sports.
Coaches, teams and individuals in any manner of different sports are forever looking at ways they can innovate and out perform their rivals on the pitch, on the track, in the pool and in the ring. Unsurprisingly, technology is impacting the sports world in the same manner and at a similar pace to how it is in many other areas of our daily lives.
Whether you are a top professional athlete or merely a casual participant and fan, technology is driving significant innovation and change in sport. Heart rate and fitness trackers allow us to monitor our daily output, nutritional levels and sleep patterns meaning we can keep an eye on where we need to adjust in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, while innovations in the home workout space have allowed us to integrate fitness into our daily routine at a much more manageable rate, something that was especially evident during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In the professional world, biometric data tracking, performance analytics and virtual training programmes are just a few of the many innovations that are driving change and elevating standards across an array of sports.
Of course, technology has been fused in many sports for many years, from stop-watches through technological engineering in motorsports to ever-evolving camera technology changing the way we actually watch sporting occasions. Hawk-Eye is arguably the most well known of technological innovations used in a variety of sports such as tennis, cricket, badminton, football (soccer), rugby union, volleyball to allow those officiating a game to leverage a slow motion replay of the action to make a clearer decision – while it’s hard to imagine watching a game of professional tennis these days without Hawkeye being in operation it’s even harder to imagine tempestuous types such as John McEnroe arguing with a machine!
In football (soccer) the same technology is commonly used to judge whether the ball has wholly crossed the goal line and therefore whether a goal should be awarded, with a sensor linked to a device on the referee to notify. Innovations in recent decades such as the Snickometer, or just ‘snicko’ as it is commonly known, and Hot Spot have redefined the way cricket is played and the manner in which we watch it as a spectacle.
Other major technological innovations in recent years include the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, otherwise referred to as KERS, in Formula One which takes the energy used when a car brakes and uses it later on to boost acceleration. Not only can this provide some riveting on track action but it also makes for a more environmentally friendly race. Similarly, the drag reduction system (DRS) sees driver-adjustable bodywork help reduce aerodynamic drag in order to increase top speed and promote overtaking. Elsewhere, innovations in camera sensor technology has allowed definitive winners to be stablished in racing events, hugely beneficial for the likes of swimming, sprinting and running in athletics and horse racing.
Not all innovations have been adopted so smothly, however, with the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system in football (soccer) argubaly proving the most controversial. This entails a separate, off-field referee watching the action on TV monitors who has licence to alert the on-field match official in the event of any clear and obvious errors or serious missed incidents the latter may have overlooked, typically in relation to goal validity and offences such as penalty kicks, red cards and offsides. The on-field referee can then consult a pitch-side monitor to review and potentially overturn his or her original decision. It sounds relatively straight forward although it has resulted in numerous contentious moments in big matches with a lot at stake. Critics also point to the fact it slows the game down considerably and the raw emotion of celebrating a goal tends to be muted while a review may have to be conducted. The big challenge with VAR, however, seems to be not the actual technology but the human reading and deciphering of this information.
It isn’t just on-field performance that technology is impacting, however, as innovations in the way we consume our sports are also plentiful. The opportunity for fan engagement has accelerated in recent years as most leading sports orgaisations have their own streaming channels, fan forums, fantasy leagues and player engagement tools to get the fan closer than ever to their idols. Similarly, blockchain technology for transparent communication and video sharing, biometrics identification and Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots enable much closer engagement with fans. Smart Stadiums use AI-based crowd sentiment analysis, while the Internet of Things improves the experience of visiting a stadium by helping fans find parking spots, seats and refreshment stands, while ensuring they have quick and reliable access to the internet before, during and after the match. The use of drones can also help the delivery of snacks to a specific seat at the stadium, while also improving cleaning efficiency once the game has concluded.
Enhancements in 3D technologies and 4K resolution means broadcasters can now stream live content via Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms to fans across a range of devices such as phones and tablets. While traditional broadcasters still hold the market share in their respective sports and countries, there has been and there very much will continue to be a definite shift towards this more mobile consumption as people prefer to pick up their content while on the move. Furthermore, augmented reality tools that allow viewers to access on-screen statistics and graphics while watching a game provide opportunity for the individual to translate what is going on as opposed to relying on the commentators. Likewise, the use of camera innovation means fans can get a much more intimate feel when watching a game, be it from a pitch-side or overhead zoom perspective, or even from a player or official’s angle courtesy of on-person cameras.
Technology and sports will continue to fuse at a significant pace as further, more complex and creative innovations are realised which will, in turn, change the way we play and consume sporting activities. It is exciting to think what may lay ahead so don’t stand still for too long or else you might get left behind!
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