By Stephen Pritchard
Each game in this year’s Six Nations championship will produce two million rows of data, equivalent to more than 1,400 actions (tries, conversions, tackles, passes and so on) per game. This data will be fed to broadcasters, fans (via the official Six Nations app among other channels) and to coaches who can and will use the information to improve player performance.
The idea of capturing data during a sporting event is not new but the richness of the data now available and the speed at which it is gathered certainly is.
In the 1950s Charles Reep, an RAF officer and accountant, pioneered the idea of data capture in sport. While watching football matches he created a system of paper notation to record players’ moves. It took him three months to wade through the data produced by the 1958 World Cup final.
Reep’s work is not without controversy: among other things, he is credited with driving English football managers’ fondness for the long-ball game. But there is no doubt that his work and the system of notational analysis he patented has changed the way teams play sport and how fans now watch them.
Reep, of course, only had the most basic tools available to study a match: his eyes, a notepad and a pencil. It was only in the 1990s that football, rugby and a raft of other professional sporting clubs started to install cameras which enabled match-play monitoring.
The move to digital cameras, that can capture much better pictures and transfer far more information, is even more recent.
Over the last few years, clubs have started to marry up information from their cameras and video screens with other sources of data, especially information from GPS (global positioning system) satellites and accelerometers worn by players.
“We are seeing the convergence of health and lifestyle technology,” says Mark Skilton at PA Consulting. “You can wear a sensor in your shirt, on your wrist, shoe or raquet; we’re even seeing sensors in golf clubs to monitor players’ swings using kinetic real-time feedback.”
But the way sports are layering these different technologies together is changing coaching, the way fans view sports and even how sports clubs are run. A variety of applications now mean the keen fan can see not just how their team performed but which players were most influential in the game. Any fan with a WiFi connection and a tablet device now has, in effect, a coach’s eye view of the game.
In Reep’s day, sports analysts had no choice but to go through their notes after the game. Even the first-generation video coaching aids required back-room staff to watch hours of footage in order to pick out the key parts of the game to show players. Now, because of digital technology, access to all this information is as good as instant.
Sports are benefiting too from off-the-pitch technologies making it easier to capture and share information.
The development of ubiquitous networks of connected sensors and communications, known as the internet of things, is giving rise to intelligent buildings. Sports venues are no exception and teams and sports scientists can piggyback on this intelligence to share rich data.
Technology company Cisco is heavily involved in smart buildings but also has a project called the Connected Athlete.
The Connected Athlete takes data from sensors, for example in a shoe or boot, and then connects that up to the stadium’s WiFi network or even a low-powered cellular phone transmitter so that teams can monitor it. But because the internet of things allows the athlete’s sensors to connect to other networks, it can be shared with fans and broadcasters too.
Much of the power of the internet of things in sports, relies on the idea of a “smart building” to tie together existing technology resources. These include WiFi, sensors including intruder alarms, door entry systems, thermostats and smart meters, digital displays and even electronic ticketing.
In this way, building owners and building management software know where people are, what they are doing and how much energy they are using.
From a business perspective, such data becomes very valuable when it comes to cutting the running costs of large buildings, but they bring benefits too in public safety and security.
Coupling a smart building with digital signage allows building managers to give visitors up to date information, and redirect people away from busy areas to where queues are shorter.
Already being used to ease congestion at airports, an intelligent building system can direct people to the least busy turnstile or bar, or even where the toilet queues are shortest. Signs can direct the public in an emergency, but the rest of the time they can show match information, player statistics or even special offers.
A proof of concept by Accenture (who sponsor this series), goes a step further. Trialled at Twickenham during the Six Nations, their technology combines a wireless headset with the Six Nations app and information cards created by an expert curator showing data from critical points in a game.
Hooked up to the Wi-Fi network, according to Ben Salama, UK and Ireland managing director of Accenture Mobility, the tech could be extended into areas as diverse as catering. “You could see half time scores from other games,” he says, “but also to order drinks to be delivered to your seat without missing any of the game.” This, he says, is one way for sporting venues to increase their revenues.
There is still some way to go before such gadgets become mainstream at sporting events. Cost is one barrier. Others include connectivity and battery life.
Accenture admits that most UK stadiums lack a powerful enough WiFi system to support a truly connected experience; the firm had to build a new network at Twickenham for its proof of concept.
Manufacturers also say more needs to be done to allow devices to stream more data and to last for a match, or beyond, on a single battery charge.
“We’re constantly looking at ways to reduce power consumption the technology consumes,” says Sujata Neidig, director of business development for consumer technology at Freescale, a microchip maker. “And we are also looking at wireless charging.” That way, fans can focus on the game rather than hunting for a power socket.