We see the potential. Apple sees the potential. So why is it that professional sports seem to be lagging so far behind in seeing the potential improvements technology could bring to their games?
Above everything else, professional sports are a business. They exist to make money and bring attention, and they do it well. But like any business there is also a bottom line to adhere to and this means moving forward and making use of the tools we are able to.
So why aren’t they?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the National Football League (NFL) outlaws computers and PDAs on the sidelines of their games, in the locker room and in coaching boots within 90 minutes of kickoff. All electronic data gadgets are prohibited anytime after batting practice has started by Major League Baseball (MLB). The National Basketball Association (NBA) is somewhat more open-minded, allowing the use of tablets as long as they are not showing video of the current game in progress. The National Hockey League comes out ahead as the most liberal by not imposing any restrictions against tablets or computers (though they are not widely used despite this flexibility).
Some people have raised concerns that if fans in the stands are too busy reading statistics or watching instant replays on their smartphones and tablets they are no longer cheering and providing the energy and enthusiasm that motivates and inspires the athletes on the playing surface… and whether this is true or not for the fans, it doesn’t translate to the coaches and players themselves. Why is it that NBA coaches cannot watch the current game live on their device? If it’s a bandwidth consideration, force them to use their own 3G service. If it is a noise concern, mandate the use of headphones. If it is a distraction of the crowd concern, I question whether whiteboards and notebooks are any less distracting. But there must be a reason.
The reasons that are given for these restrictions are as diverse as the personalities in the sports themselves. Honestly, I think it is probably a little more broad and fundamental.
Nobody wants to be accused of cheating. – The perception that technology facilitates an unfair advantage seems a little silly. Taking advantage of universally available materials to distribute information that you would otherwise be sharing by other means is about efficiency and not cheating. By that logic, photocopying is also an unfair advantage.
Sports are a North American institution. – We fear change. We fear the devil we don’t know over the devil we do. We long for the simple days before instant replays and product placements and endorsements. We want to watch the game with our buddies and enjoy a cold drink and seeing an iPad or 10 on the field makes us think too much about work and the hustle and bustle of the lives we are trying to escape.
There is a perceived silppery-slope. – If we allow iPads on the sidelines and they are displaying real-time video to coaches and referees it may feel like an element of control has been lost. If you put a sensor in the ball to track movement (whether to determine if a goal has been scored or just to draw a path on television screens tracking movement like the smart puck did in the mid 90′s during Fox-broadcasted NHL games) or a chip with a speaker in a player’s helmet to communicate coaching advice it seems one step away from a science fiction movie where things can be manipulated by remote control.
Will technological enhancements change sports? Absolutely. Drastically? I’m not so sure. Whether coaches and their assistants record plays and details with a pencil and paper or they do it electronically, they are still doing it. Is it an advantage to have statistics and reports in front of you? Of course it is, but they could print it out on good old 8.5×11″ paper moments before the game just as easily. It isn’t the information itself that is prohibited.
Whether they yell instructions at the top of their lungs from the sidelines or speak them much more softly into a helmet, a coach still needs to be a coach. It may mean that a truly fantastic football player doesn’t need to have an impeccable memory for plays (or a bracelet that has them written in ink on the surface of it) in order to succeed but in the end he still needs to catch that ball and run it one foot in front of the other to where it needs to go. (Maybe the worry is that a ‘voice in his helmet’ might prove to be distracting and end up being more dangerous?)
There is other technology-driven potential of course. As an example, consider that sensors in helmets could record impact points or collision strengths from body-checks and tackles to be transmitted and displayed on the iPad of the team doctor sitting on the bench.
Even if they aren’t allowed on the field, athletes from many sports are already embracing the use of tablets and smartphones for managing their schedules and training. In addition, rulebooks and other information are easily communicated and can often be centrally updated, making them valuable learning and resource tools.