NHL close to committing to tracking technologies
By Jonathan Rest at Hashtag Sports in New York
North American ice hockey's NHL is close to pushing the button on player- and puck-tracking technology that will enhance the viewer experience in the sport after years of trials, according to a senior official at the league.
The NHL has arguably been the slowest of the four major North American sports leagues to adopt data-producing technologies, but has been working with a number of technology firms, as well as one of its partners SAP, the Germany-based software giant, to ascertain which innovations work best in the fast-paced sport.
In December, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed that player-tracking technology could be implemented in time for the 2019-20 season and Heidi Browning, the league's chief marketing officer, said puck-tracking will also come to the fore.
Speaking at the Hashtag Sports conference in New York today, Browing said: "We are working with our tech partners to embed technology in pucks. The aim being to track that puck at 200 times per second. We envision a future with SAP to bring this real-time data and integrate it into the broadcast experience and also send it through ipads to help coaches.
"This has been an incredible hard thing to do. We are dealing with a fast sport and a small ice sheet. It's 60 minutes of live game action with very little stoppage. We are really excited to roll that out soon."
Browning did not give a timeline, but it is understood the 2019 Stanley Cup play-offs could be used to mark the entrance of the technologies.
The player technology alluded to by Bettman late last year would not require tracking chips on the players, as has become the norm in sport, instead relying upon camera-based technology.
The NHL has worked with companies on player- and puck-tracking technologies in the past, including at the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus and during the World Cup of Hockey 2016, but there have been a number of pitfalls.
Bettman said of the World Cup experience: “We learned that we can get the technology to work but we needed it to work better so that it could be scalable. Doing it for 16 or 17 games in a two-week period in one building is a lot different than 1,271 games in 31 buildings."
Jersey chips as well as the installation of cameras above the ice surface tracking puck movement were used first at the Lillehammer 2016 winter Youth Olympics and replicated at the PyeongChang games this February by Omega, the International Olympic Committee's official provider of timing and scoring services.
The aim was to mine data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance travelled and time on ice.
Horst Lichtner, secretary general of the IIHF, ice hockey's governing body, explained to Sportcal on the sidelines of the SportAccord convention in Bangkok in April the difficulties the sport's stakeholders are finding with introducing tracking technologies.
He said: "People want more than just the game. They want to know the movement of the puck, the speed. In order to do that you need data, but in order to generate data you need to able to do it. Even the NHL does not know the best way. We have all tried various ways but we are not close.
"I personally think it will be a combination of camera technology and advanced virtual reality. Puck tracking has to be done with cameras rather than a chip as it was affecting the dynamics of the puck and interfering in the game, while the chip technology in the jersey is just not accurate enough to measure time on ice, for example.
"Nobody has found the key yet because our sport is so fast, and generates such fast data."
Browning is in agreement that virtual reality will have a big say in the future of ice hockey, but said the technology is not yet ready.
She explained: "Really good VR is lacking. It's expensive to shoot and then to make it available for everyone to enjoy. The argument goes that if they experience it live through virtual, then they’ll buy a ticket. But we need the technology to be right."