Archive for September, 2015

SmartKage Helps Scouts, Teams Evaluate Players

SmartKage’s headquarters are in a remote office park, 36 miles and a couple dozen cows away from Boston. But in a batting cage inside, Kevin is warmed up and ready to audition before an audience of MLB scouts and college recruiters from across the country.

Kevin, a 14-year-old shortstop (whose name has been changed for this story), and his father are listening to SmartKage chief operating officer Larry Scannell describe the components of the infielder test. Scannell, a former Red Sox farmhand, runs through the sprinting, agility, throwing, and hitting portions of the test.

“It’s analogous to a physical SAT,” Scannell says. “And if you take it multiple times, just like the SAT, we combine your best scores in each area. It’s not about consistency, it’s about capability.

Once the explanation is over, a few taps on a touch screen start the automated measurement process. The system has been designed to be completely automated. Aside from tapping “next” on the touch screen, no human intervention is required, though Scannell adds the occasional explanatory detail or words of encouragement. And as Kevin takes his hacks against the pitching machine, Scannell and director of information technology Dennis Clemens starts talking about the collaboration with FungoMan that was required to making the pitching machine as consistent as possible.

“We changed out the legs and bolted the machine down,” Clemens said. “The side-to-side adjustment was removed, and we had the agitator adjusted so there were fewer jams.”

“And we swap the balls out every 30 days,” Scannell added. “We’re working with Rawlings and talking about the life of a baseball. And as a former facility owner myself, I mean, these are pearls! We would use these for an entire year, you know? Now …”

“Now the dog eats them,” CEO Corrine Vitolo said. “We take the premise of standardization very seriously.”

The fresh baseballs are more than just a way to give Merlin, a German Shepherd mix who was also on hand, new chew toys. Developing and running a standardized test requires SmartKage to constantly calibrate and maintain their equipment. It also means a significant effort to find the right kind of facilities to partner with, and Scannell said he spent five years evaluating prospective partners.

“I vetted these facilities out on location, years in business, member base and foot traffic, and then the size and the appearance,” he said. “But most importantly, are they going to bring in the business and support it?”

To date, SmartKage has reached agreements with 160 facilities across the country. They began their initial rollout earlier this year, and are currently up and running in about 20 facilities. The company owns the equipment and installs it in the facilities, who then advertise the product to their clients. The tests run around $150, and take around 30 minutes. Different tests exist for infielders, outfielders, catchers, and pitchers; the results are available to professional teams and college programs, with especially high marks forwarded directly to teams.

“We’re a filter and a pre-qualifier for teams,” Scannell said. “It’s about maximizing the time and productivity for scouts.”

Vitolo said her company also has more in-depth relationships with a number of MLB teams (though she refused to say which). These teams lease systems to gauge the fitness and health of their own players. Scannell said the teams also buy prepaid “scout cards” that area scouts give to amateur players they’d like more information on, and that professional players already in the organizations use in the offseason to track their workouts.

“And because we weigh them every single time, we’ll know if they come in overweight before they get into spring training,” Scannell said.

smartkage_sample

Sample speed and agility data from a SmartKage testing session (courtesy of SmartKage).

 

The batting cage where the test takes place looks a little unusual. Laser timers are stationed at regular intervals along the length of the cage to track the athlete during speed and agility tests (though these are removed, of course, before hitting begins). The area around home plate is slightly elevated: the platform contains pressure sensors to track things like how a hitter’s weight is distributed during the swing. And hanging from the ceiling are two cameras, evidence of an automated version of Sportvision’s PITCHf/x technology that tracks both incoming pitches and batted balls.

“What we’re doing is we’re bringing these technologies from the major league level, we’re trickling them down through the amateur and collegiate market,” Vitolo said.

Sportvision, of course, should be familiar to tech-savvy baseball fans; their PITCHf/x pitch tracking data have been publicly available since the system was first installed in 2007. And their HITf/x and FIELDf/x technologies have also been available to teams for several years. Soon after their founding, Vitolo said SmartKage began their partnership with Sportvision, ensuring that the same data sources front offices were using to evaluate their professional pitchers and hitters would also be available to judge prospective draftees.

“So when they’re making comparative analysis between players, it’s exact, it’s apples to apples,” Vitolo said. “[Sportvision is] the de facto standard in baseball, and we worked with them on adding metrics to their existing system.”

Even after only a few months, SmartKage is already finding interesting trends in their data. Scannell described how players, after years of counterclockwise baserunning, become almost universally faster going to their right than going to their left. And he also talked about how the technology helped find an injury from a pro pitcher’s plyometric pushup data.

“There was an abnormal kind of regression in one of the pitching shoulders,” Scannell said. “And it turned out that there was a slight tear, and it was enough to red flag an MRI.”

The team is busy completing its first 40 installations, and making plans to roll out to the other facilities they have agreements with. But look in the right places and you’ll see hints — like a Harvard football helmet perched on a filing cabinet — that the company is starting to expand their offerings.

“A lot of the facilities that Larry’s got under contract are multi-sport facilities,” Vitolo said. “So you’ll have a SmartKage baseball, and then you’ll have a SmartSports football.”

Just like the SmartKage, SmartSports Football will offer an automated evaluation tool — a “physical SAT” — to a sport known for its pre-draft scouting combine. But Scannell says the company will offer far more than the handful of metrics traditionally covered.

“We measure five times the amount of metrics as the NFL combine,” Scannell said. “We can do everything the NFL does plus another five times those metrics in addition.”

As more and more of the cages start to appear across the country, the technology that underpins them will improve. SmartKage already has plans to add even more data sources, from pressure sensors in the pitching mound to markerless biometrics to wearable sensor-based technologies. To an outside perspective, digging into a specific aspect of a player’s game from the all the information SmartKage makes available may seem like trying to drink from a fire hose. But Vitolo says her company is ready to adapt to any improvements in technology — and still meet teams’ growing demand for performance and biometric data.

“Leap and the net appears,” Vitolo said. “You have the technology, you’ve got the capacity, and all of a sudden the applications present themselves.”


An Update on Drones in Sports

Drones racing each other at breakneck speeds through an abandoned industrial complex, controlled through VR goggles that broadcast a first-person view simultaneously to the operators and fans alike.

This may seem futuristic, but it was actually one of the most imminent ideas recently discussed in a special panel dedicated to “Drones In Sports”. At last week’s On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, three drone sport experts came together to talk about the potential–and the potential pitfalls–that drones may provide for the future of sports technology.

As one panelist put it, drones in sports are currently “kind of a Wild West opportunity”, and Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures and vice-chairman of the Miami Dolphins, kicked the panel off with the example of the Drone Racing League. Earlier this year, the DRL started informally as groups of hobbyists flying drones through parking garages and abandoned buildings, but plans are in the works to turn it into a full-fledged sport, pitting sponsored teams of self-taught drone specialists against ex-military UAV pilots.

The DRL held their first two test flights earlier this year in the New York metro area, and plans to release their first official video “in the next few weeks.” When Higgins (an investor in the DRL) was asked how to make this a spectator sport, though, he responded candidly, “I have no clue.” He expects that streaming services like Twitch and Meerkat will be critical in building fan engagement with drone racing — and there certainly aren’t a lack of ideas to spice the sport up, as Bradley Woodrum outlined earlier this year.

Companies are also thinking about how drones can be used to improve the experience for players and fans in more traditional sports. In the eyes of the panelists, the “low-hanging fruit” was using drones to provide new angles for gameplay and practice, but the Amazon “drone-delivery” model was also a clear influence. The possibilities bantered about by the panel seemed limitless. Dispatching drones on golf courses for tee-side food delivery, handing out tickets with drones during games, the drone t-shirt cannon…

…wait a second, “the drone t-shirt cannon”?

It’s an undeniably cool idea, but taking a few seconds to visualize an unmanned aerial vehicle launching anything at fans may remind you that drones still face a number of psychological (and legal) obstacles. Eben Novy-Williams (a reporter for Bloomberg and the panel’s moderator) noted, as one example, that he was at a recent triathlon where a drone filming at the finish line elicited divided reactions–half the audience loved it, but the other half was clearly uncomfortable.

Chris Proudlove (an aerospace insurance expert with Global Aerospace) agreed that “we’re not quite there” when it comes to drones flying over crowds and that we need to “build a public sense that drones will be operated safely”, but that at the same time we don’t want to overstate the risk. The top concern of Proudlove’s clients when discussing drones was “invasion of privacy,” but he predicted this would be “moot” in less than 10 years. We’ve already become accustomed to ubiquitous smartphones that record video; from a certain perspective, drones aren’t terribly novel, just an extension of technology. The rest of the panel was even more bullish about the long-term prospects of us welcoming our new drone overlords.

But there’s still a lot to be done to make drones seem — and be — safer. Chris described geofencing technology to keep drones in and out of certain locations, such as ‘within the stadium, but at least 20 meters from the stands’, and better use of parachutes and other physical features. (Many of us probably remember the recent drone crash during the 2015 tennis U.S. Open, but the panelists were also well-aware of the 1979 mishap where a lawnmower-shaped model plane killed a fan during halftime at a Jets-Patriots game.) Chris also suggested that regulations distinguishing ‘micro-drones’ (of less than 2 pounds) and ‘the big ones’ could make drone safety easier.

In fact, the panel generally agreed that regulatory issues were the primary roadblock currently facing drones in sports. Right now, commercial use of drones (in the US) is illegal except when exemptions are provided by the FAA, and this is expected to remain the status quo until the FAA issues a full ruling on drones sometime in 2017. Until then, companies will need to build their usage of drones on a case-by-case basis. (Late last week, for example, the news broke that the FAA had allowed the NFL an exemption for drone usage — but only in empty stadiums.)

In short, it looks like we haven’t yet reached a drone-filled future of sport, but that day is likely drawing nigh. When Eben asked the panel for a bold “five-year prediction,” panelist Jon Ollwerther suggested that by 2020, we’d see drones being used in “every major American sport”– even down to the high school level.


On Ad-Driven Revenue and Tools of the Sports Fan

Apple’s release of iOS 9 and its ability to allow content blocking on Safari has once again sparked conversation about blocking online advertising. Every now and again, the topic of ad blocker use crops up in the tech news circles. There are arguments made, grandiose solutions proposed, and villains identified. It’s the sites’ fault for allowing such terrible ads. It’s the ad networks’ fault for presenting such hideous and annoying material. It’s Google’s fault, it’s Apple’s fault, it’s Facebook’s fault. There are a lot of reasonable solutions out there — a switch back to native advertising, a rise in reader contributions, more reliance on direct partnerships — and what eventually shakes out will be some combination of those and some other things and it will only work for a little while. It’s a war of attrition between ad networks, content producers, and readers. But while we all contemplate the Future Of Online Publishing, let us not forget the actions we take today and how they affect the sites we use on a regular basis.

In fairness to the reader, it should be noted that these words will be a little biased. It’s always sticky for writers to opine on the mechanisms that directly affect their pocketbooks. Also, many of the sites I mention are staffed by acquaintances of mine, have paid me money to do things for them, or are just places I respect. Considering the audience, most of this is probably understood, but it should be mentioned.

The ad blockers you install on your browser are both simple and complex. The idea is simple. The blocker scans the code being loaded into the browser, identifies code (usually JavaScript or Flash) that has previously been identified as advertising, and disallows it from loading. The back end — the expanding database of advertising code — can be more complex, but the mechanism is fairly straight forward. These tools stop advertising code from loading. Advertising code can greatly increase the amount of tiem it takes a page to load. It can royally screw up readability and navigation of web pages. It can even install malicious code on your machine. It’s nasty and silly and annoying and nobody likes it. But, to overuse a common trope, it’s the cost of doing business.

Any “free” web site — a web site that does not charge a subscription fee to view its content — needs to make money to run. Bandwidth and server fees need to be covered. Writers have to (hopefully) be paid. Administrative fees have to be taken care of. It’s a business. In lieu of charging you directly, they allow advertisers to display content on their sites. The advertisers pay the web site for the right to do so.

Way back when, advertisers would make direct deals with web sites. Company X would call up Site Y and strike up a deal to advertise their products on the site. This took time and energy, and as the web became exponentially bigger and creating content became easier, this model became quite inefficient. This is where ad networks stepped in. Instead of Site Y working with Company X, Site Y did deals with Network A. Network A did tons of deals with all kinds of companies, and gave Site Y some JavaScript to insert into their code so that Network A could take care of all the rest. Network A would charge the companies, take a little off the top, and pay out Site Y. That’s pretty much where we stand now.

And as the web grew and grew, content expanded rapidly. This created more platforms for ad networks, and drove down the prices that those networks paid to content creators. These days, most sites get about $0.002 per impression or thereabouts. There are certainly other ways for sites to create revenue, but ads don’t pay as much as they used to, and they never paid a whole lot to begin with.

The rise in online advertising also meant that sellers had to do more to get their ads noticed. Ads got goofier, videos began auto-playing, cookies started tracking visitors’ traffic to help in delivering content the robots thought the reader would be interested in. It all culminated in the hot mess we know online advertising to be now. It’s no good, and it bothers almost everyone. And, at the time of this writing, we all need it.

Somewhere down the line — maybe it was the Napster craze, maybe it was the price of so many things getting driven down that the line between paid and free began to disappear — we all decided that it was OK for us to take things from sites and give them nothing in return. The old adage was that if you weren’t paying for a product, you were the product. Your Gmail address isn’t free. Your Facebook account certainly isn’t free. By joining these services, you were entering into a complicit agreement that these services could poke and prod your behavior and use that behavior for their own personal gain. But it’s all in the background. Perhaps this is what conditioned us to think that everything should be free. Online advertising was supposed to follow this model, too. You read something free of charge, and in return you had to see some junky ads. That is, until some smart people created tools that allowed readers to take away those ads, and money started leaking out of creators’ pockets.

When an ad blocker is used, the necessary script isn’t loaded. On the ad networks side, they never see the transaction, so it never gets logged. The site never gets credit for your eyes seeing its content. Bigger companies are affected slightly less. Views of articles on CNN.com, in theory, create brand recognition and increase the likelihood of you watching CNN on TV, where TV ads can be presented to you. For smaller (read: most) sites, this isn’t applicable. They need your eyes, and they need the advertisers to know that your eyes saw the content. Ad blockers stop this from happening.

Your favorite writers (sports or otherwise) need the advertisers to know this. Your favorite spots for opinions, statistics, or humor need this, as well. As someone who expects to consume content for no monetary cost, you agree to allow this. Or, you should. Many don’t. And if you allow ad blockers to prevent these sites from making money, you are, in affect, taking money away from them.

The nice thing about ad-supported content is that it democratizes the Internet. Beyond the cost to acquire Internet access, these sites can be viewed by anyone for free. There is no barrier to entry. Subscription sites aren’t a bad idea at all, but as soon as you do implement that model, you remove the right for some (i.e. lower-income or financially-strapped) readers from seeing your stuff. It’s a choice every creator has to make. But for those that choose to stay free, a horde of challenges await them.

Some of our favorite sites, like Sports Reference, offer ad-free subscriptions that charge a small fee to allow you to browse ad-free. It’s a great solution to the problem, and if you use Sports Reference even more than a little bit, you should consider it. It’s a way to keep ads out of your browser while simultaneously supporting the sites you like.

This site does not offer such subscriptions, nor does its parent site. There are content agreements in place, but ad money still makes up a big chunk of the [x]Graphs family’s revenue. It is a terrible contract that both sides have to enter, but it is necessary.

All of this, and I realize it had been a lot so far, is to say that if you enjoy a site’s content, white-list it from your ad blocker. Are ads annoying? You bet. Do we all wish there was a better way? Certainly. Have we come up with a better idea? Nope. And, until you yourself do, disable that ad blocker. This isn’t a “save our site” plea. This is a call to action to put your money where your mouth is. If you want to read something, suck it up and allow those sites to make money. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but it’s only fair.

Think about where we would be without Baseball Reference or Baseball Savant or VICE Sports or Deadspin or SB Nation. Your personal thoughts about these places aside, they helped and continue to help shape the landscape of the business. They aren’t needed on a purely utilitarian scale, but they help us research, enjoy, learn, and appreciate our favorite sports better than most sites can. A world without these sites is a world run solely by Disney, News Corp, and Viacom. Independent sites are good for everyone, regardless of subject matter.

Most independent and/or freelance sports writers on Twitter are pretty approachable. Ask them about the lavish lifestyle they lead as writers. It’s hard. Revenues are falling and therefor pay is falling. And never forget that the marketplace of writers is also growing. It sucks out there. Look at what happened to Sports on Earth. It was a pie in the sky idea that promoted quality writing over everything else and it failed. Money is hard to come by.

Will this ever be fixed? Who knows. Maybe the Golden Age of Internet Writing (if there ever was one) is dead. But until the bouncer kicks us out, let’s all work to make sure the people we like and and admire get as much as they can for all their work. If you use an ad blocker, white-list your go-to sites. If you don’t know how to, Google it. Google will gladly take your query and enter it into the ever-growing list of queries that you allowed it to capture by agreeing to use their service. The Internet is a grimy place full of trade offs. It’s not changing any time soon. Let’s at least support those crazy enough to try and make a living off of it.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 9/25/2015

Before the drones assume full command of our last vestiges of leisure, we wanted to provide you with this News Roundup, which highlights the sports-tech stories from the past week that we found interesting.

First, with dispatches from the very cutting edge, our own Brice Russ was in New York City Tuesday for the On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, scoping out upcoming developments in fan-oriented technology, including MLB’s StatCast, NBA in-arena tech, localized sports networking, and more. Look for additional reports on this event from Brice in the coming days.

It’s late September, which means MLB rosters have expanded in anticipation of the playoffs. Managers’ toolkits are expanding too, as teams now are permitted to use iPads (and other companies’ tablets, presumably) in the dugout during games. The unsurprising catch is that the tablets cannot be connected to a network, and all data– such as batter spray charts and pitcher video– stored on them must be downloaded to the devices no later than three hours before game time. Also, while the devices are allowed in dugouts, bullpens currently remain off-limits, probably because bored relievers are highly susceptible to gaming addiction. So far, reports indicate the Reds and Cardinals are using iPads to some extent in their dugouts. MLB previously restricted use of Apple Watches in dugouts, and the blanket ban on cell phones remains in place. That doesn’t apply to us fans, though, which is neat because a company called Scoutee is developing an app that will turn your smartphone into baseball radar gun.

“Cord-cutting”– the process of disentangling oneself from the expensive morass of packaged cable and satellite television services– is a popular subject around these parts. While new media technology is making this beneficial transition a reality for more and more consumers, the shift is not without its human costs. As people are learning, one of the priciest television channels is ESPN, which, alone, accounts for more than $6.00 of cable and satellite subscribers’ monthly bills, regardless of whether they watch the channel. With cord-cutting on the rise, however, the Worldwide Leader may not be able to sustain its operation by spreading its costs across a broad pool of cable and satellite customers. According to a recent report, ESPN is losing “millions” of subscribers and, in light of the billions of dollars it has committed to broadcast rights for live sporting events, “is gearing up to lay off hundreds of employees to trim costs.” The move away from traditional television services isn’t a total job-killer, though: the linked story quotes John Brillhart, a Minnesota man who works full-time as a “cord-cutting consultant,” and whose name may be the secret identity of Minnesota resident and TechGraphs Managing Editor David G. Temple.

We love science at TechGraphs, and here we find a report on work by some Swedish researchers who set out to discover whether athletic success breeds further success. The study examined professional golfers and compared the performances of the last person to make the cut and the first one to miss the cut at a particular tournament– two very similar golfers– in subsequent tournaments: “In other words, they were asking, if you just happen, largely by chance, to make the cut in tournament A, does that change your odds of making the cut in tournament B?” The result was a strong “yes,” as the researchers found that the golfer who just made the cut in tournament A was much more likely to make the cut in tournament B.

I’ve long contended that the NBA offseason is more exciting than the NBA season itself, and while that contention may merely be a reflection of my personal taste, there’s no doubt that the fairly public tug of war between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers over DeAndre Jordan was one of the wildest basketball stories since the release of the last AND1 Mixtape. The modern twist on this saga was that the public largely was able to follow the developing story in real time thanks to an emoji battle on Twitter set off by Dallas’ Chandler Parsons. Now comes news that the whole thing was an accident, and that Parsons’ opening salvo actually had nothing to do with Jordan at all. Whatever you think about emojis, or even if you just read that word for the first time in your life, this story clearly illustrates the relative practical merit of New Criticism over traditional authorial intent.

In the least surprising news of the week, the NFL’s got drones now. This letter from the FAA proves it.

Yesterday, we told you that daily fantasy sports site DraftKings has expanded its offerings to include esports (i.e., competitive video game playing). Not to be left in the e-dust, DraftKings rival FanDuel responded simply by buying another site, AlphaDraft, that already offered daily fantasy contests for esports, for an undisclosed amount under $25 million. I’m as tired of the DraftKings and FanDuel advertisements as everyone else, though, so my request to the two competitors is that they not bother me until I can play daily fantasy sports daily fantasy contests. If I can bet on people playing a video game like League of Legends, I should be able to bet on somebody playing DraftKings or FanDuel.

On that metanote, we bid you a good weekend and respectfully request that you be excellent to each other.


DraftKings Joins The Esports Betting Ranks

DraftKings, the daily fantasy site that has saturated the TV airwaves with commercials lately, has just launched their newest wing: esports. As of right now their esports division consists solely of League of Legends matches, however I wouldn’t be surprised to see Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and more titles added. It should come as no surprise to see those three games be the most watched of August for Twitch.tv.

DraftKings isn’t considered gambling, but more of a skill game  — though Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and Washington consider it online gambling and prevent their residents from playing it — and esports, the same as in in the traditional athletic world is unfortunately no stranger to gambling and match fixing. From bans in CS:GO due to match fixing last year to StarCraft banning numerous player in 2010 due to a network of match throwers, sadly once money gets involved, people tend to have their morals become a bit more flexible.

While DK may or may not be considered gambling, they are just the latest website to offer payouts based on investments. Ranging from websites such as CSGO Lounge to CSGO Loot, Gosu Gamers and plenty more, there is money to be made — or lost — by wagering your weapon or player “skins” depending on the game. They’re nothing more than digital pixels, but they carry real world monetary value, sometimes in excess of the tens of thousands of dollars.

In the Counter-Strike realm, the sponsoring of so-called gambling sites — not DraftKings, but the others — has been banned in ESEA, a top competitive league. Citing a conflict of interest, insider knowledge and general professionalism, ESEA is making a stand against gambling. Of all the leagues to take the moral high ground on an issue, it’s interesting that ESEA does it, given their shady history. Regardless of previous transgressions, it is likely for the best to see gambling sites being barred from team sponsorship.

An entirely different issue is when people under age-21 wager their skins. These items are worth lots of money, just look at some screencaps from Steam’s Community Market page. Steam is the software distribution portion of Valve, creators of CS:GO and Dota 2. Some of the items for sale on the Valve Community Market are going for $400 dollars, while other third party marketplaces are trading and betting items worth much more money than that.

dota2
While this is certainly an exciting time to be an esports fan — the prize pools have never been bigger, corporate sponsorships are flowing in and possibly a major television league and broadcast deal in the works — seeing as DraftKings sees League of Legends on par with traditional sports, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ve already seen entire organizations get taken down for throwing matches, some for cheating and with yet another website now offering to exchange cash (not just weapon skins with value tied to them) based on esports results, the cynic in me fears the worst.


TechGraphs Report: On Deck Sports and Technology Conference

Earlier this week, NYC’s Bohemian National Hall played host to hundreds of sports executives, entrepreneurs, and others looking to learn about the very latest in sports technology. Since 2013, the On Deck Sports and Technology Conference (organized and presented by SeatGeek) has provided a forum to showcase what products are “on deck” to help fans follow, analyze, and participate in sports.

On Deck has a slight bent towards sports startups, so a decent amount of the conference was geared more towards raising capital, scaling businesses, etc. Still, there were plenty of fascinating talks, panels and interviews for anyone interested in straight sports tech.

Statcast And Beyond

Possibly the most entertaining talk of the day was Joe Inzerillo’s (CTO, MLBAM) update on MLB’s Statcast, which is finally getting its moment in the sun this season. For those who needed a refresher on how Statcast operates, Inzerillo discussed its missile-technology radar system, its stereoscopically-placed cameras, and how these allow each Major League ballpark to track the movements of every player on the field (plus the ball) at any given time.

Once Statcast has this information, as Inzerillo pointed out, it can then provide real-time data on pitch velocity (actual and perceived), player velocity and reaction time, and a horde of other quantitative metrics, plus more advanced data on a 12-second delay, like fielding route efficiency. This data is just inherently cool (as you likely know if you’ve seen a Statcast-enhanced game or highlight on television), but it’s also already being used to both question and confirm existing baseball strategies.

For an example of the latter, Inzerillo looked at the fallacy of sliding into first using Statcast to plot Eric Hosmer’s 1B slide in Game 7 of the last World Series. Hosmer hit a peak speed of 20.9 MPH before sliding and being out by less than a tenth of a second. If he had just kept running, Statcast found, he would have been safe by nearly a foot. Statcast is already getting noticed by clubs, and even players — batters like to talk smack, apparently, over who has the highest exit velocity.

During questions, Inzerillo was slightly cautious about committing to the future of Statcast, but he did mention that minor league stadiums were a natural next step, and that there was plenty of work being done on developing new metrics. Statcast already tracks ‘defensive range’ for fielders, for example, but since a player doesn’t travel the same speed in every direction, there’s a need to find the more amorphous ‘effective defensive range’ and how it changes–such as during defensive shifts.

On the football side of things, Sportradar’s Tom Masterman talked about the NFL’s NGS (Next Gen Stats) platform, which is collecting data on every single game in 2015 to track, analyze, and visualize how players are moving on the field. NGS is already being distributed to clubs, media, and health and safety personnel; the long-term goal is to have X,Y,Z coordinates for every player and official, plus the ball.

Go Bucks

On Deck’s attendees weren’t just league officials and startup managers–the conference started with a live interview of Wes Edens, who became co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in 2014. Much of the conversation focused on the new Bucks arena, which was being voted on by the Milwaukee city council literally as the interview was ongoing. As it’s currently planned, the presently-unnamed arena will focus heavily on keeping fans digitally connected — giving attendees plenty of WiFi, for example. At the same time, Edens noted, they want to avoid fans using technology to become distracted from the game going on in front of them. (Edens used the phrase “Instagram culture”, specifically, though he noted that he himself has had these sorts of problems before.)

Edens was similarly balanced when the discussion turned to analytics. One of the first things Edens did after buying the Bucks was to build their analytics program — bringing on employees, consultants and even discussing methodologies with other owners. There’s definitely a “golden age” of analytics in basketball going on.  Edens even thinks the NBA will end up surpassing the MLB as the leader in sports technology. But when he was asked about how the players feel?

“It’s a good question,” Edens replied. “There’s definitely lines that can be crossed” with having too much data being made public, at least when it can affect the privacy of the players (such as rest/injury issues).

Edens also briefly discussed the role of the referees and the potential benefits of replay and “the new center across the river“. Could we see yet more referee technology, even an Oculus Rift-type headset for NBA officials, in the future? “Totally possible.”

Era of Mobility

When it came time to look at how fans themselves were interacting with sports, technologically, it became clear that mobile is “it.” In that panel about growing sports startups I mentioned earlier, representatives from SeatGeek, FanDuel and Krossover all praised the importance of the mobile web for their companies–SeatGeek’s rep described it as a “tale of two companies”, pre- and post-mobile, and Krossover’s founder mentioned they’re considering dumping their web app altogether in lieu of just being on smartphones and tablets. When Yahoo Sports’ VP of engineering presented a chart showing their fantasy football traffic from this season’s Week 1, the fraction of non-mobile data was a pretty small sliver at the top.

Yahoo fantasy data graph

Trust me, it’s there.

Even companies you might never expect to get in the mobile game are joining and succeeding. Jeremy Strauser had 20 years of gaming experience at EA Sports and Zynga before joining one of the most loved and enduring brands in the sports industry, Topps. Yep, they’re digital playing cards.

Topps first got into the digital game 4 years ago and how has three top-selling sports card apps, plus a newly launched Star Wars-themed set. Why should you be interested in buying trading cards on your phone? One starting point is the capabilities the digital platform provides — literally hundreds of thousands of different designs, the ability to create all manner of rare and unique cards, etc.

Topps is also rolling out a daily fantasy sports feature (DFS was a major topic of conversation at On Deck) that allows you to compete using the players in your card deck and swapping them in and out in real time as they go up to pitch or bat. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that they won’t take up space under your bed or get thrown out by your mom when you’re away at college.

Topps conference talk

Coming To Your Hometown

If you want to look for the next wave of sports technology, though, look to your neighborhood.

Rather than providing new tools or analytics for MLB, the NFL or the NBA, the newest sports apps want to help you participate in sports in your own town. On Deck wrapped up with a “Startup Pitch Contest” a la Shark Tank where teams had four minutes to present their groundbreaking app to a group of judges. The six competitors included:

  • Wooter – a search engine for finding and joining sports and activities like local rec leagues. Wooter provides profiles for leagues looking to form teams, players looking to join them, and the tools to process payment and set up other logistics.
  • NextPlay – helping youth coaches conduct tryouts and league drafts. For $15/month, instead of taking a stopwatch, a bunch of handwritten notes, and an Excel spreadsheet to put together youth rosters, NextPlay handles all the data collection and analytics itself. Their beta has been used by “a couple hundred organizations” and over 10,000 athletes.
  • ScoreStream – filling a gap in local journalism by crowdsourcing reports on high school sports.

With a really impressive presentation, broad coverage (10,300 HS games covered last week alone) and the #1 iOS app for high school sports, I really thought Scorestream would walk away with the prize, but it ended up going to…

  • SidelineSwap, a P2P marketplace for sporting goods. SidelineSwap has over 43,000 registered users who’re interested in trading out sporting gear just collecting dust in their basement or garage. They’re working on building partnerships with youth organizations and promoting used college-branded material, which should play very well with their chief audience of high school students.

On the whole, On Deck was a whirlwind experience for learning about cutting-edge sports tech. This report only covers part of everything I caught there. Watch for further updates and profiles soon!


MLB is Cracking Down on Your Twitter GIFs

Our days of posting our favorite baseball highlights on Twitter might be coming to an end, if they haven’t already. Recently, it appears as if MLB Advanced Media has been requesting that Twitter remove GIFs (technically, GIFs uploaded to Twitter are converted into video files, but the idea remains) that they believe violate copyright laws. It’s a move that’s both within the rights of MLBAM, yet still slightly confusing from a fan-engagement standpoint. If this is a harbinger of things to come, then our days sharing sports GIFs with our friends and followers might soon be over.

I first heard of the new policy via FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan. He had created a GIF of Felix Hernandez and tweeted it, but later got an email alerting him that it had been taken down.

twittergiftakedown

As it happens, MLB had a video of the same highlight on their site. Now, Jeff’s GIF would be in violation of copyright whether MLB had their own highlight posted or not, it just seems like more than a coincidence. In the full email the above picture is referencing, there were other reported tweets from different Twitter users — notably @cjzero, who posts many videos of various sports through the social media platform. Sullivan believes this to be a mistake.

“Weirdly, in the same email, I saw notice of identical complaints filed about @cjzero and @megrowler. I probably wasn’t supposed to see those but multiple people responsible for this are stupid,” he said.

However, it shows that he is not the only one being targeted in this new development.

The idea is simple. MLB sees a GIF of a play or highlight and notices that they have the same video hosted on their web site. However, when the video is viewed on their web site, an ad is played beforehand. On Twitter, it’s not. MLB loses a (probably very tiny) source of revenue. MLB asks Twitter to take it down, Twitter complies.

(Note, I am not a lawyer. The following is simply my speculation based on the fact that I am a reasonable human adult)

Is it a violation of copyright laws? Yes. Well, probably. It all depends on your (or a judge’s) take on what’s fair use. There was actually a big decision in the courts recently about media takedowns and fair use. In what’s now known as the dancing baby case (no, not that dancing baby), a parent was instructed by YouTube to take down a video they had posted of their baby because the radio in the background was playing a song by Prince. The video taker, Stephanie Lenz, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued Universal Music Group (the copyright holder) claiming that Universal did not consider fair use before ordering the video’s removal. Eventually, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Lenz’s favor. The gist is that Lenz didn’t just post a Prince music video, but a video in which the song happened to be playing. It falls under the umbrella of fair use.

There are four basic factors of fair use:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

Lenz’s claim most likely falls under the first. Lenz did not post the video with the intent of allowing people to listen to Prince for free. If Jeff Sullivan (or anyone else effected by MLBAM’s new attitude) wanted to contest their treatment, they might have some ground to stand on, but it would be shaky. Number three seems plausible if you take the length of a clip against the length of a whole game, but as I’m sure MLBAM considers a highlight to be just as much copyrighted as an entire game.

In the long run, fighting a copyright claim probably isn’t worth it. It is worth it, however, to question just who is being served here. Major League Baseball is worth over $30 billion. Are they really going to cry “poor” when some people don’t have to watch a T-Mobile ad before a highlight of a home run? And, to me, the chance to screw over MLB isn’t in most poster’s interests either. The point is simple — GIFs play right in the browser when scrolling through Twitter. Sure, people can link the MLB clip, but it would involve extra clicking. Is it a big deal? Not really. But the immediacy of it all is what makes Twitter Twitter.

Let us not forget that nearly every baseball GIF people post enhances MLB’s brand. The NBA figured this out early. They let anyone with iMovie and some time post highlights, mash-ups, parodies, etc. to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. If you want to find a baseball clip on YouTube, you better hope that MLB has posted it themselves. Otherwise, there are no others to be found.

Because of my experience as a baseball writer, I immediately wondered about MLB’s new stance impacting baseball sites and blogs. A lot of writers use GIFs for analysis or to drive home a point. Are we to believe that this practice will be in jeopardy? Sullivan doesn’t think so, at least for right now.

“I’ve never heard of MLBAM complaining about gifs used at FanGraphs,” he said in an email correspondence. “Similarly, I don’t recall ever getting a complaint about gifs I used at SB Nation or Lookout Landing. Maybe something just slipped my mind, but there’s never been anything systematic. It seems they’re mostly okay with gifs used in the context of analysis, but viral stuff on Twitter — that gets their attention. Maybe because they’re trying to establish their own social presence and they want something approximating a monopoly of coverage. But this is speculation! I’m probably going to keep trying #pitchergifs because I’m a dangerous rebel who likes danger.”

I did reach out to MLBAM for comment, but have not heard back as of this writing. In the interest of full disclosure, my email provider did go down for about 20 minutes this morning. It’s unlikely that they tried to reach me then, but I mention it just in case. In truth Major League Baseball — a sports league that has a very large and powerful media empire named after it — has been fairly tone deaf when it comes to these types of things. Recently, they’ve made a big push with things like Cut4 and their Twitter account to promote their game. It’s a shame that they view other people, fans who want to help them out for free, simply as copyright violators. The fans are on MLB’s side on this one. At least for now. If this behavior continues, they might start losing some of their most connected and promotional fans. That would be a shame for both sides.


How David Ortiz Keeps Hitting Homers

On September 12, David Ortiz led off the top of the fifth inning by turning on a Matt Moore curveball, depositing it into the Tropicana Field bleachers for his second home run of the day and the 500th of his career. Ortiz became the 27th MLB hitter to reach the 500-homer milestone, and (at 39 years and 298 days) the fifth-oldest.

Ortiz didn’t get regular at bats until his age 24 season with Minnesota, and when he first came to the Red Sox, he shared the DH role with the immortal Jeremy Giambi. Contrast that with fellow Dominican and 500-homer man Albert Pujols, who had already played three full seasons by that age and collected 114 home runs as the Cardinals’ everyday left fielder. How has Ortiz managed to overcome this late start and defy the aging curve to hit dingers long after other sluggers have seen their power decline?

We can glean some extra insights from Ortiz’s relationship with Zepp’s baseball sensor. Because Ortiz is one of nine MLB players who endorse the Zepp baseball sensor, Zepp includes data and video from a couple of his swings with their app. And even when compared to the other professionals they’ve worked with, Ortiz’s swing impresses the Zepp scientists.

“Most of the athletes we work with are 25 years old, in the prime of their career,” Trevor Stocking, Zepp’s product manager for baseball and softball, said. “For him to have the kind of bat speed he does at age 38, 39, 40, it’s really special.”

David Ortiz Data - Total

Looking at his swing data (pictured above), we see Ortiz’s swing speed is in line with other Zepp athletes like Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Hunter Pence. Ortiz’s time to impact (how early before contact the hitter starts his swing) is just above league-average. According to Zepp, most professional hitters’ time to impact is between .14 and .18 seconds; Ortiz was clocked at .138 seconds.

David Ortiz Bat Speed Impact

Viewing his swing path in the three-dimensional representation above, we see that Ortiz focuses on keeping his hands close to his body, ensuring the bat stays on a direct path to the ball with a minimal amount of wasted energy. This helps keep his bat fast and his swing quick.

But Ortiz is a giant of a man, listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds. For younger players who use this technology to compare their swings to that of their heroes, it might not be a great idea (or even possible) to mimic his strategy without his strength. But Stocking says there are still lessons to be learned from his data.

“What you come away with each time you work with David Ortiz is a respect for how hard he works,” Stocking said. “He understands his swing and has a plan when he gets in the batter’s box. That’s something we can all strive to do.”

Apart from Ortiz’s successes, Zepp has had a few accomplishments of their own this summer. The company inked deals with the Angels, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rays to provide sensors and data to hitters throughout those organizations. CEO Jason Fass said the four teams are additions to Zepp’s existing stable of MLB organizations, but declined to divulge how many or which teams, citing non-disclosure agreements.

Zepp also strengthened their existing relationship with Perfect Game, providing sensors for in-game use at this summer’s showcase events like the PG All-American Classic. The in-game data from such high-level talent provided a novel database for Zepp’s research.

“It’s the first time ever this kind of data has been recorded with pro-level talent,” Stocking said.

The Perfect Game data also hinted at a relationship between attack angle (or swing plane) and success. In the admittedly small sample gathered at the showcase, the average hit was associated with a slight uppercut, an attack angle of 12 degrees. Most outs, on the other hand, were produced by a nearly flat or slightly downward swing, having an average attack angle of -2 degrees.

“This would back up a lot of our MLB data that tells us most line drives occur when the attack angle is between five and 20 degrees,” Stocking said.

The Zepp sensor is a square, neon green device held in place by a flexible strap that goes over the knob of the bat. The sensor contains two accelerometers and one gyroscope, allowing Zepp to track the bat’s path through six degrees of freedom. Having two accelerometers allows the sensor to track the large, high-frequency accelerations that happen around impact while still accurately tracking the lower-frequency accelerations as the bat moves through the zone. The sensor connects via Bluetooth to an Android or iOS phone or tablet, where swing data (and simultaneous video) can be captured, stored, and compared to friends and professionals like Ortiz, Stanton, Trout, and others.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 9/18/2015

Happy Friday, dear readers. Between the baseball playoff push and the beginning of the pro and college football seasons, we are in for another wild sports weekend. Between your gulps of beer and piles of nachos, feel free to cleanse your palette with all the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

I’ve been using technology to improve my golf practice (look for that article soon), so when Wilson announced their new smart basketball that helps players get stats on their practice sessions, I was intrigued. The implementation seems fairly simple and straightforward. It seems most applicable to serious student and pro athletes, but I suppose anyone who wants to improve on their skills before their next pickup game could benefit.

For the first time ever, the FIFA video game franchise will feature women players this year. This is good! However, never content to let anything go unsullied, the NCAA is, once again, ruining things. Due to eligibility concerns, 16 women players have been pulled from the digital rosters of FIFA 16. Though the athletes and EA Games seemed to do everything by the book, the players didn’t want to risk their collegiate futures by disobeying the all-mighty NCAA. They weren’t getting paid to appear on the game, but the NCAA still found a reason to not let these talented women represent their countries. The NCAA has their stellar reputation to uphold, after all.

Golden Tee is making the jump from the pub floor to your phone. Now, enjoy all the fun of virtual golf without the ever-present smell of cigarettes and stale beer. Not having to put your hand on that cesspool of a rollerball is also a plus. Though, it’s not as if your smartphone isn’t without its own germ farms.

In case you weren’t annoyed enough with the respective brands by themselves, Snapchat has teamed up with the NFL. Simply subscribe to the NFL’s Live Story feed and get inundated with countless pictures and video every Sunday. Just don’t expect to see broadcast footage beamed over with cat faces on it — TV video won’t be sent via the service.

ESPN has a nice story about the Miami Dolphins and how they are using all kinds of technology to help keep their athletes healthy. There’s even mention of their work with Kitman Labs, which our own Dr. Bryan Cole profiled not too long ago.

Bad news, wannabe daily fantasy millionaires: The system is already rigged against you.

Last year, NBA 2K15‘s facial scanning features lead to some terrifying results. This year, NBA Live 16 is taking a crack at it, and, according to Polygon, the results are much less nightmare-inducing.

You think getting a pre-draft spreadsheet together for your fantasy football league is hard? Try being the guy in charge of assigning skills to every player in Madden.

Finally, if your day has been wrecked by Google Now leaking sports scores when you were DVRing a game, Gizmodo has a nice write-up on how to save yourself from future frustration

That’s all for this week. Have a great weekend, and be excellent to each other.


PSA: iOS 9 on iPad Allows Picture-in-Picture for MLB At Bat

One of the more heralded features of Apple’s new iOS 9 was a feature called picture-in-picture (available on iPad only). It allows users to shrink down a currently-playing video down to the corner of the iPad screen so they can use other apps while the video still plays. I certainly piqued my interests — could I finally watch MLB.tv on my iPad with the ability to shoot off a quick tweet or email? On the first day of iOS 9’s public availability, my questions were answered.

Given MLB’s long-standing partnership with Apple, I half expected the feature to be available from the get-go. As I played with the new OS, I found this to not be the case.

However, later that day, the fine folks at MLB Fan Support set me straight.

Once I updated the app this morning, I was able to take it for a test drive.

To enable the feature, one only needs to click thte PiP icon when the video is playing. It immediately pops into the corner. Users can then adjust the size of the video, restore to full screen, or close it all together. If you have a new-ish iPad, just update to iOS 9 (if you haven’t already) and update the At Bat app.

The whole experience was very slick during my testing. As someone who likes using my iPad to watch MLB.tv, I’m excited to finally get the ability to use other apps while I’m watching. I often use commercial breaks to send a couple emails or see what’s going on with Twitter.

iOS 9 also offers a feature called slide over, which allows users to bring a condensed view of an app (like Mail or Twitter) onto the screen while their main app remains. I tested this with At Bat as well, but the slide over brings focus to the new app and pauses playback of the video.

Now, when I want to use another app during a commercial or even during a slow part of the game, I can send my video down to the corner of the screen and do what I need to get done.

Yes, it’s a feature that computers could do forever — and almost any device that plugs into a TV can play MLB.tv, freeing up the hands for other applications, but for those of us who like to watch baseball while doing the dishes or cooking dinner, this new way to multitask will prove to be very helpful. MLB Advanced Media has a strong relationship with Apple. Let’s hope that other sports get in on the picture-in-picture action soon.