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Top 5 Sports Technology Trends For 2018

What will next year bring for sports technology?

30Nov

Without necessarily seeing any groundbreaking steps forward, 2017 has been a year of steady progress for sports technology and sports analytics. As an industry, sports has been particularly receptive to developments in technology and analytics because, perhaps more so than in any other field, it is a business of marginal gains. If a particular piece of hardware or software can give a team even the slightest edge of the competition, it is worth exploring.

So, looking back of 2017, there are a number of areas of progress that have defined the industry across the 12 months. We have seen wearable technology diversify, both at a professional sports science level and in the consumer fitness market. Teams and sporting bodies have worked to make their stadiums more connected, with all new major stadiums now being built with this in mind. VR has come a long way in terms of real world applications, with a number of training programs utilizing the technology to put athletes in situations otherwise unachievable in an ordinary session. Major broadcasters have continued their (not all that successful) battle against illegal streaming services. And analytics teams have continued to embed what they do into every area of their organizations.

Actionable insights over data hoarding

Since data analytics began to make a widespread impact in sport, the focus has been on a team's ability to collect as much data as possible. Such is the wealth of hardware behind sports analytics programs today that there is scarcely a metric imaginable that cannot be tracked, logged, and analyzed in isolation. The problem with this rush for data acquisition is that teams have been swamped with a sea of largely unstructured, unconnected data, from which they are expected to draw insight.

2018 will see the conversation continue to shift toward the identification of the metrics that are actually useful, and the work to connect these metrics to draw a more holistic picture of an athlete's data. The coming year will be less about measuring every aspect of a team or athlete's performance, and more about working to make the hordes of data collected actionable for the coaches that eventually put them into use. This has been part of the sports analytics conversation for some time, but 2018 should be the year that clubs and organizations finally get it right.

The rush for new hardware slows down

As a direct result of the more conservative approach to data collection and the identification of useful vs unnecessary metrics, the often overzealous rush to adopt as much hardware as possible should slow down. Some trusted industry leaders have emerged - the likes of Strava and Catapult - and between them they should be enough to cater for sports teams at even the highest level. Far too many of the products promising to record previously unattainable data suffer from doubts over their accuracy and the inherent necessity of the metric they record. This reason, coupled with the excess of data already smothering analytics teams, should see teams limit the amount of hardware they use to a sensible number.

The situation is very different in the consumer market, with the number of fitness wearables growing all the time. According to Statista, the number of consumer wearables shipped in 2015 was 45.7 million, a number expected to rise to 126.1 million by 2019. By 2021, Tractica estimate the industry itself will be worth $95.3 billion. The overwhelming majority of these devices are to remain wrist-worn, as has been the case this year, and there are some clear industry leaders cementing their positions - think Fitbit and Garmin. The hunger for wearables among consumers may continue to boom, but among sports professionals and sports analytics teams, it will be a case of measured quality over quantity.

The revolution is almost complete

One thing we will almost certainly see in 2018 is the near disappearance of conversation around whether or not teams and organizations have 'bought into' analytics and data collection technology. After years of discussion about how best to get buy-in from everyone from the board to the athletes themselves, it's time to start talking about analytics in terms of being a fundamental rather than addition. If the data revolution in sports was about spreading its use to every corner of a team or organization, then that revolution is nearly complete.

Instead of evangelists eulogizing over the potential impact of data on sports teams, 2018 will be focused on the practical applications of that data and real-world examples for others to implement themselves. Sports analytics, as an industry, is no longer about 'innovative' coaching teams implementing breakthrough data usage techniques; rather it's about late adopters catching up and bleeding analytics into their own organizations. So, looking ahead to 2018, expect to see discussions around best practice and new techniques continue, but it's time to stop discussing analytics as though it's something sports teams should 'discover.'

E-Sports will continue its seemingly unstoppable rise

The strangest thing about the forever-booming eSports market is that is it still considered a fringe industry. Cradled in South Korea, professional gaming is sweeping the world and is demanding legitimacy. Whatever people think about it as a serious sport, the figures show that its current following and its potential are both enormous. The revenue from eSports has grown sharply, from $130 million in 2012 to a predicted $465 million for this year, according to Newzoo.

Even in the relatively unreceptive UK market, eSports offers serious revenue for those willing to dive headfirst into it. London soccer club Tottenham Hotspur announced this year that they would host live eSports matches at their new stadium, due to open for the 2018/19 season. Just this one venue alone has the potential for crowds of 50,000 fans and revenues of over £3 million ($4.04 million). Whether you accept eSports as sport or still view it as a 'competition (along with ESPN president John Skipper), there is no denying that the industry has a huge year ahead of it.

Broadcasting will fragment

One development that began this year is the fragmentation of sports content, both in terms of live games and content produced by clubs themselves. The most digitally proficient clubs and organizations have mastered the art of tailoring their video to the medium on which it will appear, and 2018 should see broadcasting finally catch up. Yes, the major broadcasters were posting videos on social even before 2017 began, but going forward expect to see more live sports - their number one product - distributed onto platforms other than television or their own online players.

Last season, the NFL and Twitter struck a deal to stream a number of live games on the social platform, and Facebook struck a similar deal this year to stream soccer games from the Mexican league, the MLS and the UEFA Champions League on Facebook itself. The move is in line with wider trends around how young people are finding and consuming content. More than half of the viewers (55%) of the Twitter-streamed NFL games were under the age of 25, and broadcasters will continue to find opportunities to put the games in front of their intended audiences, wherever they may be. What this trend means for consumers exactly is unclear at this point, but the prospect of watching otherwise expensive live sports for free on open social media platforms is an exciting one. 

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