Earlier this year, I tweeted about how the NHL will be deploying player and puck tracking technology in 2020. I see this as a big part of the sports viewing experience going forward, so I wanted to dedicate an entire blog to this new development.
At the 1996 NHL All Star Game in Boston, the Fox broadcast showcased, for the first time, a halo around the puck that allowed fans to follow its location. This was the first time that sensors were used in game equipment for the purpose of enhancing the fan experience. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared this as a technological breakthrough but admitted that the implementation of this technology was far from perfected and that it would be years before the league was able to use this technology regularly.
Since that point, baseball and hockey have undergone a revolution in analytics. This culminated in the moneyball phenomenon in baseball, in which Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, assembled a winning ball club based on specific, under-appreciated statistics, that allowed him to compete with the heavy spending teams in the league for a low price. This revolutionized the way that baseball teams were assembled forever, and baseball has undergone a sabremetric revolution since that point.
When it comes to hockey, general managers began taking hints from Beane’s success and began looking into obscure stats such as Goals Versus Threshold, a combination of many critical stats in order to compare one player’s performance against the league average. Another statistic is Corsi rating, which shows if there pucks tend to be shot at a player’s net or his opponent’s net while he is on the ice. These stats have similarly changed the way that teams have been constructed, particularly for teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks, who have tons of money tied up in a few key players, and must fill out the rest of their team with bargain value players in order to not exceed the league’s strict salary cap.
This relates to technology because of the fact that many of these new stats are created through statistical models that are calculated on computers. In both baseball and hockey, sending human scouts to subjectively look at players’ abilities was the way that general managers assembled teams.
NHL Player and Puck Tracking Technology
Now, the next step in the evolution of this information era in sports seems to be providing statistics to fans so they can make the most of their viewing experience. Fans will soon be allowed to open up a handheld device and receive live information about the game they are watching. This information includes puck speed, players’ skating speed, and players’ time on ice. This will surely lead to headaches for general managers, as their fans will have tens of thousands of information-empowered fans at home tweeting about how they assembled their roster all wrong.
“Being on the forefront of innovation is good for our game, and most especially our fans.” This quote from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shows how he is aware of the fact that hockey is fourth in viewership behind football, basketball, and baseball, and that he is committed to climbing up those rankings. Many people that watch those three other sports but not hockey oftentimes complain about how on TV, hockey is not great to watch relative to how fun it is to experience live. The NHL sees the implementation of technology to provide puck tracking and statistical analysis to fans at home as the solution.
With one sensor in each player’s shoulder pads and one sensor inside the puck, the league hopes that fans will have a keen interest in the aforementioned stats about player/puck speed and distance traveled. This is an example of the NHL becoming more of a platform business, as they want to leverage their product into a platform in which fans have an exorbitant amount of stats at their disposal. The league will most likely have an app in which fans can go to receive this information. On this app, the league will offer fans the ability to live bet and update their fantasy teams as they are inundated with live metrics about player performances. Incorporating gambling into this centralized platform allows the league to profit as it becomes easier to gamble nationwide.
When it comes to the future of such technology across the sports industry, this change in technology may be imminent. With that being said, however, this technology is not always easy to implement and therefore takes years and even decades to integrate into the game without impacting the way its played. The NHL struggled since that 1996 All Star Game to implement the technology without impacting the physics of the game. Inserting sensors into a puck that is shot, oftentimes, at speeds over 100 miles per hour, and inserting sensors into the shoulder pads of players who hit each other with massive force at speeds of over 25 miles per hour, is not easy. Other sports, such as football, will most likely struggle with this as well if they aim to implement this type of technology.
This should serve as a lesson to all traditional businesses that wish to become platforms businesses. Integrating digital technology is oftentimes very hard, but, given where the business world is headed, it can still be a worthy investment.