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Sports look to data enrich the fan experience

Adrian PennigntonHungry for more content, sports fans are being fed more and more data from athletes and the field of play, writes Adrian Pennington, but finding the right approach needs a good game plan 

The value of live for sport is still pre-eminent, but consumption in and around the event must now be considered 24/7 365. The always-on combination of mobile devices and social media means there’s no let-up in the demand and sports rights holders need to cater for this demand.

“Producers are working out how to create more inventory for their clients  – the federations and sports governing bodies – to distribute,” says Tim Godfrey, Partnerships Director – Sport at ITN Productions. “We are a multimedia sports production business meaning that we cater for the new digital fan, who has all sorts of different devices and platforms to follow sport on. We need to generate and present footage suitable for each OTT and social channel.”

One way of doing this is to deploy new production techniques based on IP networks to generate and publish more content more economically to more platforms. Broadcast production equipment vendor EVS reckons only 10% of the total multi-camera footage captured at the average Premiership soccer match actually makes it air.

Using IP production technologies enables more of this media to be stored, transferred, editorialised, packaged and distributed than using  traditional methods. Costs can be cut by doing it remotely, as ITN Productions did by managing the host broadcast from London of the IAAF’s World Relay event held in the Bahamas.

Aside from making more use of the existing audio-visual resource, the other area where sports are looking to add value is to extract more data from the event itself.

“It’s clear that media are starting to use statistics as a powerful form of storytelling in digital and social and especially in visual form,” says Carlo De Marchis chief product officer at sports production specialist Deltatre.

“Numbers are a great way to tell a story. For example, knowing that Lionel Messi’s second goal in the El Classico (end of April) was his 500th for Barcelona,” he says. “Translating numbers into graphics is another key.”

Visually, the line superimposed live on a swimming pool to help indicate who is in the lead or show distance and speed to world record times is now standard. “If you watch a swimming race without it you feel something is broken and missing in the presentation,” says De Marchis.


Motorsport telemetry

Some sports use of data is more advanced than others, in part because they may be more data-oriented in the first place. A prime example is motorsport, where telemetry from cars (speed, split times) in Formula One or World Rally has been available for on-screen presentation for several years. The data is selective – often delayed in the live stream or published in highlight analysis – to prevent competitive advantage during a race.

While on-field data is often outsourced to specialised agencies like Opta Sports (owned by sports agency Perform Group) or IBM, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), the digital wing of Major League Baseball, has been able to lead due to its control of media production for all 30 teams.

Some of its data comes from optical capture (cameras and graphic analysis systems), some from radar capture and some is extrapolated from these data samples. It is extremely granular with pitching measurements for perceived and actual ball velocity, and spin rate.

Metrics tracking runners between bases are honed to lead distance, acceleration, maximum speed and home-run trot. There’s even data illustrating the speed of the base runner’s first step and route efficiency.

MLBAM is also exploring how WiFi or Bluetooth beacons can detect fans at a ballpark wearing a smartwatch. If a pitcher throws a fastball to end the innings, the fan could potentially use the watch’s glance action to review the speed and path of the pitch.

The speed and trajectory of balls played out by predictive analysis software has long been integral to the very rules in sports like tennis and cricket – but fans couldn’t interact with or share it.

That’s changing as it is increasingly possible to get fans more immersed in the action and more engaged in the sport by using data as the hook.

When Formula-E attempted to break into the motorsport market it did so with a disruptive ethos, in line with its green credentials in a sport dominated by petrol heads.

As a way to drive interaction with millennials in largely untapped motorsport markets like China, Formula-E controversially introduced Fanboost, the ability for the fanbase to influence a race by giving drivers the ability to enact overtaking or defensive moves by virtue of having won most votes in a social media poll – a first for a mainstream sport.

While such developments may lack credibility in the eyes of hardcore fans, for a sport looking to build from scratch it makes sense. Sports targeting similar demographics, such as drone racing and e-sports (with which Formula-E is also tied via a driver versus fan e-sport competition) are natural fits for social and athlete interaction.

Data gathering is now moving from machines and objects to athletes, but the question is more ethical. Data about an athlete’s heart rate, breathing rate, stress levels, body temperature or G-force is potentially medically sensitive.

Human data

Currently, such data is deemed private and there are limitations on placing sensors on athletes in sports like athletics. However, this could soon change.

“We want to innovate in this area to provide a more in-depth view of an event than ever before,” says Godfrey. “Federations and governing bodies are keen to innovate too, since they recognise that from a fan’s perspective such data increases the sport’s accessibility.”

ITN Productions is testing a number of different “medical grade” sensors and devices and says it would assign a specialist to a future production to assist in the interpretation and presentation of the data on screen.

“It is crucial that human data is measured and used in the right way to ensure its accuracy,” says Godfrey. “That means using medical grade equipment not commercial off-the-shelf devices. We will employ experts, but, ultimately, we would want our graphics operators and producers trained to understand the data.”

Heart-rate monitors have been fitted to members of Formula E race teams including drivers and team bosses to see how their stress levels rise and fall during the crucial opening lap of an ePrix.

Similar data could be gathered from athletes lining up at the start of a 100-metre race, Godfrey suggests.

“Clearly, athletes have to be comfortable wearing the sensors and sharing certain data,” he stresses. “There are questions about how about it can be used commercially. However, there is a loosening of the boundaries in a lot of sports and the tipping point is on the horizon.”

The introduction of the 5G mobile network standard from 2019/20 will enable an even closer tie between a live event and the audience. South Korean city PyeongChang is host to the 2018 Winter Games where there are plans to demonstrate real-time Augmented Reality and 360-degree experiences for hundreds of spectators in the stadia. AR is arguably more interesting from a live event perspective since it can overlay information and graphics on top of a real-world view. Olympics rights holder Euronews, owned by Discovery Communications, plans to introduce AR around its coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Games.


Data as revenue stream

Data can not only help immerse the fan more closely with a sport but it is crucial to sports teams and their sponsors. “Without it and their spend is blind,” says Elliot Richardson co-founder of online soccer network Dugout.

Sports are waking up to the potential value of largely untapped data to which they hold the rights.

“By making your data more sophisticated, it will add value and exclusivity and therefore something monetizable as a revenue stream,” says De Marchis.

Data culled from the field of play can be used to carve out new sponsorship opportunities yet still enrich the game for spectators/consumers. An example, from August 2016, was driven by Perform Group for Major League Soccer sponsor Audi.

During a celebrity versus press football game in New York, individual players’ performance ratings, calculated from the Opta data, was displayed electronically on the front of the player’s shirts. Player performances were also ranked and displayed live on large pitch-side screen.

Closer to home, Deltatre has worked with UEFA to embed audio watermarks in the audio track of Champions League match coverage. The experiment enables UEFA to link match action to additional relevant information or sponsor driven content on the second screen.

For example, a goal by Ronaldo might offer the viewer links to view his previous Champions League goals, or a call to action for an Adidas e-commerce promotion.

“The need to convert users into customers is becoming an integral part of the online video offer for sports rights-holders,” says De Marchis.





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