The worlds of sports and technology are colliding like never before, with administrators recognizing the possibilities of being smarter both on and off the field of play.
Innovations are being used at a boardroom level to make organizations more efficient and to generate more income, while technology is changing how sport is being played at an elite level. Fans too are benefiting from new services, applications and ways they can interact with sport.
It’s difficult to pick out just five key tech trends from the sporting year, but these are the most significant of the past 12 months.
The arrival of Video-Assisted Referees (VAR) in soccer
Strictly speaking, 2018 was not the first year that VAR was used in a professional match, but the use of the technology at the World Cup in Russia was comfortably the most high-profile use case to date – and one that won over a lot of skeptics.
After the advent of Goal Line Technology (GLT), the clamor for referees to be able to review certain decisions, just as officials can in the NFL, rugby union and countless other sports, grew ever louder. However, opponents argued the use of video review would slow down the game and increase confusion among supporters.
But the use of VAR at the World Cup was a resounding success, so much so that UEFA is fast-tracking its own implementation so video review can be used in the knock-out stages of this year’s Champions League. Meanwhile, the Premier League has approved the use of VAR from the 2019-20 season having previously delayed its introduction by a year.
OTT broadcasts make a serious impact
The past 12 months have seen sports streaming services make a serious impact on the market. In continental Europe, DAZN and Eleven Sports are challenging incumbent broadcasters, while stateside DAZN has invested more than a billion dollars into boxing and combat sports. DAZN’s ambition has been such that HBO, which has been synonymous with boxing in the U.S., has withdrawn from the market.
In the U.K., which DAZN itself has said is too difficult a market to crack in the short-term, there has been some disruption too. Eleven Sports won the rights to Italian and Spanish soccer, while Amazon secured the rights to the US Open tennis and Premier League matches from 2019-20.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Eleven Sports UK has struggled to attract subscribers, while the quality of Amazon’s tennis coverage has been criticized. Meanwhile, those who paid to watch the $10 million golfing contest between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had to be refunded after technical issues.
The rise of eSports
eSports continues to grow in popularity, with sports organizations sensing an opportunity to attract younger fans and generate new revenue streams. Official competitions for the Premier League and UEFA Champions League have been sanctioned, while clubs are signing professional eSports players.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also monitoring eSports development – although recognition as an Olympic discipline is still some way off.
There could be resistance from more traditional fans though. Rumors of an official Swiss eSports league were greeted by protests from fans who threw game controllers onto the pitch, believing that clubs should focus on the pitch, not on the screen.
Shifting attitudes toward gambling
One of the biggest sports business stories of 2018 was the legalization of online betting in the U.S. The relaxation of regulations is a huge boon for British and Irish bookmakers, with the popularity of sports betting and intense competition helping to make the U.K. a hub for gambling technology.
There were immediate acquisitions and expansions into the U.S. market as sporting organizations such as the National Hockey League (NHL) sought to capitalize on a potential new revenue stream.
But closer to home, there are concerns that technology makes gambling attractive to young people and easy to bet. British bookmakers have agreed to stop advertising during live sporting events to help solve the issue.
The use of data analytics to improve match preparation and fitness is common at the elite level of most sports these days, but real-time use of data has been limited. The most obvious example is in the stat-heavy NFL which has a deal with Microsoft to use Surface tablets on the sidelines.
But in Europe, this is not as common. Even in rugby union, coaches have access to analytical tools, but they must sit in the stands with their laptops and all insights are relayed to coaches in the dugout using a radio.
This is changing, with soccer once again leading the way. Earlier this year, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the use of handheld devices during soccer games, enabling a number of possible applications.
At the World Cup, FIFA gave all 32 teams access to a tablet-based system featuring match footage, positioning data, and other statistics, while Manchester City is using handheld devices to give players and coaches access to real-time insights on the opposition, allowing for dynamic tactical plans that can be easily conveyed to players.