November 30, 2020

ICT for Sports: A Whole New Ball Game By Prerna Lal Faculty, International Management Institute, New Delhi

Innovations in Information and Communication technologies (ICT) have changed the way sports and the ICTbusiness of sports are organized, played and viewed nowadays. Introduction of technology- enabled sports equipment, wearables, cameras, etc. are now helping players, trainers, coaches, physiotherapists in getting the real-time data as well as feedback across a wide range of performance factors and other human body involving metrics such as biomechanics, stress levels etc.1. Furthermore, ICT has also enhanced the experience of sports fans and vast television and online viewing audiences- be it booking the tickets for tournaments and leagues online, interacting with their favourite team/s or players through social media, or watching the game live in the ground, on TV or online using laptop, mobile or smart phones.

There is no doubt regarding the importance of data analysis in sports. Number of software’s are available that can help players and coaches in analysing the games as well as predicting the performance or outcomes using analytics and advance data visualization techniques. Some of the examples are Cricket21 and 22yardz for analysing cricket matches, DRAGflik for analysing hockey matches, IBM Slamtracker’s “Keys to the Match” feature for determining the styles and patterns for the Grand Slam tennis players when they win, Addero Solo and Atheletic Logic for training and team management.

Needless to say that ICT is now an integral part of sports and winning is not just about being the best in chosen sporting disciplines or team sports pursuits but also being smartest and having all the latest gadgets and technologically advanced sports equipment in your kit2. We will now look at some of the ICT applications in various sports under three heads i.e. tracking, decision making and prediction.

Tracking Technologies

One of the significant application of ICT applications in sports is the ability to track movements and capture data regarding every move made on the sporting field or playing arena of practice session or every stoke played or move enacted during game play. Use of sensors, lasers to capture data and transmitting data to smart phones and tablets so that it can be analysed and used for making decisions and performance improvement. Let us now look at some of the examples of tracking technologies in different sports.

Tennis rackets: Sensors embedded or hardwired in tennis rackets have literally changed the name of the game in one of most highly competitive individual games. These sensors are generally embedded in the handle and are able to track all aspects of game play by the players wielding them or playing with them. The data generated and collected can be uploaded to smartphones or other computing platforms such as computers, laptops and detailed aspects of all levels of play can be reviewed. Top 10 tennis player and one of the greatest exponents of the claycourt game Rafael Nadal used Babolat PLAY and data generated from Rafael’s games is utilized by his coach to make adjustments or refinements to Rafael’s games.

Boxing gloves: In recent years, even the sports discipline of boxing has not been impervious to the influence of ICT applications. Embedded sensors in boxing gloves aim to give insights on data captured about various aspects about a boxing session or a boxing bout. Data pertaining to speed of punch, type and count of punches, calories burnt during training sessions or actual games are all recorded or analysed. The insights and analysis by specialized coaches ate then passed onto the boxer to refine his methods and techniques and to better prepare him for bouts and competitions. Such data captured can be stored in the cloud. One of the leading technologies which is revolutionizing the real-time data-capture of embedded sensors is StrikeTec Boxing technology.

Intelligent and app-enabled soccer ball: Soccer is the most popular universal game and is played in almost all countries of the world. Apart from the alternating quadrennial World Cup and Euro soccer tournaments, the cash-rich and highly competitive European soccer leagues are also highly followed. Expectedly, soccer balls were bound to be influenced by the application of ICT technologies and help a multitude of players to better their games and coaches to fine-tune strategies based on analysis. Sensors embedded in soccer balls help understand ball impact, ball drift, impact points on playing surface as well as players’ boots and heads and flight trajectories. Sensor packages are generally suspended in the middle of the ball and can transmit data to tablets and smartphones in real-time.

Decision Making Systems

The impact of ICT applications in sports and sporting disciplines has been huge. Apart from revolutionizing viewers’ pleasure, they have significantly improved decision making systems. Referees, umpires and other designated officials and authorities can make quick, informed decisions and avoid conflicts.

Video Referee: The introduction of video referees has changed the dynamics of decision making and also raised the drama of sports watching for captive television and online audiences. With the introduction of central command centers in NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB and now NRL, video referees are able to make decisions faster and more accurately3. With the availability of relevant angles of play and enhanced and high-tech video review technology, average time taken for decision making is coming down. Slicker and faster-decision making also ensure game continuity for both playing arena/stadium audiences and television and online audiences. Live explanation of decisions to fans ensures fair-play and transparency and also cuts out human errors and transforms the experience of fans of all sports.

Goal- line Technology: The most high-profile global sports soccer has benefited a lot from decision making. Many hair-line and at times human-error driven decisions have decided key tournament matches and also led to controversial exits for many team during high-octane knockout games. High-profile blunders –and in the full view of vast television audiences- by soccer referees were quite often. FIFA started using goal-line technology during the last World Cup held in Brazil. Such goal-line technologies in a suite of electronic devices placed near goal-lines are precision-driven and speedily determine whether the whole ball has crossed the goal line or not. This immensely helps referees and cuts out controversial decisions. Other competitive and high-profile sports such as tennis, rugby and American football have also started implementing goal-line technology.

Hawk-Eye: Hawk-eye technology is used in tennis, snookers and cricket. It was also used in the high-profile Premier League season in the UK in 2013-2014. Hawk-eye technology used in cricket has raised the spectacle of cricket watching for fans. The nuances of hawk-eye technology for such a complex sporting discipline like cricket has made cricket more watchable and with debates in the mix more appealing for commentators and players alike.

Prediction                                                                                                   The adoption of analytics in sports has been a paradigm shift – and for the constituents and stakeholders concerned. The level of sophistication and the refined used of analytics has changed the name of the game-literally. Some examples of usage of ICT applications include: coaching evaluation, officiating data, draft analysis, rule changes, game strategies performance records, health and injuries.

Prediction is the key when it comes to making sense of the mass and troves of data generated from use and application of sophisticated ICT technologies and analytics. In the current era, all major sports teams in professional as well as semi-professional leagues have analytics departments. Along with general managers, talented teams of data scientists and mathematicians crunch numbers based on the humungous data and information and metrics generated. This is then channelled to hell managers and talent scouts during recruitment strategies and also used during practice sessions. Fans and audiences too have been bitten by the data bug and look for statistical and other analytics content both from the teams as well as independent analysts on sports shows or Websites and blogs and especially with those related to prediction analysis.

Baseball is one of the most analysed sports and given the mass appeal in a vast market like USA and also the popularity of NBA teams worldwide, predictive analytics about the prospects of the storied teams have riveted viewers and audiences. Apart from the popular and mainstream sports platforms and outlets, many independent Websites and online portals do exhaustive data-based analytics of the teams before all games.

Conclusion                                                                                               The use of ICT applications and technologies in sports was almost inevitable after the mainstream use of such technologies in so many spheres of life and also business and commerce activities. With sports and sports leagues also being run like billion dollar businesses, fans and captive audiences always demand the best viewing experience and mostly expect fair decisions to decide the outcomes of games and tournaments. And cut out the chances of bloopers and blunders and human-related errors which tend to impact outcomes and results of games. The usage of ICT applications by the athletes and sports persons themselves has raised the bar for excellence in performance. 

The emergence of demanding vast online audiences –well versed and conversant with consumer ICT technologies for sports has also dictated the implementation of ICT technologies by sports administrators and leagues commissioners. Improved decision-making and in real-time has cut out the many human-led errors of the past decades and has raised the sanctity of sports. Sports analytics is here to stay.