“Referee!” – Sport’s IoT revolution

Posted on February 29, 2016


There’s a revolution we might just miss. Any discussions you might have heard about technology and sport are likely to have focused on teams’ and players’ ability to their improve their performances and, secondary to that, how fans benefit from being ‘in amongst’ the action. Rarely do they mention refereeing. But this could be just as big, as any fan screaming at a wrong decision knows.

The Internet of Things (IoT) means joining and analysing the data created by billions of sensors on objects large and small. Whereas only so many humans and traditional communications devices (phones, tablets, servers and the rest) can be internet-connected, there is almost no limit on this growing galaxy of objects. Combining research from ABI, Gartner, IDC and McKinsey gives us a forecast of 26-30 billion IoT connections by 2020. The market will be worth trillions of dollars.

But thTable football.jpgere’s rarely a game – of almost any sport – that goes by when I don’t think we could have a better experience by using IoT to stop cheating and bad calls.

Put it this way: as football players’ every move is generally tracked by GPS transmitters and accelerometers (those bulges inbetween their shoulder blades aren’t muscles), the biggest innovation of recent years has been refs using spray foam to mark where a free kick should be taken from and where a wall is allowed to stand, 10 yards away. (My dad would point out they were using this low-tech long ago in South American football.)

Anyone notice a disconnect on the technology side of things?

To be fair, sports such as cricket have embraced technology for officiating, in terms of things like predictive tracking (Hawkeye) and use of sound/heat to determine whether ball has hit bat or something else (Snicko/Hotspot – other systems are available).

And the ability for other sports such as ice hockey, golf and tennis to put technology not just on players or in the environment in which they play but on players’ equipment is likely to lead to even more precise tracking. Note for American football there is also a safety element to this – sensors in helmets tracking particularly dangerous hits – while in a nod to the Deflategate scandal of the 2014/15 season there has also been talk of real-time monitoring of the pressure of footballs.

But aren’t we missing out on some basics? Here are some examples:

Ever see fans at the side of a football game get upset when an opposing player ‘steals a few yards’ and takes a throw-in or free-kick from the wrong place? In a recent Chelsea v Man United game, Chelsea defender Gary Cahill tried to take a free kick awarded for offside from Manchester United’s half, not his. The player from the other team couldn’t have been given offside in his own half. How hard would it be, especially with throw-ins, for a marker to show where the ball went out and where the player taking the throw-in should stand?

Then take the issue of what constitutes ground and what is air. I know, that sounds ridiculous. But take these scenarios.

– In cricket, there is often controversy over whether a ball was ‘up’ when a fielder takes a catch. Replay after replay tends to accentuate the view that a ball ‘was grounded’ before the ball was caught. Traditionally, players tend to know if they got under the ball or not but television replays have led to bad decisions.

– In rugby, just as big a decision comes when players are scoring a try in a corner but their legs are being tackled into touch. The decision in those cases for off-the-field referees viewing replays is whether a ball has been touched down before another part of a player’s body – usually a foot or knee – has been grounded out of play. In 2007 England winger Mark Cueto ‘scored’ just such a try against South Africa in the rugby world cup final only to have been judged to have his trailing leg on the touchline and so out. A camera angle from behind the play couldn’t show perspective for what constituted ground or not. And does a blade of grass constitute ground? How about inbetween blades of grass, say a muddy spot?

Now imagine a system whereby the official surface level of a field of play is established by sensors. This could be at the official height of the grass, say 4cm for example. (Many sports have an official height – others leave such decisions to grounds people who similarly take into account weather conditions and wishes of home teams.)

This won’t be easy – for one thing many outdoor playing surfaces traditionally have a camber, to aid drainage of water – so we’re not talking about straight lines. But you can imagine how a system using infrared light (think high-tech anti-burglar tech) could achieve that.

And there are other advances that right now don’t appear easy but seem imaginable.

Ever get upset at the inconsistency – and blatant cheating – of shirt pulling in football, especially at corner kicks? Imagine if every player’s shirt and shorts could detect hands being placed on them?

Now football is a contact sport, unlike say (in theory) basketball, so you have to allow for other contact. And I don’t quite know the answer to someone grabbing their own shirt (perhaps just to blow their nose!) but clothing embedded with tiny sensors is a reality. Just don’t expect the same product to be sold in the club shop.

Some sports are famously more resistant to change – especially change that stops the flow of games – than others, so progress will be slow.

On the other hand, more and more is at stake. Getting decisions right is important. It’s hard to imagine that as technology affects most other aspects of sport and life that it won’t also come into play more and more here too.

*photo credit: Fussball via photopin (license)

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