Professional baseball is making some huge changes that will significantly affect its fans’ digital experience and place it at the forefront of sports technology. Major league baseball is one of professional sports’ most peculiar organizations. On one hand, it has implemented policies such as the instant replay challenge system, which has changed a centuries-old reliance on subjectivity and umpire accuracy. On the other hand, many young viewers are opting to watch faster-paced sports such as NHL hockey, NBA basketball and NFL football at an increasing rate.
The sometimes taxing and unquestionably dull three-hour games and “old boys” mentality still prevalent in the MLB doesn’t appear as inviting to young spectators. But by effectively using innovative technology, the MLB might move up the charts once again. Ever since the MLB became the first professional sports league to stream games live online in 2002, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) has become the prime paid sports streaming service in North America, supporting close to 400 devices and making close to $800 million in revenue. Its mobile app, MLB.com At Bat, was downloaded a whopping ten million times last year and is used on average—and I’m not making this up—about six million times a day this year.
Expanding across all games
MLBAM is not just limited to baseball either; they provide streaming services to ESPN, WWE and the Masters golf tournament. Despite all of this, MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who “claims he has never sent an e-mail in his life,” has watched his contingency evolve to implement cutting edge sports technologies. iBeacon technology, currently in the development phase, uses Bluetooth to send messages to fans’ mobile devices, tailored to suit their ballpark behaviour, allowing them to upgrade their seats at the game, and might eventually receive specific promotions depending on their location in the ballpark. This not only revolutionizes the baseball fan’s experience, it opens the door for promoters and sponsors of live performances and other mass-attended events to reach their audience in a way that mass marketing never could.
Crunching data in 3D
The MLB shines in its approach to analytics, namely the ability to track every single facet of every play. Upgrades to stadium infrastructure allow fans and analysts to determine how each play fits into the larger framework of the game. MLB.com dissects a game-saving catch by an outfielder: in order to determine that outcome, a fan could review the speed of the player’s first step, his initial positioning (down to the metre), the pitcher’s throw and many more aspects of the play. By piecing it all together, one can determine exactly what led up to the play, and what could have happened had anything occurred differently.
According to Claudio Silva, PhD and professor of computer science and engineering at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, this is a big deal. “We could actually take the 3D data and match it to a verbal description of the game,” he said. “You can use the experts’ opinions to then generate information. You can even imagine other forms of storytelling about a season of a team.”
MLB.com analyst Jim Duquette agrees with Silva and sees how scouting players can benefit from the technology. "When you look at how scouting has been done in the past, there's a lot of subjectivity to the evaluation,” Duquette said. “Some guys I have found have varied, from scout to scout, in terms of their opinion of each player. […] Some players … range to their left better, some range better to their right, some come in on ground balls better than others, some have better first-step quickness.
"The exciting thing about this new technology,” Duquette went on, “is you can start to take the subjectivity that is given to you by the scout and blend it with raw data now, and come up with a truer picture of evaluating a player. So when you take that data and compare it to others in the game, you can really find out if that position player is the best at his position.”
Predictive tech entering sports
This technology has revenue implications as well. Such data can enable fans to thoroughly follow their favourite player’s performance and could potentially lead them to impulsively buy a jersey or tickets to a game. According to Tim Tuttle, creator of MindMeld, a voice and video-calling app, “Over the next few years you are going to see predictive tech and intelligent assistants begin to appear everywhere. Not only will they be in most apps you use, they will also be in your car, in your living room and in your office.”
The Nike fuel band already exists, which alerts an athlete when they need to rehydrate; as well as the Mamori mouth guard, which is able to determine when an athlete has a concussion. The Mamori mouth guard is only the beginning of what could very well be a revolution in the fan experience. Currently, it is being phased into some of the most high-risk sports leagues such as the NFL and NHL, giving medical staff on the sidelines detailed information about a hit’s impact. Armed with sensors, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, the home viewer who tunes in to see hard hits and fast and furious gameplay could potentially get all of that information, down to the decimals.
Of course, the technology is intended for medical staff, but such intimate diagnostic equipment embedded into something as essential as a mouth guard can open the door for the home fan to receive the same raw data a team’s medical staff would get, immersing them into the game at a previously unimaginable level. There are, however, some surveillance-related questions about the use of predictive technology – for players and fans alike. This level of fan immersion may still be in the testing phase in the MLB, but in the NBA, Google Glass is allowing fans the opportunity to see the game from a totally different perspective.
A better fan experience
CrowdOptic, a San Francisco-based tech startup dedicated to making a more engaging fan experience at live events, has armed individuals around the arena such as the P.A. announcer (who sits front row-centre where players enter and exit the game), the team mascot, DJ, ball boys, members of the dance team and promo staff with pairs of Google Glass to give viewers the ultimate experience from endless camera angles in addition to those offered by TV broadcasters. This technology is timely, because with the advent of broadcast technology, sports teams are looking for ways to enrich the live experience of watching a game, as more and more people own nicer TVs and cable networks have access to the predictive, analytic technologies that make watching the game at home so enjoyable. That is why the Sacramento Kings, in January, began wearing the glasses during warm-up, and why they have implemented emerging tech such as NFC, in-seat wireless phone charging; Bitcoin as an accepted payment method; and drone-cams.
“The Kings are hugely tech savvy,” CrowdOptic CEO Jon Fisher says. “That’s to be expected. But the Kings aren’t in contention.”
If stars like LeBron James began wearing the technology, the NBA would be a pioneer in fan experience. In the coming years, CrowdOptic hopes to partner with more teams and players to give fans courtside views regardless of whether they are in the upper bowl or watching at home. Before any of that happens, however, stadiums need to upgrade their WiFi systems.
"It’s not just texting and trading images, it’s actually hardcore video,” says Fisher. “To do that for 1,000 pairs of Glasses, there’s no stadium in the world that can handle that kind of WiFi traffic.”
As it stands, CrowdOptic is selling annual licenses for its system, and expects up to half of the league’s teams to be enrolled before the end of next season. If CrowdOptic is able to evolve and include Major League Baseball or PGA golf (two sports leagues where sunglasses are acceptable uniform), fans can look forward to a level of immersion and fan engagement unseen in any other entertainment venue around.
The evolution in sports technology has major analytical and financial potential for professional sports. For example, CrowdOptic is selling annual licenses for its system, and expects up to half of the league’s teams to be enrolled before the end of next season. If CrowdOptic is able to evolve and include Major League Baseball or PGA golf (two sports leagues where sunglasses are acceptable uniform), fans can look forward to a level of immersion and fan engagement unseen in any other entertainment venue around.