COVER STORY: How digital delivers the winning edge in professional sports

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Marketers like to talk about moments that matter. From Cathy Freeman to Ashley Barty, to Sam Kerr, professional sportspeople understand better than most how every marginal gain matters.

It is little wonder then that professional sports operate at the very edge of digital transformation since winning and losing are a matter of fractions, often after long periods of sustained, seemingly superhuman high performance.

Former world champion sailor and partner at McKinsey and Company’s AI-arm QuantumBlack, Helen Mayhew told Digital Nation Australia, the reason professional sports are at the vanguard of adopting AI and machine learning technologies is their deeply rooted culture of continuous improvement and a willingness to take risks.

“The core of the digital transformation for them is how can professional sporting teams change their performance and go after, of course, the one metric they care about, which is winning,” said Mayhew.

“Now the difference is that there is a rapid increase in digital technologies that are enabling change and really, performance-enhancing change for sporting organisations. Suddenly they can ask a whole host of different questions about their performance and get a much richer set of answers.”

Sporting competitions like Formula 1 (F1), Sail Grand Prix (SailGP) and the America’s Cup are made up of teams racing cars and sailing boats built with some of the world’s most cutting-edge technology.

From sports cars designed by Ferrari and Mercedes to SailGP’s F50 foiling catamarans, the design and engineering of the machine is as important as the performance of the elite athletes that race them.

America’s Cup

When it comes to designing an America’s Cup yacht for instance, Mayhew said “These aren't typical boats”.

“These are boats that are right on the technological edge. They are going up to about a hundred kilometres an hour. They are flying at about one to two metres out of the water and so they're low flying aircraft rather than boats.”

In order to test the designs, McKinsey and Company worked with Emirates Team New Zealand to develop an AI bot using a paradigm of machine learning called reinforcement learning. This digital twin of a sailor could sail inside a simulator to test ten times more boat designs than a human sailor, at a hugely reduced cost.

“We will never be able to quite put our finger on it, but it may well have been one of the things that led to team New Zealand winning the America's Cup. They had the fastest boats on the racetrack,” she said.

As much as the teams leverage digital pre-race, the technologies on board the boats are also crucial in allowing the sailors to control the boat while racing.

SailGP

Kyle Langford, wing trimmer for the Australian SailGP team described to Digital Nation Australia the role of hydraulic systems and electronic systems on board, which are used to control all functions of the boat.

“The old traditional sailing where you have a rope and a winch — that's not this,” said Langford.

“As soon as we get on the water we're controlling the sails and the foils on the boat using buttons and there's programming that goes into those buttons, which activate certain functions and those functions need to be at specific timings. And so everything on the boat is really programmable.”

The teams can draw from real-time data mid-race using multiple screens showing all the instrumentation he said.

Sensors on board the boat are constantly measuring wind speed, angles to the wind, foil positions and positions of the sails. Then back onshore, the teams can analyse and interrogate the data to better understand all elements of their performance.

“Basically every single part of the boat is analysed. And we can look at that data and pick out some good points when the boat feels good and when it's going well and compare that to previous times we've been sailing and those conditions,” said Langford.

According to Mayhew, “If I look at my sailing counterparts now, every time they come off the water there is an unbelievable quantity of data that is digested for them. So they can understand to a real level of precision, through the instrumentation on the boat, how they were sailing, what impacted their wins or not.

"The feedback loop of data and analytics to an athlete has been a huge step forward and is really what is driving performance change at the heart of the sport.”

However, it's not just in sailing where data is driving outcomes.

McKinsey and Company have been working with Formula E, the motorsport championship for electric vehicles, to help them improve the battery life of the cars. And in premiership football they have worked with teams on injury prediction she said.

AFL

“When an athlete was injured 20 years ago, they could face years of recovery, often relying on methods that were, by and large, the same for every athlete. Now, coaches can use individual performance data to tailor a training plan that is customised to an athlete’s injury, capabilities and position, all based on objective data,” Will Lopes, CEO of Catapult Sports told Digital Nation Australia.

All 18 teams in the AFL, as well as AFLW and AFL Pathways, are using Catapult’s wearable Vector devices in order to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.

“Clubs use our Vector devices to track, monitor and plan physical loads for players. During the training they will monitor distances, efforts and speeds live and give feedback on how that aligns with training plans and goals, allowing them to alter training in real-time to achieve desired outcomes. Following a session, this data is then analysed and fed into planning models to help clubs ensure that physical preparation is optimised for matches,” said Lopes.

“On matchdays, clubs use our units to monitor game speeds and physical loads which can lead to influencing decision making — such as rotations. Additionally, on match days our player tracking data is used in broadcast to help engage fans and allow them to understand the big physical requirement needed to play AFL at the highest level.”

Netball Tasmania

Netball is another sport undergoing significant digital transformation. Ball-tracking video software can track the ball across the court and capture individual player statistics including their time with the ball.

Netball Tasmania is looking to onboard the technology in the near future, to provide a better level of analytics for its players.

Kirstin Palfrey, media and events manager at Netball Tasmania told Digital Nation Australia, “If we have multiple cameras on a court, we can track multiple athletes at a time. By selecting them as the target that opens up a whole world of opportunities that we've never seen before.”

The organisation is also using electronic scoring in order to live-score games, manage subs and collect shooting statistics.

“The manual data entry of the past used to take, if you had 12 games to input over the weekend, it would take a whole day to input those results, and track all that data,” said Palfrey.

“Now the information's available at people's fingertips, which just makes netball so much more accessible and visible for the wider community.”

Formula 1

The F1 last season leveraged Oracle Cloud Infrastructure to improve prediction accuracy and decision making, increasing their number of simulations by 1,000 times, and their simulation speed by 10 times.

According to Oracle Red Bull racing team principal and CEO Christian Horner, “Oracle Cloud enabled us to make race-day decisions that helped Max Verstappen win the 2021 Drivers’ Championship. Discovering and reacting to opportunities quickly is crucial to our success on and off the track, and Oracle is integral in that effort.”

The sporting organisation has also invested in digital off the track.

Lenovo is an official partner for F1’s 2022 season in a multi-year deal that leverages both hardware devices, high-performance computing and server solutions to improve operations and power its headquarters.

Lara Rodini, sponsorships and activation director at Lenovo told Digital Nation Australia, “Our powerful technology will increasingly help Formula 1 with their on-premise data collection solutions: we’ll work together to improve the storage of data at events, helping to produce higher quality content and supporting broadcast applications.”

The organisation is also investing heavily in enhancing fan experiences through hybrid.

“Formula 1 will continue to transform the sport by giving rise to more engaging, customised experiences for its fans. From running powerful on-premise data collection solutions to producing higher quality content and supporting broadcast applications, up to leveraging next-generation technology such as augmented and virtual reality solutions, our partnership will allow people to engage with the sport in new ways,” said Rodini.

According to Stefano Domenicali, President & CEO of F1, “Like everything in Formula 1, precision and detail are everything, and Lenovo will be at the forefront of providing their experience and innovative technologies to our operations throughout the season.”

Alpha Romeo’s F1 team ORLEN last week announced a partnership with the world’s first hyper-realistic metaverse Everdome last week, in order to facilitate web3 interactions for fans and the racing community.

“We are taking a massive step to enter the metaverse, and Everdome has the expertise and technology we need to create a new sports-viewing, immersive experience,” said Frédéric Vasseur, Team Principal Alfa Romeo F1 Team ORLEN.

Last season Red Bull Racing partnered with Oracle to launch a fan loyalty program to create a direct line of communication between the fans and the team, with 35,000 digital rewards redeemed.

According to Oliver Hughes, chief marketing officer at Oracle Red Bull Racing,“ We want to take fans with us on our competitive journey in F1, putting them right at the heart of the racing action and Oracle’s world-class innovation and technology will help us achieve that goal."

E-sports

While traditional sports are certainly starting to drive significant value from digital transformation, one industry that was born digital is e-sports, where professional gamers compete on the world stage.

The global e-sports industry is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion and is projected to grow to $4 billion by 2030.

Digital Nation Australia spoke to Graeme Du Toit, head of sales and marketing at the world’s largest e-sports and gaming lifestyle company ESL. The organisation operates high-profile branded international leagues and tournaments under the ESL Pro Tour.

According to Du Toit, “Often when people look at e-sports from the outside, they might think, ‘Oh well, its FIFA or it's a driving game’, whereas those are the smaller games. The big games are the ones that are completely different.

“Things like MOBAs (Massive Online Battle Arena), which is five people playing on a team against each other and they play on this map and they have magical characters, or it's first-person shooters where you're playing and you’re working with a team of five people doing tactics and trying to disarm the opposing team.”

Du Toit believes that the skill-ceiling for e-sports is higher than that of traditional sports, based on the level of technical skills and strategy required of the players.

"I'll probably get some flack for that," he joked.

“If you're playing footy or something, or you're playing rugby, there are some rule changes every now and again, but the game doesn't really change much over time. These games change constantly.

“That can have a massive impact on the strategies one has to employ, or the characters you have to play or the way you have to play the game.”

While e-sports has been heavily influenced by the competitive structures of traditional sports, such as the style of the tournaments and the commercialisation, Du Toit said that traditional sports still have much to learn from the success of e-sports, especially when it comes to fan engagement.

“In a space like e-sports, when it's at its best, there are almost no barriers between the audience and the professional players, and the talent that are the commentators, the hosts, and the personalities in the space, because quite differently to sport, e-sports players and pros are often influencers in their own rights,” said Du Toit.

"Quick adoption of things like social media or technologies like blockchain or NFTs, and what this can do for fans, I think is something that traditional sports can pick up a bit more from e-sports.”

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