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Player tracking technology is change worth betting on

Player-tracking tech is here. How will it increase fan engagement and alter the hockey-gambling experience?

Given the town’s association with Silicon Valley, San Jose was the perfect spot for a host of NHL executives, partners and professionals to get together and talk tech during the All-Star Game weekend this year.

The main attraction at the NHL’s Innovation Spotlight was player- and puck-tracking technology, something that has wide-ranging applications for the way fans may enjoy the sport in the future. The summit also brought an opportunity to have fun at the expense of the NHL’s infamous foray into technology, the 1996 introduction of the “glowing puck” on Fox television broadcasts. “The glowing puck wasn’t ready,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “Sometimes it was on the puck, but sometimes it was in the stands or on someone’s head.”

More than 20 years later, the NHL demonstrated a new layer of technology on its all-star broadcast, with name bars popping up and following players around the ice. Trails also indicated a player’s path with the puck or the velocity of a shot. In terms of the name bars in San Jose, the innovation looked good at times but blotted out the action when skaters got too close together.

The plan is for player and puck tracking to be rolled out in games next season, while the All-Star Game in San Jose this year served as a nice trial run. A sensor is placed within game pucks and on each player’s shoulder pads. Initial tests were run at events dating back to the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. The NHL also ran tests during two Vegas Golden Knights games earlier this season.

 THE SECOND SCREEN Player tracking is too “busy” for a primary TV viewing experience but works great for tablets and phones.NBC Sports

THE SECOND SCREEN Player tracking is too “busy” for a primary TV viewing experience but works great for tablets and phones.NBC Sports

To hear members of the Innovation Spotlight’s three panels speak of it, the revolutions in viewing will largely be saved for “second screens,” most likely tablets and mobile phones.

Mark Lazarus is the chairman of NBCUniversal, broadcast, cable, sports and news, and while he believes there is work to be done on all platforms, NBC does not want to mess around with linear broadcasts too much. Otherwise, he’s up for anything. “As long as it has a peacock in the corner, I’m all right with it,” he said, referencing NBC’s iconic logo and mascot. “The game is the entertainment, the players are the personalities. We have to use the data to propel that, not replace it.”

When the glowing puck debuted, the thinking was it would help new fans (especially in the U.S.) follow the game’s action more easily. As it turns out, a different technology would solve the problem in the ensuing years: the proliferation of high-definition television. Lazarus saw HD as a landmark shift for viewers, and new iterations – HDR and 8K – are still arriving. At this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) trade show in Las Vegas, the NBC head saw a push on big-screen TVs, even for streaming.

And how people will watch hockey in the future is a big question. Cord cutting is a phenomenon that so far hasn’t dinged live sports broadcasts the way it has other genres, but new players are jumping into the game, and the constantly shifting landscape cannot be ignored by the old gatekeepers. Could Amazon or ESPN+ become major factors soon?

DAZN has already entered the ring of subscription sports streaming, and it’s worth noting NBC’s American contract with the NHL comes up in 2021. In Canada, broadcast giant Rogers Media is locked in until 2026, but president Rick Brace is already staking out his company’s position in the future, trying to distinguish his brand from tech upstarts. “We’re the picture window on Main Street,” Brace said. “It’s not about one game on DAZN.”

To keep up with the times, Rogers just built a digital studio capable of filming in both landscape and portrait. “I want to disrupt what people are watching on their phone,” Brace said. “Young people in particular.”

For his part, Bettman said both Rogers and NBC bring credibility as broadcast partners because of their strong branding – though he couldn’t help needling Brace when it came to negotiating tactics with the league (Brace was defending Lazarus at one point, to which Bettman teased that the less NBC pays next time, the more he’ll charge Rogers).

The commissioner also pointed to eSports as a new portal and teaching tool for fans. NHL teams such as Philadelphia already share ownership with eSports teams, while the first NHL Gaming World Championship was held in Las Vegas last year. As with so many international hockey events of late, a Finn took home the title – 18-year-old Erik Tammenpaa.

But when it comes to hockey-adjacent activities that involve technology, it’s hard not to look at how gambling will affect the landscape. The NHL entered its first sports-betting partnership this season with MGM Resorts International, though the deal was not exclusive – meaning there is a lot of room for more players. “It’s about fan engagement,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s executive vice-president, global partnerships and chief revenue officer. “If you can increase ratings, that’s where the big revenue streams are. If you bet on a sport, you will engage with that sport on another level.”

 GROWING THE GAME Whether it's gains in technology or gambling, the NHL’s goal of attracting more fans is served.NHL

GROWING THE GAME Whether it's gains in technology or gambling, the NHL’s goal of attracting more fans is served.NHL

Now, the question is one of venue. Scott Butera is MGM’s president of interactive gaming, and he notes that physical sportsbooks – the big rooms in Las Vegas casinos that offer betting – tend to be used for pre-game wagering, while online gambling skews toward in-game bets.

Meanwhile, Steve Byrd, chief commercial officer of Sportradar, a betting-related data firm, hypothesizes that the American background in fantasy sports might make “prop bets” more popular over here – in the more established British betting culture, those bets tend to be marketing gimmicks. In hockey, the tracking technology will make those prop bets possible: fans could gamble on Connor McDavid’s top speed in a game or the velocity of an Alex Ovechkin shot, for example. For this to work, however, the system needs to be flawless. “If you want to tell how fast a shot was, the latency has to be sub-second,” said David Lehanski, the NHL’s senior vice-president, business development and global partnerships.

That job falls to innovators such as Martin Bachmayer, the affable German chairman of JogMo world, a real-time data-tracking company. Tracking started with soccer in Europe, but FIFA wouldn’t allow microchips to be placed on players, so JogMo pivoted to hockey in 2013. The challenges were daunting: hockey has icy reflections, freezing temperatures and high-impact plays – none of which are good for the pucks carrying the chip or the computers and cameras attempting to record the data. But after a lot of trial and research, JogMo managed to find a way, and the company can now track a puck 2,000 times per second when it is shot by a player. “We see it every inch it travels,” Bachmayer said. “If we can do hockey, everything else is a piece of cake.”

And this is not a matter of “good enough.” If fans are going to be betting on events, the tech has to be airtight. Puck and player tracking must be field tested and calibrated, according to MGM’s Butera. But the upshot is clear. “It gives you more information to be a better gambler,” he said.

Right now, there is a lot of potential in the American sports-betting industry but also a lot of questions. The Meadowlands in New Jersey now has a brick-and-mortar sportsbook, while Byrd notes that most gambling in the state is already done online. “We know it’s going to be an arms race,” said Cliff Ma, vice-president of partnerships/strategic initiatives with FanDuel, the daily fantasy sports provider. “We’re taking the lens of, ‘What will a U.S. gambler look for?’ ”

What the NHL is looking for is simple: more eyeballs. To that end, Wachtel points towards European “watch and bet” apps as something very appetizing to the league. “You don’t want people to place a bet and leave,” he said.

While hockey can’t really get much more popular in Canada, the game is growing in the U.S., especially at the grassroots level and in NHL markets such as Las Vegas. Europe continues to get attention with regular-season NHL games being played on the other side of the pond, and that trend will continue in the coming years, but China is the big fish. Even a fraction of the Asian titan’s population would dwarf the hockey viewership of Sweden, Finland and other European nations combined, and interest in China is certainly on the rise.

How fans around the world view games is a big question for the future, but it seems apparent that a “second screen” will likely play a part. If the NHL and its partners can find the right recipe of techy innovations and fringe benefits (i.e. money from bets), the global market will unfold in front of it. That’s a huge opportunity, and if it works, we might even see Bettman glow a little bit.

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