Nothing—not even COVID-19—can stop the Super Bowl, but the challenge for teams and league ops in 2021 was keeping stadiums frictionless and, in a lot of cases, cashless to ensure the safety of fans and players.
Anyone operating a team or league was again overwhelmed by keeping players, staff and fans healthy and venues open for business. That was challenging in the early part of 2021—leagues like the NWHL got shut down early—and is again an overwhelming consideration as a spate of Covid-19 positives have beset the sports world with the Omicron variant running rampant.
Testing technologies, biometric passports and touchless concessions were among the buzzwords of the year as the sports world tried to navigate this new normal. Hawk-Eye’s automated line calling helped tennis reduce the number of people needed on the court—while also improving the accuracy of the calls.
Those associated innovations might have been the most critical in keeping the sports world in operation, but other areas also exploded to make the experience better: blockchain-based technologies and marketplaces for name, image, likeness (NIL) deals were chief among them.
*Sports in the time of Covid
Global sports seemed to strike a tenuous truce with Covid over the summer when most leagues continued mostly unabated with grandstands being filled to capacity, even as the Delta variant emerged. As sports moved indoors this fall and early winter, Omicron began to rage, and the interruptions became prevalent again.
Teams and league have managed to trudge ahead—at least until this December—with the assistance of vaccinations, hard-earned and well-considered protocols and a number of technologies. MLB, for instance, implemented more at-home Covid tests via Cue Health. Similarly, Minor League Baseball began relying on Spectrum Solutions for testing. MLB also worked with the players’ association to distribute Kinexon SafeZone sensors for contact tracing purposes—following the lead of the NBA, NFL and Bundesliga from 2020.
Fans had more contactless payment options from companies like Venuetize (which began collaborating with location data provider Gimbal) and Tappit, the latter of which was integrated into Clear for access and purchase in one app. SpotOn, a digital payments software provider, acquired mobile order system app Appetize in September; Appetize is a partner of more than 60% of major pro sports teams in the US.
Facial recognition offered frictionless entry for fans who opted into the ticketing platform developed by Wicket. Fans can upload a headshot and ticket barcode, and Wicket’s computer vision algorithms permit them no-stop entry at the gate. It’s already in use by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and MLS’s Columbus Crew and will be used by MLB’s New York Mets in 2022.
Blockchain’s fan engagement use cases—read: NFTs, Top Shot, etc.—stole the headlines in 2021, but brewing behind the scenes were a number of operational use cases. Industry expectation is that ticketing will come first to track secondary market resales (with royalties to the original seller), as well as better KYC information on who’s actually attending an event. SeatGeek is among the movers in the space.
Sports has also been a major beachhead for cryptocurrencies to market themselves. FTX did naming rights deals for the Miami Heat’s home arena and Cal Berkeley’s football field as well as partnerships with MLB and Monumental Sports, among others. Crypto.com made the single biggest play, buying the naming rights for what was the Staples Center—the home of the Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Sparks. The NBA, meanwhile, partnered with Coinbase. Algorand signed on with the Drone Racing League to be the titular sponsor of its world championship circuit.
The dam broke on NIL deals, and a number of companies—both established and new—have rushed to fill the void with marketplaces helping to match brands and college athletes. Among those making strides are TeamWorks (and INFLCR), Opendorse, MOGL, Engage and MarketPryce. Targeted demographics are being served, too. One example is Division Street, which was started by Nike cofounder Phil Knight and WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu, that will aid University of Oregon athletes.
Hawk-Eye Live began replacing line officials as far back as 2017 at the Next Gen ATP Finals, but the spread of Covid accelerated interest in deploying the camera-based system to Grand Slam tournament such as the Australian Open and US Open, in addition to seven of the nine events in the US Open Series.
Sony-owned Hawk-Eye had an active year in other sports as well, continuing to power MLB’s Statcast and several soccer league’s goal line technology, and developing new use cases. The NBA is testing its tech for possible officiating applications—while possibly shepherding in a new frontier of player analysis through its collection of pose data. FIFA is trialing Hawk-Eye as one of the possible vendors for semi-automated offsides calls. Both the WNBA and UEFA are using it for performance analytics, and, in the behemoth NFL, Hawk-Eye’s cameras are in every stadium to aid the league’s taut instant replay reviews.
*MLB Tech Road Map
Soon after Steve Cohen took as Mets owner, a report surfaced that the club was using an “archaic” technology platform. While some contested that assessment—in reality, the Mets were more a middle-pack dweller than a bottom-feeder—SportTechie used the opportunity to devise a blueprint that all MLB clubs should follow to ensure they are operating with state-of-the-art technology in all facets of baseball operations. One area for jumpstart their data capacity: outsource it to a company like Zelus Analytics.
What began as a way to engage fans through high resolution photos of themselves at events became the foundation of a new method for teams to analyze the fans in their venues. CrowdIQ was born from FanCam and helps front offices determine crowd behaviors such as when they arrive at their seats, how often they look at sponsors’ signage and even how much they watch the game. (It’s less than you think.)
Photo credits: Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Super Bowl mask); Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Super Bowl gate); Justin Setterfield/Getty Images (Arsenal fans); Warren Little/Getty Images (Hawk-Eye camera); Peter Aiken/Getty Images (Chiefs fans)
Our year-in-review series continues with a look at 2021’s fan engagement, where – even if people weren’t always permitted inside stadiums or arenas – they wound up with NFTs, virtual sneakers and the Monday Night ManningCast.
Our Year-In-Review continues with Athlete Performance, where, in 2021, Simone Biles (above) took a giant leap for mental health awareness, Tonal had a Mount Rushmore of investors, Peloton branched out, speed could be learned, Tiger Woods could re-learn, robots could throw spirals and injuries could more easily be predicted/prevented through genetic research.
Our Year-In-Review series opens with a look at our most memorable first-person athlete interviews of 2021, a star-studded list that included Hall of Famers, Olympians, MVPs, World Cup and Indy 500 champs and the winningest female golfer of all time.
Debuting late this season on CBS, RomoVision—named for the network’s lead analyst Tony Romo—is a digital X’s and O’s replay that provides Romo with “more visual support’’ to break down the key moments of a football game and should ultimately lead to customized game viewing in the future via Second Spectrum.
The theory being that all bats are not created equal, LongBall Labs tells MLB players such as Seattle's Mitch Haniger, who hit the homer above, which of their wood bats has the most pop. And, in turn, the company believes they can add as much as 18 feet to a player’s batted-ball distance–turning warning track power into home run glamour.