US Vs Australia: Who Leads The Way In Sports Technology?

US broadcasting tech is unrivalled, but Australia is the home of wearables


Ask a hundred different people what the future of technology in sports looks like and you’ll get a hundred different answers. With so many elements of so many different sports being impacted by new technology at a dizzying pace, no sooner have those in the industry gotten to grips with how to best use the existing tech than another potentially revolutionary piece of equipment hits the market. Broadcasting is facing a similar overhaul, with technology able to bring audiences closer to the game both inside the stadium and out.

ESPN refers to Australia as the ‘epicenter of the [sports science movement],’ and even goes as far as to declare it the birthplace of the science. The assessment may seem hyperbolic, but Australia has made strides in both the production and application of wearable technology unparalleled the world over.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Australia finished the competition with no gold medals. Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister at the time, declared this unacceptable and set up the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), a body that has since been central to the country’s sports science proficiency. Today, one of the key reasons Australia is excelling is the fact that wearable technology is permitted during games, where in most US sports and in European soccer, for example, the technology is confined to the training field.

It’s no surprise that Catapult, one of sports wearables’ industry leaders, is based in Melbourne. The company was born when engineers Shaun Hothouse and Igor van der Griendt were working on a project with the AIS. Catapult is now used by all AFL, ARU and NRL teams - a penetration far higher than in Premier League soccer clubs or the NFL, for example. This penetration comes from the in-game usage; teams neglecting the technology risk missing out on valuable touchline insight.

The US, comparably, is seemingly uncomfortable with the notion of a team gaining competitive advantage simply by being quickest to adapt to technology that provides real-time data in-game. In May, the NFL provided teams with data two-years in the making, taken from RFID chips worn by players on the field. The data is certainly useful, but will not provide real competitive advantage until it is made available in real-time, indeed if it ever is at all.

If Australia is the king of wearable technology, though, the US is coming after its crown. Strides taken in recent years to research and produce the tech are promising, and the sheer size of the US sports market make it ripe for innovation. Far from being fledgling, the US sports technology revolution is only a few steps behind that of Australia, and projects are popping up across the country. Alabama, for example, recently opened its Integrative Center for Athletic and Sport Technology (I-CAST), ‘an interdisciplinary center drawing on expertise in engineering, kinesiology, health science, and athletic training.’ The center is primarily focused on the reduction of - and quicker recovery from - injury, and is just one example of a systemic push to see technology play a greater role in US sports.

In April, too, MLB approved two wearable devices for use in-game, according to the Associated Press. One measures the stress on the players’ elbows and another monitors heart and breathing rates. Again, the technology is primarily concerned with the prevention of injury - it will identify the habits that lead to injury and allow coaches to intervene. It’s unclear how teams could use the information competitively, and its in this area that the US still falls behind its competition Down Under.

It’s in broadcasting that the US leads the way. Small enhancements to TV viewing are quick to be adopted across most US sports and, crucially, a willingness to try new things is exemplified well by the many failed projects. FOX, in the late 90s, introduced a digital on-screen graphic called FoxTrax, commonly known as the Glowing Puck. By highlights the puck in-play, and super-imposing a red streak behind it when shot quickly, viewers found it far easier to see where the puck was at all times. The tech proved too distracting, though, and was pulled just two years after being introduced.

But for every Glowing Puck, there’s an ESPN K-Zone, a relatively simple tech used in baseball to display the strike zone during a pitch. Though disliked by some (for any new sports tech can guarantee some opposition) the tech has been a success. All sports broadcasts can be enhanced by technology - cricket’s Hawk-Eye is a particularly resounding example - and the US is way out ahead in terms of developing and trialling new technologies.

It’s difficult to compare the use of broadcasting technology to the use of wearables but, in this former, the US excels. In the latter, too, state projects could very conceivably challenge the AIS in the coming years. At present, the US’ rules regarding wearables in-game are too stringent for the nation to become a leader, but if this were to change - and in Baseball it already is - the US could be set to take the lead across technology’s applications in sport.

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