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!

Brice lives in the Washington, DC area, where he does communications for linguistics and space exploration organizations. Brice has previously written for Ars Technica, Discovery News and the Winston-Salem Journal. He's on Twitter at @KilroyWasHere.

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