SVG Sit-Down: SMT’s Drake on the Future of Player-Tracking, Virtual Graphics

In September, after 35 years at ESPN, 15-time Emmy Award winner Jed Drake joined SMT (SportsMEDIA Technology) as EVP of emerging technologies. He had overseen some of ESPN’s most innovative sports-production and technology efforts, including virtual-graphics projects like the 1st & Ten line and K-Zone for NFL and MLB coverage, respectively. Now Drake is on the other end of these technologies, helping develop new data-driving graphics tools for broadcasters seeking to tell a better story. In addition, his arrival coincided with SMT’s acquisition of its largest competitor, Sportvision, which expanded the SMT technology portfolio and strengthened an R&D department focused on live data integration, virtual graphics, and player tracking.

SVG sat down with Drake to discuss why he opted to join the SMT team and how he believes he can benefit the company, the impact of the Sportvision deal, the exponential growth of player-tracking and data-visualization technology, and how he sees the industry in the coming years.

Why did you decide to join SMT?

During my years at ESPN, in addition to overseeing production, I also had a particular interest in bringing technology to our coverage as a storytelling tool. Whether the 1st & Ten line or the K-Zone or the Virtual Three project, this technology has been woven into my history with broadcast. So the opportunity to continue to explore that with an industry leader like SMT provided a unique opportunity. I’ve known [SMT founder/CEO] Gerard J. Hall for over 20 years, so the opportunity to work with him and his staff directly was something I just couldn’t pass up. And then you factor in the Sportvision acquisition, and it becomes even more of a rare and unique opportunity.

How do you see the SMT-Sportvision entity pushing things forward in the next year?

The speed at which our industry is evolving is continuing to increase. SMT has been developing a number of very important systems that I think will ultimately have a pronounced effect on broadcast and other areas of sport as well. The addition of Sportvision into that dynamic is fascinating because, even though many of the projects [under development at SMT and Sportvision] are similar, they are approached differently in terms of the core technology base. In this sense, the core technology components of each company are very complementary. I think that’s important because it isn’t as though you’re just doubling down on existing technology; you’re actually bringing together complementary technology bases, and the clients will benefit.

The fact is that some of the things that might not have been achievable by these two independent companies now become eminently possible by bringing SMT and Sportvision together. You’re going to see the benefits in the near future, and, in the end, clients are going to benefit because two extremely smart groups of people who have really good ideas are being put together. For NFL football, SMT has been servicing the NFL Network, NBC Sports, and CBS Sports, while Sportvision has been servicing Fox Sports and ESPN. We can now combine all these technologies to take the best of the best and optimize the technology and service offering for each sport.

How do you believe your decades of live-production experience with ESPN will benefit SMT?

One of the reasons I think [my joining] SMT intrigued Gerard was that I come at it from the perspective of storytelling first and foremost. That’s what I’ve always espoused as one of the key components in creating great coverage. Admittedly, I’m not an engineer, so I can come at this entire discussion from a position that is, in many respects, identical to the client’s goals and needs. I think that brings an interesting nuance to the entire formula for SMT. I believe we are going to come up with things that people might not have even known they needed.

We are going to help all of our clients come up with better ways to tell stories. We now generate more data than most clients know what to do with. It’s what you do with that information that becomes relevant. You have to work really hard to separate information that is trivial from information that is insightful and actionable, and I think that’s one of the key things we are keenly focused on.

What can we expect from SMT in the near term in terms of new developments and technologies?

I think it’s fair to say that the NFL Next-Gen Stats [platform] is going to take a significant leap forward in the near future. The proliferation of real-time player and object tracking is ongoing, and we are right at the core of that for NFL Next-Gen Stats.

SMT’s system for the World Cup of Hockey was very successful, so we’re looking forward to building on that.

We are also very excited about making standard NFL virtual insertion features like the virtual first down line available, live and in real-time, on the Skycam. The technology to deliver that capability to our NFL broadcast clients if very complex and sophisticated. SMT’s high-end image processing algorithms eliminate the need for electronic sensors to be installed on broadcast cameras. This gives broadcasters much more production freedom. Virtual insertion features can be made available on any camera, not just a subset of cameras that have been pre-configured and instrumented. This opens up a whole new dynamic, and not just for football but for a variety of sports.

SMT has also been involved in a project at a major university and has been working with their football team for over a year. I can’t give you any more specifics on that right now, but suffice to say that, even though player tracking for broadcast is part of this project, it is only a very small part. The other side of this is something that is outside of where SMT has been in the past, and it’s incredibly exciting.

All four major U.S. sports leagues now have player-tracking systems in place or are exploring them, and these systems are quickly becoming a staple for major sports broadcasters. Why do you believe player tracking has exploded so significantly in recent years?

I think it gets back to storytelling. You can look at any sporting event and realize that a whole world of stories are going on right in front of us. As storytellers, we want to know more, and we want to be able to mine for deeper stories. The only way you can do that in a quantitative and qualitative way is with this wealth of statistical information.

I think it ties into just where sports are going as an industry in general. Analytics are driving the decision-making for every league and every team. I think it was a natural evolution that this was going to migrate to the entities covering these events on live and [non-live] platforms. It started with the leagues and teams, and now the fans are understanding this world of data and tracking to a far greater degree. It’s our job to figure out how to present that in such a way that it has great value to them, and we’re seeing that now.

Do you believe this growth in player tracking and data-visualization graphics will continue?

I often say that we’ll remember this period as a transition between the “old days,” when players were not being tracked, and the “modern day,” when players started to be tracked. That simple notion of tracking players and objects in space changes everything. We’ll look back upon this time at some point in the not too distant future and say, “Remember when we televised all these events without even tracking players and telling all those stories?” Player tracking is here, and it’s happening now. It’s what we do with it from now on that is going to be the fun exploration.

How do you see the next 12-24 months playing out for the new SMT with Sportvision under its umbrella?

When you take the core virtual insertion technology components of these two technology innovators and combine that with a powerful data engine, graphics and visualization tools, and SMT’s broader market vision, it is obvious to me that the next two years are going to be incredibly dynamic and exciting. The project that we’re working on with a major university will undoubtedly have a pronounced effect on a whole different aspect of the sports industry, and we’re very excited about that. If we check in a year from now, I think it’s going to be a completely different world in terms of tracking and what we’re doing with it. And quite frankly, it’s overdue because it’s not as though this just showed up yesterday. It’s been around, and now I think we’ve finally got the right mix of technology to maximize, leverage and optimize it fully. The speed at which this technology is evolving is tremendous, and it’s only going to accelerate.

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