A whole new ball game 

October 10, 2016

Steve Harper talks technology and sporting innovation

As this month’s magazine is the Innovation issue, I felt it was a good opportunity to discuss how innovations are influencing sport nowadays. In my 23-year career I witnessed first-hand the changing dynamics and physicality of footballers with regards to the speed of the game and changing direction, but, as we now see in many areas, technology is an increasing part of sport as a spectacle.

The use of the video-referee in last year’s hugely successful Rugby World Cup provided numerous moments of high drama, which improved the overall spectator experience, however, there was a growing concern that it was being overused by officials who now seem more reluctant to make decisions independently of the technology. This led to a more fragmented game with stoppages occasionally taking too long, interfering with the momentum of a match, and while it does create drama, I feel a balance needs to be struck.

In tennis, the use of Hawk-Eye has increased the accuracy of line calls but accusations of its tactical use by players to disturb their opponent’s psyche have been levelled as well as some top players questioning the accuracy of the technology.

As with rugby, the interactive experience for spectators who get to see the replays at the same time as the players and officials is an invaluable addition to the game, but I think a reduction in the number of challenges per set from three to two would improve the overall experience for all those involved.

Watching cricket nowadays is almost a source of information overload for the television viewer at home. Long gone are the days of an umpire’s finger solely signalling a batsman’s demise. Now we have to endure reviews covering ‘front foot’, ‘Snicko’, ‘Hot Spot’ and finally ‘Ball-Tracker’ before seeing the three green lights from four required to uphold the initial decision. That’s all in addition to the on-screen information showing a batsman’s ‘wagon-wheel’ relating to areas of scoring as well as the omnipresent mph reading for bowlers and now even an rpm display for spin bowlers. This quest for information will no doubt suit many viewers but the time taken to reach these decisions in our fast-moving world means the system surely needs to be streamlined.

In football, technology has crept in for television viewers, not just in the form of HDTV but also in the form of goal-line technology. The Hawk-Eye system is very good as it provides an instant, indisputable verdict as to whether the whole of the ball has crossed the line or not, but the issue with football is that human interpretation from the officials is required in the other areas. It will therefore be difficult to introduce further technology until the problem of how and when to restart the match is resolved by adapting the laws of the game. Technology also has an impact on the modern footballer.

As a player, the use of GPS didn’t directly affect me because goalkeepers didn’t wear the GPS vests for training in case we landed on the tracking devices, although I was very surprised to find out that goalkeepers cover around 5500m during a game. Outfield players wore them every day to record the distances they’d covered, the number of high intensity runs made and their heart rates, to see how frequently they reached the ‘red zone’ required to maximise training loads. This data was fed back to management and coaching staff through the sports scientists.

In both of my spells under him, Sam Allardyce was at the forefront of the use of these modern methods and every Monday morning after a weekend game would hold a team meeting to discuss the statistics from the performance. It was often no coincidence that positive results tended to be reflected in us out-performing the opposition in terms of total distance covered as well as the amount high intensity runs both in and out of possession. As a player you had nowhere to hide if you’d under performed in relation to your physical capabilities as the evidence was on the screen for all to see.

Finally, the dramatic rise in the use of social media giving fans direct access to sports stars who can now be heard directly and personally, as opposed to only in sterile press conferences, is a big step forward despite the occasional problems it can have in relation to abuse. This also increases the commercial opportunities for sports stars with regards to endorsements and so on, but for fans this personal connection can only be a good thing.

Reaching the end of 2016 as a now-retired sportsman who is moving towards the business world, as well as being a fan of many sports and their technological innovations, I have to wonder: “What’s next?”

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