Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Featured in: Sports Business Journal
By Karn Dhingra and Eric Prisbell
August 3, 2020
As teams and leagues navigate a return to play, they will be relying on innovative solutions to manage and keep facilities safe, communicate and connect with fans, provide contactless service and many other functions associated with offering live sports events in the COVID era. Sports Business Journal contacted technology executives across sports about technology’s role in the road ahead, the kinds of technology they are watching today and the problems that remain on the horizon. Their answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
How involved is technology in sports’ return to play?
Jason Gaedtke: Technology increasingly plays an important role in supporting both the game on the field (through replay, tracking, analytics, communications) and the delivery of the live baseball experience to fans (through MLB.com, MLB.TV and the MLB App). With limited in-stadium attendance during the pandemic, we are excited to launch some new fan experiences this year to enhance the remote-watching experience, including Rally (a free-to-play game based on baseball propositions) and Cheer at the Park (an online opportunity for fans to engage and share in the emotion of the game).
Adam Goodyer: It’s absolutely critical that all systems and digital touch points are successfully integrated as we slowly start welcoming fans back safely. These key pillars include access control, crowd management, contactless collection, and real-time safety messaging throughout each stage of the fan journey.
Brandon Schneider: We are spending a lot of time thinking about the in-venue fan experience, and how it changes in a post-COVID world. One key trend that has stayed constant in a lot of our research and work has been mobile and how we can put more power into the hands of our fans through the Warriors + Chase Center app. Everything from expanded food and beverage ordering, retail ordering, enhanced venue maps, enhanced ticket management, more information about transit options (including real-time public transit options), potentially showing wait times for certain areas of the venue, and more. We made a significant investment in building our own custom app with our partner, Accenture, which gives us the ability to provide updates on an ongoing basis. Since we launched our app ahead of opening Chase Center last fall, we’ve made 21 updates. It’s all about giving fans as much useful information as possible, so they’re prepared for this new fan experience in whatever form it may be.
We are fortunate to have just built a brand-new arena, and Chase Center is one of the only 5G-enabled venues on the West Coast, which allows us to offer a wider variety of digital experiences to fans while at an event. We can deliver more content to our fans, significantly decrease latency of data and look at different second-screen experiences on mobile (for example, exclusive camera angles).
Denise Taylor: For all stakeholders, technology is integral to the return of live sports. Player health and wellness is being monitored through apps and wearables. Increased venue hygiene protocols are being addressed through the increased use of medical-grade solutions, enhanced air and lighting solutions, along with advanced robotics being used for productions.
For the fan, we are thinking about a variety of technology integrations throughout venues, including an integrated digital ticket, facial recognition capabilities to reduce lines for entry and concessions, a frictionless retail and food and beverage experience, cashless payment methods, and using artificial intelligence and data algorithms to model out ticketing, seating, and social distancing.
The at-home viewing experience is also being driven by technology, with new digital fan engagements, innovative broadcast enhancements, and other ways to bring the live sports experience into people’s homes. Being able to have that socially connected, digital event with a group of friends sharing unique, premium content through an exclusive VIP experience.
Don White: Technology will be more critical than ever, especially for returning to stadiums. All these tech companies considered “nice to haves” last year are now going to be essential to get fans back in the stadium. From contactless payment, digital ticketing entry, wait-time management, thermal scanning, and of course, an interactive communication solution to help manage all the new questions fans will have as they learn to use many of these new technologies.
What are you watching the closest now?
Gaedtke: Each year the MLB Technology team identifies three to five major projects in April, which launch the following year on Opening Day. So, we typically have 9-plus months of planning and development invested prior to the start of spring training. This year, those projects involved major updates to Statcast Analytics, Instant Replay and Cloud Infrastructure powering MLB.com and the MLB app. We have used the extra time available during the pandemic to ensure these new platforms are optimized and ready to go.
Specifically, the new Statcast baseball analytics introduces machine learning which improves tracking accuracy (to within +/- 0.1 inch), coverage (all pitches, hits, throws) and functionality (real-time player pose and motion analysis). We’re very excited to launch this new platform and bring this new level of tracking fidelity to the game.
Goodyer: Speed to market for these systems and partners. Typically, these have been very siloed and the current landscape requires quick adoption and collaboration across a myriad of stakeholders to make this truly safe for fans.
Schneider: From a technology perspective, contactless transactions will be an important component of the new in-venue experience. We’ll need to provide the same type of service that our guests expect, while maintaining the safety and well-being of everyone involved. We have formed a cross-functional task force that is looking at what a contactless payment experience will look like at every touch point (food and beverage, retail, suites, etc.). A lot of this will come down to the enhanced mobile functionality we’re adding into the app to prepare us for this new world. We have also incorporated beacons into Chase Center, which will enable us to send real-time information for wait times at eateries and restrooms among other things directly to our fans’ mobile devices.
Taylor: We are closely monitoring safety and wellness technologies around the screening of staff and fans. We recently launched a partnership with Cleared4Work, a market leader in COVID-19 return-to-work solutions, to bring a credible and medically proven technology to our holistic venue reintegration platform. The digital health technology that powers Cleared4Work is a medical-based platform that provides symptom monitoring, sophisticated contact tracing, tracking and trending, in addition to secure, mobile passes for employees which can be validated when entering the workplace. Ensuring a safe return for staff and fans is of critical importance, and we are closely following how this technology can help impact the return to venues.
White: We are actually watching how the tourism industry and our clients are handling bringing back visitors. We think there’s a lot the sports teams can learn and apply to their reopenings. Zoos, aquariums, theme parks, etc. are implementing protocols around timed entry, crowd management, social distancing, and safety measures such as face masks. Based on the customer data from our tourism clients’ questions, we see a lot of nuanced questions being asked around health and safety. By examining questions in real-time, these destinations are now changing how they are communicating their protocols, and in some instances, changing the protocols themselves.
What’s the biggest problem that’s still unanswered?
Goodyer: In addition to these integrations, the biggest questions include: 1. How to navigate the different policies and procedures across states, cities and municipalities. 2. Alignment of technology and operations within live entertainment environments. Things like thermal screening ingress, mobile ticketing controls, crowd control support staff, etc. 3. How to amortize these capital expenditures in a post-COVID world?
Schneider: The biggest challenge is the constant evolution of the science behind COVID-19, which creates uncertainty about what are the most important measures to enact in-venue to provide the highest level of safety for our guests. Every day there is new and valuable information released by health officials, so we are preparing for different scenarios not knowing how COVID-19 and public health official guidelines will evolve. For example, if we have to do temperature checks, we’ll want to see what technologies exist that will allow us to have accurate readings while maintaining an efficient ingress of fans. With that said, we are working really hard to plan for every possible scenario. We have a team comprised of employees from all departments throughout the organization that meets on a weekly basis to talk through what our return to Chase Center will look like. The protocol will likely change 73 times over the next five months, but we want to plan ahead as much as we possibly can!
Taylor: The biggest challenge is the changing information and the constantly evolving dynamics surrounding our understanding of the virus. Technology has limitless ways to help us implement new processes and protocols, but the guidelines from a government and health perspective continue to change as new information is being discovered on a day-by-day basis. Additionally, when we think about implementing new technology integrations at venues, ensuring data protection and safeguarding privacy concerns around these new solutions is extremely important.
White: We expect that when the stadiums open, everyone will want to go back, but many people can’t or still won’t be willing to. The bigger question is, how do you make sure the experience is as fulfilling for the at-home fan even when the stadiums do open? As our focus is on interactive communication, we believe allowing the fan to connect directly with teams where they want and when they want will play a part in solving this problem. Still, there is more that will need to be done.