By: Danny Ecker
Baseball analytics took a big step forward this month when Major League Baseball Advanced Media unveiled new image-tracking technology it will install in three ballparks this season, with the goal of adding it to every stadium in 2015.
The new system, shown off in a presentation at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, will track the speed and movement of players on the field, exactly where the ball travels and how efficiently teams play defense, offering a colossal trove of data that will change the way many people talk about the game.
But for Chicago-based sports tech company Sportvision Inc., the MLBAM presentation also threw down a gauntlet.
Sportvision, whose innovations in sports broadcasting have included the “glowing puck” in the NHL and the yellow “first and 10” line during NFL broadcasts, among others, has spent about $6 million developing a system similar to the one MLB is rolling out.
That product, known as FIELDf/x, has been installed and tested in five MLB stadiums for the last couple of years and appeared on track to be sold to the league itself for placement in all 30 MLB venues.
But MLBAM apparently isn’t sold on it. The system it demonstrated at the conference was a partnership with two of Sportvision’s competitors — Sweden-based Chryronhego Corp. and Denmark-based Trackman A/S — potentially leaving Sportvision on the outside looking in.
The Chryonhego/Trackman technology was tested at the New York Mets’ Citi Field in 2013 and will be used in Minnesota and Milwaukee this year.
The two products essentially track the same information but differ in how they get it.
While FIELDf/x is based solely on a six-camera system for every pitch, hit and defensive play, the other system combines Chyronhego’s cameras with Trackman’s radar technology to measure movement.
Here’s an example of the kind of data we’re talking about:
MLBAM spokesman Matt Gould said the league will review both systems this season before committing to one and that it would be “premature” to rule out either.
“Ultimately it is critical that the data is accurate,” Mr. Gould said. “It’s important to evaluate (the systems) against each other and really understand what the results are.”
Despite the fact that MLB demonstrated the Chyronhego/Trackman system at the Sloan conference, Sportvision CEO Hank Adams still likes his chances of snagging a long-term deal with FIELDf/x.
“We’re very confident in what we’ve built,” said Mr. Adams,whose company pulls in about $100 million in annual revenue, two-thirds of which comes from enhancements to sports broadcasts. “It’s natural that they’re going to want to make sure they get the best solution that they can get.”
It’s no small decision. Tracking player and ball movement on every pitch without devices embedded in either is hard, and the league wants to ensure it’s getting the most consistently accurate data before investing what will likely cost in the low six figures per ballpark to install.
The winner may be the company whose data is most easily translated on TV to fans.
After all, helping the league digest the raw data generated by the cameras is what sold the NBA on adopting Stats LLC’s SportVU player-tracking technology in every arena this season.
“It’s really important when you do something like this that you have a frame of reference,” said WGN-TV/Channel 9 Director of Production Bob Vorwald in a recent interview with Crain’s. “You see a lot of analytics out there that don’t necessarily transfer to TV viewers.”
Sportvision, which is backed by Chicago-based venture fund Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Chicago-based Motorola Solutions Ventures, has partnered with the league since 2006 through its use of “PITCHf/x” — the pitch-tracking technology behind the graphics you see when watching almost any baseball game on TV.
That contract expires at the end of the 2014 season and it’s unclear whether it will be used moving forward as new tracking systems emerge.
Mr. Adams expects to continue his partnership with MLB regardless of whether it adopts FIELDf/x. The company has individual deals with broadcasting companies to use graphics based on their technology.
In the meantime, Sportvision is currently honing its “next generation” version of the PITCHf/x system, which has become a staple in the industry for use by teams and umpires as a training tool.
“It wouldn’t be trivial to replace all of that,” said Mr. Adams. “We don’t take anything for granted, but we’re liking the direction we’re heading.”