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
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
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.