The games must go on: How digital transformation can safely rekindle the spirit of sport

Business Times

June 18, 2021

COVID-19 has changed the rules of the game, and not just for players. Many of us dream of returning to the excitement of cheering on our favourite teams in stadiums, or the adrenaline rush from watching a keen match up close.

There is an opportunity now for us to progress on a path to this being possible again, and technology has a key role to play in getting us there.

For months, there has been intense debate on whether Japan should proceed with the Tokyo Olympics, already postponed from 2020. Recent news around the cancellation of this year’s Singapore Grand Prix and the question mark over the year-end 31st SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam due to the pandemic have added to growing scrutiny around international sporting events.

Success will be defined by preventing any spread of Covid-19 while still giving fans the experience of a live event. To do this, we have to consider how to run events within bio-secure sports bubbles.

We’re already seeing technology being used to get live sports back on track with smart sport technology using the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). Bio-bubbles have helped create a sustainable game format – but how do they work, and how can sports, and other event organisers, better leverage technology to keep their athletes and fans safe?

OUTDOOR SPORTS INSIDE BUBBLES

When the pandemic raged across the United States around March 2020, the historic thoroughbred horse-racing venue Santa Anita Park in Southern California imposed safety restrictions quickly, arranging for jockeys to live in isolated bubbles in campers along the racetracks.

The scrambled plan created a self-sustained, safe ecosystem, and set the record for the world’s first effective sports bubble amid Covid-19, forming a template for the National Basketball Association (NBA), the London Marathon, Formula One, and other international sporting events in the months that ensued.

Bio-secure bubbles may be proving to be the best solution to keep sports alive through an unrelenting pandemic, with the US Open, the Australian Open, and other global tournaments standing as promising success stories.

Consider the world’s biggest annual cricket event, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The 2020 chapter held across 53 days, three venues in the United Arab Emirates, and 60 matches, had eight bubbles, one for each team in the series, sequestered into different hotels, with regular testing and imposed safe distancing. For events of such scale, bubbles can get expensive and logistically challenging. However, the digitalisation of both sport and safety, intelligent planning and smart technology for maintaining zero transmission risks at mega events, make for an easier swing.

A bio-bubble allows for regular close monitoring of the health of athletes and support staff, while they play, eat, and sleep in a sealed environment, physically isolated from the greater public. While all members belonging to a bubble are tested for Covid-19 ahead of entry, once inside, they are given IoT-enabled wearables that track their every move in real time. In addition, every time they move in or out, there are temperature and biometric checks using thermal scanners and video analytics.

While members are tested for infection daily either using rapid point-of-care or lab methods, the Bluetooth, radio-frequency identification (RFID), ultra-wideband (UWB), and chip-enabled GPS devices aid in contact tracing, should there be an outbreak within or outside of each bubble. AI-based apps and solutions consolidate data collected and instantly identify breach of safety protocols, making for quicker proactive decisions.

For instance, the coronavirus task force at the National Football League (NFL) mandated UWB-based proximity recording devices league-wide as part of its safety protocols. Such devices are very compact, and can be worn on the wrist, tagged with the identity card, or sewn onto jerseys, not just to record proximity by distance and time for accurate contact tracing, but also to raise an alarm on detecting any breach in its set parameters.

The data can be uploaded to an AI-based infection detection and control system that manages all health and Covid safety information.

Sensors have been part of sports performance analytics for a while now, with chips and devices inserted into play equipment, under players’ shoulder/knee pads, or on turf. Covid-19, however, has helped this technology leapfrog into safeguarding health and well-being as well. Such on-person sensors could be extended to the field, to enable complete monitoring from the point of entering the bubble to the end of the championship.

Owing to the pandemic, players are training within bubbles in what can be called “quarantine training camps”. But they now have the added option of data-driven training tech to keep their spirits up, sharpen mental responses, and receive concurrent encouragement from trainers, coaches, and sport medicine experts.

AI-based injury detection and recovery systems, workout correction sensors, velocity-based training tags, inertial sensors, as well as health monitors and sleep trackers, blended with virtual reality (VR) sessions, all form part of the smart sport athlete management system.

SMARTER, SAFER FAN EXPERIENCES

For a phased reopening, it is critical that stadiums be divided into tier-based risk zones, have inter-spectator distancing, limited entry capacity, and mandate face masks especially at communal areas. Implementing these measures across the stadium in the Covid-era implies a digital shift in planning and execution.

Online ticket sales and e-tickets can ensure touchless entry into the stadium where fans are screened via advanced video surveillance and thermal systems at entry. Ticketing solutions that ensure that sale of seats is auto-enabled for distancing at the time of e-booking can help to do away with manual seat allocation. AI algorithms built into this solution can ensure spaces between groups, with members of a household seated together.

The e-ticket concept can also be used to relay real-time information from organisers to ticket holders using AI. Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi-enabled solutions can be used to monitor fan movement in real time from entry to exit, ensuring distancing and enabling contact tracing among spectators. In Singapore, people are already very familiar with this technology in the form of TraceTogether.

Embedded into the teams’ official apps, these solutions can direct fans to specific spots in the stadium to prevent potential crowding.

AI technologies to reduce touch points, video analytics to monitor fan behaviour, and operational solutions for security and sanitisation can help build a safer experience for fans, while any purchases within the stadium are made cashless.

The Tropicana Field stadium in Florida and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta are examples of stadiums that run on cashless technology.

A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT

Sports operates in spurts of short activities, making it one of the few industries that can afford to disconnect physically from the world, inside of a bubble. Sporting bubbles can help rev up the economy by bringing back some normalcy in the world of games.

The team of testing, bio-bubbles, and technology have so far worked well together. However, the costs of daily tests, tech maintenance, and losses from tickets are palpable. If stadiums have no choice but to enforce limited capacity for the foreseeable future, the task of bridging the gap between spectators and sports lies with technology.

To bridge the gap with technology, operators across the sporting ecosystem have turned to technology partners. Given the wide array of technologies that are deployed, it’s crucial to find partners that can integrate various solutions and platforms, including VR/AR (virtual reality/augmented reality), AI, and 5G. These partners should have experience in creating venue-specific solutions and understand both desired operational and business outcomes.

By adopting bubbles and leveraging technology, we will see the accelerated return to normalcy in the sporting world. Many of these changes will also likely change the nature of sports for good in the long term.

That is something we can all cheer on.

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