The use of technology in sports

POSTED BY Dan Carson on Jul 20, 2010

After a healthy and curious discussion during my lunch presentation last week, I thought it might be useful to bring some of what was talked about to the blog. Just like in real life, and contrary to the name, our lunches are open to anybody who’s interested and willing to dialogue. Let’s carry that over to the blog as well, yeah?

Because I’m obsessed with baseball analysis, and because of some recent and very public controversies, I decided to focus my topic on the use of technology in sports. Similar to politics, the weather, and the iPhone antenna issue, sports is one of the things we never get tired of talking about.

But beyond that, why is it that professional sports have become such a hotbed of technological innovation? In one word: money.

It’s just a game...

Professional sports are a multi-billion dollar industry. To a modern baseball franchise, each individual win can be worth anywhere from $1M to $4.5M. In short, winning matters, and the accuracy of officiating directly relates to profit for one side or the other.

But while those things seem self-evident, why is it that the role of technology in sports is so hotly debated at every turn?

Losing the human element

Instant replay will ruin the pace of the game, umpires bring a folksy charm to the baseball diamond, we’ve gotten this far without resorting to robots. There are plenty of arguments to be made, but it all boils down to the same debate - Accuracy vs. Tradition. To paraphrase Jeff Sullivan (lookoutlanding.com), the human eye used to be the best we could do. But we now have the capability to make much more accurate judgments than that. We’d be silly not to put that capability to use.

I thought it’d be interesting to quickly run through some examples that affect the game in two ways: how it’s played, and how it’s viewed.

Instant replay

We all know how this one works, it’s not very complicated. People argued that it would ruin the pace of the game. History has shown those critics to be wrong, and in fact it has shaped the game in it’s own unique way.


Having been used at various levels of professional tennis for several years now, the Hawk-Eye system is another example of successful tech integration. Used line calls, the system uses a series of high speed cameras mounted around the stadium. Combined with a pre-rendered 3D model of the court, we can then track the position of the tennis ball in 3D space. This not only affects the game itself, but also the ability to self-analyze at a new level of detail.

Goal line technology

What is seemingly a fairly straightforward issue to resolve, the automated calling of goals in soccer remains contentious. While Hawk-Eye system has the capability to solve this, it’s the Cairos GLT system that has received the most attention. In collaboration with Adidas, Cairos developed a system that embeds a series of electric wires under the goal line on the pitch. When that series of wires is crossed by a special ball containing it’s own sensor, a signal is sent to a wristband being worn by the official (goal or no goal), requiring no stoppage time. After dismissing the use of the system as “only 95% accurate”, FIFA has pledged to revisit the technology this fall. They failed to mention whether or not this is a result of the horrific officiating at the World Cup.

Now let’s take a look at some examples of how technology has changed the way we view the games.

1st and Ten

Widely known and thought of in a “how did we ever live without it” kind of way, 1st and Ten is that yellow line you see on the field during NFL games. I’ve taken it so much for granted, that whenever I’ve gone to see a game in person, I find it hard to follow along without the line. Similar to Hawk-Eye, 1st and Ten utilizes a series of cameras and a 3D model of the stadium. All of this is combined off site, and then chroma keyed to make the yellow line look like it’s painted right onto the grass.

FoxTrax - Epic fail

One of the more public failures came in the mid 90s when the NHL tried to make the game easier to watch for the casual fan. Thinking that the reason more people didn’t tune in to the games was that the puck was hard to follow, they embedded a series of infrared LEDs into the puck. The result being colorful light trails emanating from the puck after it was stuck. While it in fact made the puck more visible, rather than attracting new viewers, it simply annoyed the hardcore hockey fan. As the NHL quickly backtracked, the adoption of HDTV has made the technology somewhat irrelevant anyways.


PITCH F/x has single handedly spawned an entire new segment of statistical analysis in baseball. You know the story: PITCH F/x uses a series of cameras mounted around the perimeter of every stadium to track the position of the baseball within a 1/2” of accuracy. This allows the system to track pitches in several ways: where it was released from the pitcher’s hand, where it was caught by the catcher, or where the bat stuck it. We can determine the horizontal and vertical break, as well as the trajectory of the ball once it leaves the bat.

The result of all this being mountains upon mountains of data. You can imagine the implications on a sport which has always been the most statistically inclined of all. It has enabled new player evaluation, coaching methods, opponent scouting, and injury prevention techniques. For the viewer at home it has enabled new tools such as MLB Gameday, which allows you to experience the game in a whole new dimension.

Moving forward

Now that we’ve shown professional sports to be an incubator for some very interesting innovation, what kind of technological advancement might you expect to see in the future? Personally, I think medical innovation will be important. LASIK is already huge among professional athletes (see: Tiger Woods). Things like non-invasive surgery, micro-fracture surgery, non-strength based conditioning all will play important roles. Now that steroids are out of the picture, athletes will be looking for every new edge available to them.

Beyond that, I’m curious to hear some of your ideas. Let ‘em fly.







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