Sports Tracking Technology

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.

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Historical Context

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.

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The moneyball phenomenon had such important ramifications for baseball that it was turned into an award winning movie

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.

8 thoughts on “Sports Tracking Technology

  1. Leagues definitely need to make sure they tread carefully with these sorts of technologies with sports tracking. While new technology may be cool, sometimes it’s not meant for it to be shown in the full broadcast as some people more want just the game and sort of more a “real life” experience sort of like they would see if they were at the game. NBC got some flack for their new darker shade of green between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker this year and that was really subtle. Seems like broadcasts have found that these sorts of technologies are best used for replays and viewing on certain member packages.

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  2. I wonder how much fans will care about more obscure stats, it seems they would be appreciated by the diehards who already love the game, so it wouldn’t help push the demand out. An innovation I think would be cool is trying to implement some sort of go pro type of experience, so a fan could see through the quarterback’s eyes what it looks like scrambling away from a blitz and targeting an open receiver. Maybe some of these leagues should partner with VR firms, although you’d have to get the players to wear the relevant sensors first.

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  3. I have mixed feelings about whether these stats help or hurt the game. When optimizing on “winning” vs. “entertaining” then it can affect the enjoyability of the game. Baseball is having this problem with increased walks and slow gameplay.

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  4. Very cool post. It’s interesting that fans would get access to a lot of data that opponents wouldn’t typically receive like the speed of a player. I wonder if opponents would be allowed to use this data as well. I’m sure they have a lot of it already, but I’m sure there’s some stats that they don’t currently have. I also wonder how the players feel about this technology, especially players who are coming back from an injury and such. Fans would be able to tell that they are not playing at their best. Very cool technology and I am excited to see it implemented.

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  5. Such a cool post! I am very interested in this concept since I come from a family of hockey fans and they always complain about losing the puck or the refs making bad calls. I think this would definitely affect the game, but for better or worse I’m not sure!

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  6. Great post! This is super interesting to me, especially because I have grown up playing hockey, and love watching the sport. I can understand how people who don’t really know the sport would have trouble following games, and I hope this technology can help them understand and become more involved with fantasy leagues. On the other hand, sports are more than just a form of entertainment, and I hope this doesn’t take away from the importance of the sport itself.

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  7. Very interesting post! I wonder if this new technology will result in lower live attendance at games. The photo of the man holding up an iPad in front of the game makes me wonder why anyone would pay for a live game if they get more out of watching online. Especially if viewers have the capability to change angles or interact with live stats on an iPad while watching the game.

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  8. Technology has had such an amazing effect on sports. One thing I thought of while reading this is e-sports. I wonder if the sensors in players pads can ever assist in the development of more VR games. Perhaps, an NHL game that truly puts you in the perspectives of players.

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