This Digital Sporting Life: How Digital Technology is Changing the Way We Approach Sport

Emerging TechnologyEmerging Technology
Emerging Technology | 03.04.17
Written by Gary Boon

F.C. Barcelona are innovators. You don’t need us to tell you that. When Pep Guardiola arrived at the Nou Camp in 2008 and deployed fellow countrymen Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, along with a little known South American import called Lionel, to do his bidding, people knew something special was happening.

There are few clubs in the world who could launch something as game-changing, as zeitgeist-forging, and as downright infuriating as tiki-taka, which continues to be one of the defining concepts of our footballing generation. And just look at the results: six La Liga titles, four Copa del Reys and three Champions Leagues for the Catalans, and the Spanish national team’s entry into the hallowed pantheon of World Cup winners at the 19th time of asking.

Nou Camp - Més que un club

Where else could that all begin but here, in Barcelona? Never before has the teams’ motto – "Més que un club", or “more than just a club” – been so appropriate.

But we are not here just to talk about football. We are here to talk about Barca’s innovations off the pitch. The footballing trailblazers, not content with winning everything in sight and providing the springboard for Spain’s Golden Generation, are ripping up the rulebook and bringing us the future of the beautiful game.

March 2017 saw the launch of FC Barcelona’s Innovation Hub, bringing together the expertise and efforts of the club’s digital visionaries. The products of the Innovation Hub will alter the way in which FCB deliver their footballing product to the masses, the way in which the fan experiences and interacts with the club, the way in which they work alongside partners and sponsors (including global children’s charity UNICEF), and, possibly, the way in which all football clubs develop in the future.

FCB know a thing or two about this already. In 2015, they announced the launch of a new Nou Camp; a digitally enhanced version of the stadium which augmented the fans’ experience of this revered structure. Already one of the most iconic stadiums on the planet, this lick of digital paint adds a whole extra set of levels to an historic structure. It provides fans with far more than just a shiny veneer, enabling them, instead, to delve into the still-unfolding history of a sporting institution. 

On entering the stadium grounds, the presence of an FCB app user is picked up by electronic beacons, developed by Estimote, triggering a notification which acts as an access point to the digital Stadium 2.0. As they make their way around the stadium, different beacons trigger the delivery of different content.

FCB App

Whether receiving multimedia insight into the history and significance of a particular part of the stadium, or discovering how to buy tickets for stadium tours, future fixtures, and other points of interest, the app user remains connected to the experience while they are within range of the stadium and its beacons. This is the new way; not doing away with the traditional half-time pie and commemorative program, but adding to this experience in a new and exciting manner.

FC Barcelona might be the innovators here, but they are far from alone. Digital technology is here, and it is revolutionising traditional approaches to sport. Over in the United States, NFL teams are trialling potentially life-saving technology developed by BlackBox Biometrics to collect impact data after heavy tackles and player collisions, enabling fast, medical responses for injured players. A little closer to home, the Irish National Rugby Team are using Kitman Labs’ Capture tool, which records the movements of a player using infrared light, identifying potential injuries before they occur. In England, Everton FC are also looking to utilise this preventative technology.

There’s no substitute for drilling passes, trying out new formations, and sprinting up and down the touchline on a wet Tuesday morning in February, but even these apparently fundamental training sessions are being further developed by digital means. Six teams in the NFL – including 2017 Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots – are working with virtual reality technology in their training sessions, giving their players the opportunity to experience in-game action within a strictly controlled set of parameters.

These innovations represent how digital technology will be used to shape on-field performance, as well as the experience of the fan and consumer at the turnstile.

But the overwhelming majority of us are fans. We might be players too, on our days off, but, alas, most of us are not going to receive a pin-point pass from Andres Iniesta on the edge of the box; most of us are not going to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy with Tom Brady standing by our side. So, for the masses who can only dream of such glories, what does the future hold for us, and for our interactions with the sporting events we love?

To get an inkling, we must look forward in time and eastwards through space, to 2020, and to the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. As you might expect from a nation so steeped in technological history and lore, the organisers of Japan’s second time hosting the Summer Olympiad are working hard to provide an incredible, and thoroughly modern, experience for the hundreds of thousands who will descend on the capital for the games.

Organisers have announced plans for native-developed apps, which provide instant translation from Japanese into the languages of the 206 competing nations, creating an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, and forging cross-cultural bonds in-keeping with the spirit of the games. This will be supported by the rolling out of 5G wireless coverage of an unprecedented level and speed, with some analysts suggesting that Tokyo’s mobile network capacity could be expanded to the power of 1000.

Once fingerprint payment technology – a move that organisers hope will reduce crime and fraud, as well as boosting spending – and robotic assistance points for visitors have been factored into the equation, we begin to see the whole picture. Should all go to plan, the Tokyo games will be our first digital-age Olympiad, with technology supporting visitors and residents seamlessly at every step.

Fingerprint payments

As a final thought, just think about all the data that such connectivity is going to produce; and just imagine how this enhanced understanding can be applied going forward. What began in Barcelona, and will be developed in Tokyo, is only just beginning.

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