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Ignition 2023 recap: MLB, Apple and PGA Tour among the highlights from SportsPro’s annual sports tech showcase

SportsPro reflects on Ignition 2023, with insights from the individuals and vendors powering an industry-wide shift.

16 February 2023 Steve McCaskill
MLB partners with Adobe to digitise fan experience in the ballpark and beyond

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Technology is the key driver behind the next era of sport, changing everything from backend operations and stadium management through to on-field performance and fan engagement.

But 12 months is a long time in both the worlds of sport and technology, and 2022 was no exception with significant developments witnessed in both areas.

This year’s edition of SportsPro’s Ignition virtual event provided insight from some of the biggest organisations in both sport and technology, featured demonstrations from established and emerging vendors, and offered a platform to innovative startups whose ideas will transform how sport is organised, played and consumed in the years to come.

A week on from the event, SportsPro presents a selection of highlights from a packed agenda.

Apple TV’s coverage of MLB has used predictive analytics to give viewers an idea of what happens next (Image credit: nVenue)

MLB believes Apple partnership will allow it to push boundaries

Traditions are important in baseball, whether it’s the look and feel of a ballpark, the seventh inning stretch, or the ceremonial first pitch. America’s pastime has played a crucial role in forging a national identity and continues to be a major part of popular culture.

Yet baseball is also a pioneer when it comes to technology. Its obsession with statistical analysis is now mimicked by virtually every major sport, while Major League Baseball (MLB) was the first major US league to stream a live match back in 2002 – a journey which ended with a multibillion-dollar windfall from the sale of BAMTech to Disney.

This pursuit of innovation helps explain why MLB partnered with Apple on Friday Night Baseball this season, with the hope being that the technology giant’s reach and record of innovation would attract a new audience to the game.

Chris Marinak, MLB chief operations and strategy officer, made clear that the league is happy with the results so far.

“Apple rethought the way that the broadcast was delivered,” Marinak said during a session at Ignition. “The games were [produced] in much higher quality video and it actually felt like you were in the ballpark because of the way they use HDR and additional camera technology so you can see everything that’s happening.”

One of the things that MLB especially liked was Apple’s use of predictive analytics to give viewers a better idea of what they were seeing on the field.

“Apple is so good at delivering data and information to fans,” Marinak added. “A lot of the [graphics] was focused on things like the percentage [chance] of a player getting a hit. It wasn’t just batting averages, it was the likelihood that a player was going to get a hit or reach base.

“We heard from a lot of our younger fans that they really liked the innovation that they saw in those Apple TV broadcasts. It’s not about presenting a one-size-fits-all experience – it’s about innovating and creating new ways to deliver our product to the consumer so we can reach as wide an audience as possible.”

That technology was created by predictive analytics firm nVenue, which just so happens to be one of SportsPro’s 2023 sports tech ideas to invest in now.

Australian Open sees Web 3.0 as a tool for year-round engagement

One of SportsPro’s tech predictions for 2023 was that Web 3.0 would mature into something more meaningful. In that regard, the Australian Open (AO) is ahead of the curve. The tennis Grand Slam was widely praised for its initial foray into the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), with many pointing to its ‘art ball’ concept as an example of blockchain technology being used to create something unique and desirable beyond speculation.

Working with Decentraland, Run it Wild, and Metakey, AO created nearly 7,000 virtual tennis balls produced from an algorithmic combination of different colours, patterns and textures, each of which was updated throughout the tournament with official ball tracking data.

Australian Open offers ‘art ball’ NFTs infused with real-time match data

The Australian Open’s ‘art ball’ NFT concept received wide praise within the industry

The organisation now has a dedicated senior manager for NFTs, Web 3.0 and cryptocurrency in the form of Ridley Plummer, who was on hand at Ignition to explain that the art ball idea came about because of limitations on what it could actually do.

“One of things we couldn’t use [for NFTs] was tennis player IP so we couldn’t do something like NBA Top Shot in tennis,” Plummer said. “So the AO art ball was created based on the knowledge and understanding of the sport, as well as the restrictions we had.”

The Australian Open is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, but only for two weeks each year. Plummer believes Web 3.0 technologies and the metaverse can create community and additional value for commercial partners for the other 50 weeks.

“We have this opportunity to create a real 24/7, 365-a-day environment,” he said. “We’re talking to our partners about how they come along with us on that journey and where they can add value to the consumer.

“We don’t typically just put logos on the court [without that added value] and the same needs to happen in virtual environments as well, whether that’s creating a game [or something else].

“But although there’s limited real estate in real life, there’s pretty much unlimited real estate in the virtual world.”

Drive by DraftKings targets startups pushing the needle

In the fast-moving world of sports technology, there are many rights holders, athletes and investors looking to use their expertise to identify the next big thing. Venture capital fund Drive by DraftKings believes it has the investors and the industry knowledge to do just that.

Betting and gaming is obviously one area of focus, but it’s also interested in multi-stage startups driving innovation in media, fan engagement and athlete performance. Its portfolio includes Nextiles, Just Women’s Sports and Whoop, among others, but what exactly makes an ideal investment?

“We look for some insight into the movements underway in these markets that are defining not only the opportunities today, but also the [opportunities] tomorrow,” said Meredith McPherron, chief executive and managing partner at Drive by DraftKings.

“Venture is about taking big swings, it’s about seeing a future that looks different…and that’s really tough because there’s a lot of friction in the way.

“So when we talk to founders, before we even get into their particular idea, we’re looking for that insight – ‘what do you know that the world doesn’t?’

“Founders that can [articulate] that insight before we get into specifics are really exciting. Those who are just trying to mash up two ideas or present something that’s incremental but not novel…we get a lot of [pitches] like that on our desk and those aren’t the ones we’re looking for.”

If you want to read more from McPherron, you can do so in the recent sports tech investor roundtable, which highlights the trends to watch for over the next 12 months.

PGA Tour’s data-driven approach to commercial and fan engagement takes shape

Golf is arguably one of the most fertile breeding grounds for sports tech innovation, with professionals and amateurs eager to adopt anything that will give them even just a yard of extra distance on the fairway. This embrace of technology also extends to fan engagement, with the PGA Tour recently overhauling its official application and website with a focus on personalisation and easy access to relevant content.

Scott Gutterman, senior vice president of digital operations at the PGA Tour, said the data-driven insights were also valuable for commercial partners looking to grow the value of their relationship.  

“Everything we’ve built out is analytics based,” Gutterman said. “We have a decisions sciences team here at the tour…and every day we’re looking at what’s being consumed and what stories are most popular. We work with the sponsorship team to see what would be an effective branded content experience.

“It could be something like seeing how Titelist or TaylorMade [sponsored] players have performed that week or just making sure that everyone understands that these are the players on the course using the Titelist golf ball and working so they are clearly identifiable and highlighted.

“Our goal was to work with [Netflix] to help them create the best storylines from throughout the entire year. There’s some really exciting things that fans are going to get to see that have never been really seen or understood from a player’s perspective before.”

Scott Gutterman, Senior Vice President, Digital Operations, PGA Tour

“There’s a wide variety of ways in which we use the data to create experiences that are both fan consumption led but also dovetailed with the interests of a sponsor.”

One of the tour’s most high profile fan engagement initiatives is its Netflix documentary series Full Swing, which was released this month. Gutterman is confident the show will draw more fans into the sport who can then be served by the tour’s digital products.

“Our goal was to work with [Netflix] to help them create the best storylines from throughout the entire year,” Gutterman said. “2022 was just an amazing year for golf and there were plenty of great stories to be told. There’s some really exciting things that fans are going to get to see that have never been really seen or understood from a player’s perspective before. [You’re going to see] how those guys reach the level of performance they do week in and week out.”  

How IBM and Wimbledon plan their technology roadmap

IBM and Wimbledon’s long-running technology partnership is arguably the most successful in sports industry history, covering everything from basic IT functions through to fan engagement. Over the years, Wimbledon has been a showcase for artificial intelligence (AI) highlights, data analytics, and cloud computing.

For two weeks, the tech centre at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) is a hive of activity, but creating the technological roadmap is a multi-year process. Wimbledon’s ultimate ambition is to use technology to maintain its status as the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, creating services that enhance the experience for visitors to the grounds and the millions of people who follow the action from SW19 remotely.

“When we renewed our contract we specifically put an innovation workstream in so that we remain essential,” Kevin Farrar, UK sports partnership leader at IBM, explained. “This innovation cycle starts in the spring when we look at [tech trends], what the other Grand Slams are doing and what other sports are doing. We then take these ideas and develop proof of concepts to gather data at that year’s tournament.

“After the Championships, we reconvene in the autumn to see what we’re going to introduce for the following year. This way we have a two, three or even five-year outlook. That’s how we get new ideas each year.”

IBM and Wimbledon have worked together for more than thirty years (Image credit: IBM)

“Running a year-round business means it’s quite easy to get side-tracked by what’s happening today or tomorrow,” added Bill Jinks, IT director at Wimbledon. “Having the process to ensure we keep looking toward the future is really helpful. We’ve actually added some people to my team whose job it is to look to the future.”

But with a single app serving multiple stakeholders, how does Wimbledon choose which features to prioritise?

“We’re like any other business with a backlog of things we want to do,” adds Jinks. “We have to balance audience growth, [functionality], and other stakeholders like club members and players. But every group should see an enhancement each year, although there is an [inevitable] focus. This year, it was ticketing.”

Eight startups shortlisted for the Ignition Innovation competition

One of the highlights of Ignition Is the startup Ignition Innovation Competition, an award that celebrates the next generation of entrepreneurs and startup founders actively changing the world of fan and business innovation in sport.

This year’s shortlist, determined by an esteemed panel of judges from DAZN, the PGA Tour and Uefa, among others, was announced live during the event.

CollectID: A combination of blockchain and near field communication (NFC) technologies to create a digital twin of a physical product that can be verified by a smartphone. This allows rights holders and commercial partners to increase the value of their products through digital features and rewards, and guard against counterfeit goods.

GrayMeta: AI and machine learning-powered tools that make it easy to digitise legacy video, generate metadata, and access content from any file at any time.

Griiip: A data platform specifically for the motorsport sector, generating insights that can be used by bookmakers to unlock new markets, as well as broadcasters to drive fan engagement, and drivers to enhance their performance. Its customers include Formula E and DTM, and the company counts Porsche Ventures among its backers.

Mobii: Technology that ingests video, audio and data and turns them into ‘microblocks’ that are perfectly encoded, synchronised and distributed at sub-second latency so no viewer is left behind. This near real-time streaming unlocks a range of possibilities for broadcasters and venue operators.

Piing: Massive multiplayer games designed to engage fans at live sporting events, featuring pre-recorded clips, graphics, sounds and other digital effects. Games are played out on big screens to crowds of all sizes, with smartphones used as controllers. All of Piing’s games can be customised to match any brand or theme, with clients including Manchester City, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, and The O2 in London.

Proto: Holographic display technology that uses smart cameras to allow viewers to hear and interact with others anywhere else in the world. Displays can be used to drive engagement at live events and bring new levels of interactivity between fans and athletes.

Quanteec: Efficient streaming technology that reduces the carbon footprint of broadcasting live events, and enables cost reduction by optimising resource use.

Scoreplay: A media asset manager is designed specifically for the sports industry, serving athletes, teams, federations, leagues, and broadcasters. It offers intelligent, powerful tools for internal and external collaborators to create content for social channels, support marketing campaigns, and add value for commercial partners. Today, the company works with more than 100 sports organisations.

All eight nominees will now progress to round two of the competition – a live pitching session at SportsPro Live this April. The winner will be awarded a growth support package worth more than US$100,000.

Congratulations to all of the companies shortlisted.

The world of sports tech in one place

Ignition isn’t just about the sessions. Over the course of the event, attendees were treated to demonstrations of some of the most exciting technological solutions in sports technology.

Among those to showcase their wares were:

Thanks to everyone who participated in Ignition this year. If you weren’t able to attend on the day, register here to watch any session on demand and access our tech directory.

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