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Why the Sports Industry Could Include the First 5G Beneficiaries

As consumers continue to wrap their heads around 5G, sports might be one of the first industries to benefit from next-generation networking capabilities.

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Photo credit: Sacramento Kings

As consumers continue to wrap their heads around what 5G will mean to everyday life, sports might be one of the first industries to benefit from the next-generation networking capabilities.

Verizon’s deployment of 5G networks is currently underway, including four cities for home consumer broadband product. The Verizon deployment includes Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, where the NBA’s Sacramento Kings are helping exemplify how sports organizations can fully embrace technological changes.

“We’re always trying to disrupt ourselves before we’re disrupted,” said Ryan Montoya, the Kings’ chief technology officer. “We want to use that tech to ensure we deliver the best fan experience.”

The rollout of 5G by network providers will still take some time, but preparations are well underway.

Broad, citywide home use deployment is important to Verizon, but the technology does lend itself to point deployment in venues like Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, said Nicki Palmer, Verizon’s chief networking officer.

READ MORE: Immersive Media’s Infancy Creates Industry Opportunities

Consumers will be able to use 5G, as phones with the capability begin to roll out in the first quarter of this year — with brands like Motorola and Samsung being early adopters. It will still be several years still before the full effects of 5G capabilities are realized, Palmer said.

“5G is really a generational leap in technology,” Palmer said. “We talk about it ushering in the fourth industrial revolution, when you couple it with some other technologies like AI and big statistical analytics and intense infrastructure. You can see we’re on the verge of something entirely different.”

To help demonstrate the jumps to the unknown, Palmer brought up the existence of Uber, which wouldn’t be possible without the jump in speeds from 3G to 4G at the beginning of the decade.

While Palmer cited many industries that will benefit from the massive leap in speeds and low latency, she said dreaming about sports applications is among the most fun, from at-home viewing to in-arena experiences.

“Sports is a great use case,” Palmer said. “We’re building the networks and we know the innovation will happen.”

Viewing Experience

Yahoo Sports General Manager Geoff Reiss said it’s already the “age of the jetpack” for sports media at a panel at CES. Like jetpacks, 5G’s influence on sports media will be helping provide fans experiences they want but can’t have yet.

“The ability to amass crazy, never-before-seen experiences, it does seem like we’re at that jetpack phase,” Reiss said. “The next generation is starting close to home. The first iPod didn’t create my demand to have music. I always wanted my music; it enabled something I always wished I could do.”

Today’s 4K TVs need a broadband connection, but Palmer said with 5G capabilities, the resolution possibilities move to fingertips and begin the conversation of complex holographic content. Palmer mentioned the real-time capabilities of 5G by talking about an experiment with players standing on a free-throw line, wearing VR goggles and making shots.

What media companies are doing to prepare for future broadcast capabilities, including Yahoo, are still under wraps as they build proofs of concept, but Reiss said there is a paradigm shift coming and future broadcast rights negotiations in 2021-23 will likely account for new mediums.

“It is really hard, but that’s part of the competitive advantage,” he said. “It being hard creates a barrier of entry. This is a massive undertaking and it fundamentally will reshape how fans consume sports.”

Fans can also be connected to an in-arena experience at home through the VR headsets. The Kings ran a trial with students in Mumbai, allowing them to virtually sit courtside.

“We’ve always wanted to figure out how to connect fans to each other, but the city and the world,” Montoya said.

In-Arena Experience

As the line between virtual and physical world continues to blur, the physical attendance of games will change too.

Montoya believes it will be 18-to-24 months before fans start really entering the arena with fully capable 5G devices, but the Kings organization wants to be ahead of the curve. 

“Just think about all the elements you can bring into the game that don’t exist yet,” Montoya said. “In-game betting, hearing multiple audio feeds, seeing real-time biometrics. You’re going to see all these apps and platforms we can’t comprehend yet.”

The Golden 1 Center has more than 1,000 miles of cable power, connected to the internet with 200 gigabits-per-second pipeline, more than a 1,000 beacons and sensors, the world’s largest indoor video board and its own Tier 4 data center.

READ MORE: How the Edmonton Oilers and SQWAD Are Pulling Off Unique In-Game Giveaways

The Kings have laid out the technology to provide lightning-fast speeds and low latency, so they are now waiting for people to connect to it and create the applications to fully utilize it. Technology’s effect on fan experience is far beyond viewing the game and gamification, but also easing friction points. Improvements like smart turnstiles help increase fan entrance up to 1,000 per hour, up from the 300 per hour from handheld scanners.

“From the moment they wake up to the coming into parking and the facility, we want to remove all those friction points,” Montoya said, adding the organization is already looking at how autonomous vehicles will interact with the facility.

Verizon’s Palmer imagines having personal tablets to call up multiple replay angles and real-time data aside from what’s on the big monitors. The tablets could also create peer-to-peer gamification within arenas, whether for fun or moment-by-moment betting.

Kings’ representatives have already talked to more than 300 organizations from across the globe.

“We’ve definitely created the blueprint,” Montoya said. “I can see some of the new venues incorporating some of our thought processes.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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How a Camera System Helped Yale Make the Big Dance

A video system called Keemotion didn’t make a single shot or pass all season. But the Bulldogs might not have made the NCAA Tournament without it.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Credit: Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Ordinarily, a camera system wouldn’t receive much credit for Yale basketball completing perhaps the greatest season in program history. According to head coach James Jones, however, a state-of-the-art platform called Keemotion was a valuable behind-the-scenes resource during the Bulldogs’ success this season, in which Yale won the Ivy League, captured its first-ever conference tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament for just the fifth time in school history.

“Would we have gotten to the Tournament if we didn’t have it? I’d like to think we would have,” he says. “But at the same time, I know that it’s helpful, too, for my guys to be able to learn from… It’s just a great tool to have.”

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In the words of its CEO Milton Lee, Keemotion is “a fully automated video production ecosystem” involving a series of anywhere from three to seven cameras positioned across the court which capture video and can replay it almost instantaneously on a tablet. The utility of that service depends on the client. According to Lee, who came to Keemotion after five years with the Brooklyn Nets, the company offers four tiers of service to clients ranging from the professional ranks all the way down to high school athletics. Depending on the client’s resources, Keemotion has been everything from a social media aid to a livestream service to an instant replay tool for referees to a coaching tool – and, as Lee notes, the company hopes “our ultimate client would use all of our [services].”

For Yale, it fills one especially well. Jones estimates he’s used the Keemotion for roughly five years, primarily as a basketball operations assistant for a program that, like most non-Power Five schools, often struggles to recruit dependable student volunteers.

“We would film practice every so often [but] it was difficult for us sometimes to find a manager and this system allows us to just not have to worry about that,” he says. “[It gives us] that carefree ability to just watch.”

And, from there, his players learn. Jones watches cut-ups after each session to help him tweak and adjust his own strategies for the next day. But the service also allows him to better hold his players accountable for bad habits. “Every kid in the world — no one’s ever committed a foul, no one’s ever turned the ball over,” he says, wryly, and now he can provide a visual demonstration in real time whenever they do. More than that, though, it streamlines communication in an environment where coaches are only permitted a set number of hours to train their players each week.

“It takes away a lot of the confusion that some guys had with their play,” Jones says. “And then there’s the teaching aspect of it, where, again, some guys think they’re doing something and they’re not.”

Perhaps its greatest impact of all is on the players with the most to gain. While starters and key rotation players get the luxury of live game reps to dissect on tape, other reserves or young players who languish on the bench not only lose out on in-game experience but also the future study opportunities it affords. The less pivotal the player, the greater importance the system takes on.

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“A lot of times, you have guys that don’t ever play in games, and you need to be able to teach them from video,” he says. “We cut tape up, and we show them what they’re doing in practice because they don’t have that game footage to help them get better.”

Jones says he can envision a world in which, rules permitting, he someday taps into Keemotion during games by way of reviewing tape at halftime on the tablet. Doing so would represent one of the most advanced steps yet within the growing trend to weave in faster, more comprehensive data to enhance team performance.

It’s hardly the catalyst for the Bulldogs’ success. Like any platform, it has limitations – and, at the end of the day, cameras don’t coach basketball games. Still, Jones says, “it all goes hand in hand.” And for a basketball team that punches above its weight, Jones will take all the hands he can get.

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Sparta Science Works to Prevent Injuries through Smarter Tech

A strength and conditioning coach-turned-doctor believes he can prevent injuries before they happen through better, smarter science.

Jarrod Barnes

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Photo Courtesy: Sparta Sports

According to a study from Stanford University Children’s Health, more than 3.5 million children ages 14 and younger get hurt annually playing sports or participating in recreational activities. As competition and performance increase, so does the risk for injury. During the 2018 NFL Season, there were 57 ACL tears and 131 MCL tears.

Dr. Phil Wagner, CEO of Sparta Science, wants to change that. In 2009, he set out with a mission to better understand the human body, and not only find out why injuries were happening but also what could be done to prevent and even predict them.

Sparta Science uses a force-plate system powered by AI and machine-learning software called the Sparta Scan that documents and collects 3,000 data points per second, recording information to produce a unique movement signature for each user. The scan is comprised of three assessments — the jump, balance and plank scan. These track three distinct measurements: The user’s “load,” or ability to generate force; “explode,” or ability to transfer force; and “drive,” or ability to express force over time. Each test clocks in around 60 seconds, allowing Sparta to test large groups in mere minutes. The results assess movement health and injury risk in a matter of seconds while also providing data-driven exercise prescriptions that increase resilience, minimize injury risk and optimize rehabilitation to return to physical activity.

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“We’re trying to instill good habits that go beyond strength training” says Wagner. “It is a big difference-maker when technology can help you be more resilient… [and assigns] the right program that can both improve performance and reduce injury at the same time.”

It’s the type of life Wagner couldn’t have imagined for himself. Wagner grew up in Berkeley, Calif., but never envisioned getting involved in the tech world despite only being about an hour from Silicon Valley.

“I grew up playing sports in a different realm but became drawn to this because of injuries and limitations. I did not have any answers into why this was happening,” says Wagner.

He broke into the sports world as a strength and conditioning coach for schools like Cal and UCLA before going overseas to work for professional rugby teams in New Zealand and Australia. Eventually, he decided his existing knowledge base only did so much to allow him to prevent injuries rather than merely treat existing ones. So, he says, “I went to medical school to better understand the human body and learn evidence-based research in order to effectively apply that back into injury prevention,” ultimately graduating with an M.D. from USC with a focus on biomechanics. 

It provided the backbone for Sparta Science, which has raised $9.7 million in funding to date and worked with teams within leagues including the NFL, NBA, MLB, and MLS. Information also plays a key role: Sparta uses scan data collected from over 900,000 athletes and counting to predict ACL and lower-extremity injuries. So do customized, multi-layered workout programs.

The endgame is a regimen that is data-rich but malleable to different clients.

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“We use Sparta Scans as part of our screening protocol here at the Institute to provide us with quick, actionable information that can help us better understand each and every athlete we work with,” says Dr. Mark Kovacs, CEO of the Kovacs Institute for Sport and Human Performance, “The three scans provide meaningful information that we use in our data-driven program design to help personalize our training for every athlete.”

Wagner has no shortage of target growth areas for the future outside of scanning. The company continues to expand into talent identification and has set its sights on stroke rehabilitation, knee and hip replacements. It even presented a case study from the NBA Draft at this year’s South by Southwest conference. Wagner isn’t afraid to branch outside of sports, either: He counts the Department of Defense as one of the company’s largest customers and says “the armed forces have approached us and want to identify potential weaknesses.”

It’s an unusual trajectory, which fits well with Wagner’s circuitous path through the sports medicine world. When asked to define his career journey, all he could do was laugh, before offering a word to sum it all up: “Unbelievable.” He hopes the same will be someday said about Sparta Science’s influence on sports medicine and health and fitness landscape.

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Whistle Signals an Official Call to Action Within the Sports Landscape

The platform allows for a streamlined process for connecting referees to upcoming sports events while also providing a network to foster growth and support for aspiring officials.

Max Simpson

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Photo credit: Whistle

Sports are everywhere in today’s culture. The countless memories that they provide are far-reaching and impact much of how we choose to focus our attention. They serve not only as a driving force of dynamic entertainment, but they also offer a way to shape values and mold future generations. Sports have to start somewhere. Like most lifelong endeavors, the best place to begin is at the youth level.

As a kid, you may think there isn’t much to starting a sports league or organizing an official game. You need the proper field, the equipment, and teammates to play with and a team to play against. Yet, what is stopping these complex operations from turning to absolute mayhem? A referee.

In the United States, there are over 100 million amateur sporting events every year that rely on referees to do their job of maintaining order. Be that as it may, the lack of convenience and active available officials are threatening the sports landscape across the world. Referees are oft-forgotten within the structure of sports, particularly at the youth level. That is, until they are thrust into the spotlight on the receiving end of verbal — and worst case, physical — abuse from a host of players and even parents.

Until recently, referees have had to weather these harsh conditions, in addition to inadequate pay and difficulty finding consistent work in less-organized associations. They’re still waiting weeks, sometimes months, to get paid, haven’t had a reliable platform to increase advancement opportunities and offer feedback from their experience directly to the organization.

Enter Whistle.

Founded in 2017 by Oliver Barton, Whistle serves aspiring referees and established sports organizations twofold: Referees are able to select preferences such as sport to officiate, distance to event, and days available in order to maximize their official ratings and build their pedigree. In turn, organizers are able to easily create upcoming events, manage officials’ schedules, rate referee performances, and ultimately expand their officiating network for future events.

READ MORE: Why the Sports Industry Could Include the First 5G Beneficiaries 

“Similar to everyday apps like Lyft and Uber, Whistle allows for both parties [referees and organizations] to rate each other in order to produce a better environment for everybody involved,” said Barton. “This is especially helpful for both experienced and inexperienced referees as they will have the ability to raise issues, as well as see if there is a prior history of abuse at certain leagues or tournaments.

Barton’s inspiration for Whistle was originally forged in the United Kingdom. He grew up playing soccer throughout his childhood and into adolescence. The sport was a vital part of the culture then and still is today as over 50,000 referees are needed to officiate Sunday league games throughout the country on a weekly basis. One incident that helped to forge Barton’s appreciation for officials came as his identity within the sports landscape was taking place.

“My first encounter with what referees have to go through occurred when I was 12 years old,” recalled Barton. “My brother, who was 14 at the time, attended one of my games that ended controversially. After the match concluded, he yelled abuse at the referee and was promptly banned from playing for a portion of games. Upon returning, he never talked back to referees again.”

Upon immigrating to the United States in 2016 after meeting his wife, Barton’s perspective of sports was further widened. He noted a system where the sports-participation rate was far more expansive than the United Kingdom, and even Europe, yet the alarming shortage of officials dominated headlines. That’s when he gave birth to Whistle and set out on his vision to make sports officiating universally accessible to everybody.

In October 2017, Los Angeles-based Hickory VC helped to jumpstart the company with pre-seed funding. Early investors Chris Webb and Jake Ireland, both of whom played college basketball, saw Whistle as a solution that the sports world desperately needs.

“What stood out to us about Whistle was the untapped and overlooked global officiating market they were going after,” said Ireland, Hickory VC Managing Partner. “The lack of accessible, quality sports officials has impacted each and every one of us in some way (whether as a fan, participant, coach or parent), and this worsening problem has major ramifications for sports participation at all ages. Whistle is the solution the sports world desperately needs. If we stick to the game plan and continue to execute, we’ll be the industry leader in the not so distant future.”

With the momentum building, Whistle’s soft launch took place in May 2018. Soon after, the partnerships began rolling in. Hoopla, the second largest 3×3 basketball tournament of its kind which hosts 1,000 teams, 4,000 participants, and 900 volunteers, brought on Whistle as Game Official Management Partner. In July of that year, Dean Blandino, FOX Sports’ NFL and college football rules analyst and former NFL SVP of officiating, joined Whistle’s board of directors.

“The passion for officiating and connecting with people in order to improve the officiating space was mutual between Whistle and myself,” said Blandino. “Whistle serves as a win-win for both organizers and officials in helping to provide a sense of quality-control amongst for sports events. The goal is to build a network of referee mentorship and become a one-stop shop for connecting aspiring officials to those who have the experience willing to show them the ropes.”

In September 2018, SportsEngine, an NBC Sports Group company and the leading youth sports technology provider, added Whistle to its online marketplace of sports-related services. This addition allows Whistle to directly integrate its platform of aligning vetted officials directly to the youth sports’ league schedules.

“Adding Whistle to the SportsEngine Marketplace is part of our ongoing commitment to provide value-added benefits, along with a comprehensive suite of solutions, for more than one million youth sports clubs, leagues, governing bodies and associations,” said Rick Ehrman, vice president of corporate development. “Whistle’s partnership is a perfect fit as we continue to find new and innovative solutions that help teams manage and simplify their sports lives.”

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Whistle has also expanded its portfolio to older sports enthusiasts. LASportsNet, the largest social sports organization in Los Angeles containing a network of adult, co-ed sports leagues, is just the latest to turn to Whistle as it continues to expand the programs. And today, Whistle announced that it acquired local competitor Rent-A-Ref.

“No one before has truly explored the full potential of utilizing technology to bridge the gap between finding game-ready officials and providing online training and mentoring for less experienced officials,” said Michael Radchuk, founder of Rent-A-Ref and current league and referee development with Whistle. “I strongly believe that this market is very untapped. After speaking with Oliver and the leadership team at Whistle, it was a no-brainer to combine forces.”

With these developments and acquisitions, Whistle still has big plans ahead. With a full launch scheduled for mid-2019, Whistle has currently surpassed 10,000 signups and mobile downloads to date as it now kicks off the formal seed round of financing.

The platform is operated across the country including states such as California, New York, and recently Florida. The future is bright for Whistle and for aspiring officials down the road looking to continue and grow the future participation of sports.

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