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HU MEENA — Spanning the spectrum and influence of sports technology: from athletes to fans



There was a time when football didn’t require much more than a haphazardly cleared cow pasture and a spheroid pigskin. “Sports rehab” was a taped-on aspirin and a spoonful of mustard applied to the location of the pain. But modern day sports have evolved. And just like in other areas we’ve explored —research, health care and education— athletics have intersected with technology. Sports-tech has the power to dramatically elevate athletic performance and competition, but it also can create a rich, immersive fan experience.

Rehab and Recovery

Today’s athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, breaking records every season.  Now, more than ever, athletes are embracing the latest technology to stay healthy, perform optimally and extend their careers. Highly-tuned diets and personalized training regimens are commonplace and athletes are constantly looking for a way to get an edge on their competition. With the pressure to continually perform at the highest levels comes the critical need to help the body recover even more quickly.


Lebron James using cryotherapy

Lebron James using cryotherapy

Enter: Cryogenics. If the name evokes science projects and a frozen Han Solo, you’re not far off base. Whole body cryotherapy uses ultra-sub-zero temperatures to manipulate blood flow to muscles, replenishing metabolic waste in the deepest corner of musculature with highly oxygenated blood. Think ice bath but with liquid nitrogen chambers, temperatures dipping well into the -100 degrees Fahrenheit. This can shrink recovery time from 72 hours down to just 24. Kobe, LeBron, Floyd Mayweather, English Premier League champions Leicester City FC and a handful of others swear by it, though the FDA is hesitant to give its stamp of approval.

The national conversation on chronic head injuries in football has grown in the past decade with the nearly $1 billion settlement awarded to former NFL players suffering from related neurological trauma. This has generated a tremendous amount of innovation in diagnostic solutions for players. Eye-Sync, which just received FDA approval in January, uses infrared eye-tracking housed in a pair of goggles that the player wears after a traumatic collision. Data is transmitted to a tablet that a medical expert uses to make a diagnosis in under a minute. This is a huge advance from today’s method: reciting a list of words, touching your nose with an index finger, and standing on one foot. That can take up to 40 minutes and doesn’t give real-time data on the brain’s condition after a major impact. Quicker diagnoses means better, safer recovery for professional athletes as well as high school heroes.

Gameplay and Analytics

Ever since the first “photo finish” at the horse races in the late 19th century, sports lovers have been looking for ways to harness technology to improve accuracy, raising the stakes and boosting the overall experience. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated published a fascinating story about the guys who created the yellow first down line you and I have come to expect from our football telecasts. An enormous effort of engineering, logistics, and deal brokering went into what is now such an essential part to the game. One we couldn’t imagine a telecast without today. Same with instant replay. Instant replay is credited as the primary factor for the rise in popularity of football in the U.S.  I love that kind of innovation. The kind that demands to be used.

The improvement in video data analytics has brought increased use of camera tracking to many sports, especially tennis. PlaySight’s state-of-the-art SmartCourt is the improved descendant of the popular line-monitor software, Hawkeye. Rooted in the same auto-tagging software used by the Israeli military, SmartCourt uses only five cameras, and no sensors, to track your game and spew a laundry list of performance stats. It categorizes each type of stroke, tells you who is winning the long and short rallies, and even can show you why your backhand is so unreliable. All of this can be viewed on a nearby kiosk or emailed straight to your computer inbox.

But analytics have been around long before Hawkeye and SmartCourts came to the scene. In football, “watching tape” has always been a token strategy to gain the competitive advantage. Those who follow the NFL scouting combine every year know the importance this type of analysis can have on a player’s career trajectory. But what’s even more telling is the “big data” analyses of the countless minutes of game film compiled and deciphered by people like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. With thoughtful scrutiny, these data powerhouses have introduced relevant context to certain statistics while replacing the misleading ones. There is an interesting piece from sportsonearth.com that praises this kind of data over the hyped hoopla of a single week at the NFL combine. Regardless of your perspective on that debate, no one can dispute the value of quality data in the modern age of athletic competition.

Virtual Reality and the Fan Experience

Virtual reality is finally getting close to an actuality. Recent innovations by companies like Oculus and Samsung, with their affordable and portable Gear VR headset, have made such experiences available to the broad consumer market and spurred new levels of engagement. The obvious and exciting implication for sports fans is being able to enjoy a court-side Final Four game from your living room or a home plate view of the World Series from your back porch. And startups like LiveLike are making sure you don’t lose that essential social element for enjoying a game with friends just because you have a virtual reality helmet on. Their platform allows you and your group, no matter where you are located in the world, to sit and interact in a virtual suite together and enjoy the game.

VR has the potential to overturn the current financial model for ticket sales. The concept of Virtual Season Tickets (VSTs) is being discussed by several major sports organizations based on the promise of higher revenues and a boost in fan engagement.  Comcast SportsNet went so far as crunching the numbers. They found that only 3.2 million fans have season tickets of the more than 200 million fans of professional big league sports. Decision makers in both professional athletics and broadcasting are well aware of the untapped market for fans who love their team but don’t have the time, resources, or geographic proximity to buy season tickets.

Those are just a handful of the more prominent examples, but it’s interesting to see that even the tradition-steeped sports world can’t escape the influence of innovative technology. If you’re interested and would like to learn more about technology in sports, check out our most recent C Spire “Let’s Talk Tech” podcast.  Every month, the program explores the latest emerging technologies, the people behind them and how these trends affect the way we live, work and play.

» Hu Meena is president and CEO of C Spire, a Mississippi-based diversified telecommunications and technology services company


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