By Simon Ogus, Forbes contributor
The utilization of data in professional sports is increasing at a considerable pace. Its latest use case was on display this past weekend at the NHL All-Star Weekend. The integration of technology, and specifically the use of data in sports business, range from engaging with fans in more encompassing and personalized ways to providing coaches and players with feedback about performance that can improve their quality of play. The ability to make in-game adjustments, through the use of data processing, couldn’t have been imagined even a short time ago.
This point was driven home at his All-Star Weekend news conference when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman noted that puck and player tracking would be up and running at all 16 sites that make the playoffs in this spring’s NHL playoffs. This technology initiative has been a long time coming for the league. A year ago at this same event, Bettman actually announced that puck and player tracking would be implemented for the current season, but the league soon split with Jogmo World Corp., switching to current partner SportsMEDIA technology. There was a re-boot, of sorts, with the process, but the technology that will feature sensors inside the pucks and on the player’s uniforms will produce data collected by antennas located in the arena as well as from optical sensors located on the ice.
“I believe the players will generate something like 200 data points per second and the puck 2,000 data points a second, so in terms of getting inside the game, telling stories, as a fan delving in to get what you’re interested in, you’re going to be able to do more things than ever before and even imaginable,” Bettman told ESPN. “As a fan and a viewer, what you want it to be. You’ll be able to watch the game as you’ve always watched it traditionally if that’s what you want. There’ll be broadcast enhancements that the broadcasters can use either on the primary screen or on secondary screens. There will be more data than ever before.”
The NHL has tested the system in 14 arenas and plans to boost that number to 24 arenas by the second weekend of February, to ensure that all potential playoff teams will be ready for the tracking system by the time the playoffs begin in April. The entire league will have the system installed by the beginning of the new season this fall.
“We’ve done extensive testing of the pucks,” NHL VP, Technology Keith Horstman said to SVG. “They are made by the same company that makes the regular puck, and the new ones are within the weight range and the same diameter. We’ve done tests where pucks have been hit at 130 mph, and so far so good.”
The puck and player tracking technology isn’t just an aesthetic upgrade. It represents a big potential revenue stream for the league from the wave of money that will come with legalized gambling. The NHL agreed to a licensing deal with notable sportsbooks MGM and William Hill. The hope is that the gambling gateway will create a new outlet for viewers of the league, providing an opportunity to convert bettors into new fans. With gambling comes the demand for more data to ensure the integrity of the league’s games moving forward. The player and puck tracking technology, which was on display this weekend at the All-Star Weekend, will play a large role in meeting that objective as the league utilized its new initiative in the North American broadcasts of the All-Star game. There will also be additional testing of the new puck to make sure that game play isn’t impacted by the addition of the sensors.
Player and puck tracking represent the first waves of big data entering the NHL, but they will certainly not be the last. Big data has arrived, changing the way teams price tickets, fans watch games and view their favorite players and coaches prepare for games. While the new technology is exciting and innovative, the integration will continue to be tinkered with and adjusted and future versions should bring the league even more new use cases, as the NHL has prioritized improving the product.
“(Player and puck tracking) will always be more and better. A lot of the ideas that are going to come along are going to be the result of what we see with what we get,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “I think it’ll be evolutionary. What we end up with in the playoffs will look different than what we get in the next regular season.”