The Future is Friendly for Professional Sports
By Peter Lagosky
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. 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.
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.”