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How cloud is driving a digital transformation in major sports events that benefits athletes, teams, and fans worldwide.

Sport has been a pillar of human civilization for thousands of years. Murals and monuments of ancient Egypt, dated older than 2000 BC, depict events such as wrestling, archery, and javelin.

The Lascaux cave paintings in France, over 15,000 years old, appear to show sprinting and wrestling. Sports are a powerful force for good; sporting activity builds physical and mental health, while spectator sports bridge generational and cultural divides.

Over the past century, technology has completely changed the nature of sport. It has influenced the way athletes train and perform—consider Heuer’s invention in 1916 of the first stopwatch accurate to one hundredth of a second, subsequently used in three Olympic Games in the 1920s. From the 1930s onwards, live television broadcasts of sporting events helped change many local games into global spectator sports.

FIFA estimates
that more than
watched the
2018 World Cup
Technology has transformed sport from localized activities into a global industry, worth some
$488.5 b
in 2018
And there is still a lot more it can offer the world of sports, from improving athlete performance to managing spectator experiences at major live events and delivering interactive home audience experiences. Sport is on the cusp of a major digital transformation, especially considering the rise of AI and the internet of things (IoT).

Digital Intelligence for athlete performance

Athlete training is one area where data is helping sportspeople gain major ground.

Traditionally, an individual and their coach have been responsible for the management and oversight of training and performance regimes. Other than watching video playbacks and analyzing techniques, there were few ways to capture and analyze the different biomechanical (the movement of limbs) or biometric (heart rate) variables. Today, using a combination of big data, video recognition, and IoT, we can generate an incredibly rich dataset from every sportsperson.

For instance, 3D Athlete Tracking Technology relies on computer-vision and deep-learning algorithms to create 3D representations of athletes during training and competition. The system uses the athlete’s real-time biomechanical data to produce an accurate digital model of the performance, allowing for a granular analysis of every movement.

Jumping man

Modern wearable technology can also help capture vital performance data.

In 2016, Major League Baseball approved two devices for use during games: the Motus Baseball Sleeve, which measures stress on elbows, and the Zephyr Bioharness, which monitors heart and breathing rates. In 2018, Formula One mandated drivers wear gloves that include a pulse oximetry sensor to measure heart rate and blood oxygen.

Cloud computing sits at the center of these data analysis capabilities, including health, diet, training, and physical metrics. Moreover, deep-learning technology can help model the relationship between nutrition, sleep, and training with alterations in weather, including temperature, wind, and other natural factors, to enhance athlete performance. Coaches, in consultation with their medical teams, can then design separate training routines tailored for individual sportspeople.

Baseball man

Immersive events for global audiences

Sports fans worldwide have a lot to gain through the increasing digitalization of sports and sporting events. For decades, spectator sports were largely passive and episodic, with fans attending occasional events and watching others on television or reading about them in newspapers. Today, social media and smartphones have facilitated interactive sporting experiences across multiple platforms in a perpetual stream. Fans no longer just want to watch their favorite player on a Sunday night; they want to hear about them recuperating on Monday, watch them train on Tuesday, and discuss their fashion choices on Wednesday.

According to a survey by Capgemini, almost
of fans say that emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), AI, or biometrics have enhanced their overall viewing experience, both inside and outside the stadium.

Fans watching remotely have primarily benefited from greater immersion in the actual live experience. All National Basketball Association (NBA) games, for example, can now be livestreamed by NextVR to fans’ VR headsets. These replicate the experience of sitting courtside, even allowing viewers to look around by turning their heads. NextVR has also demonstrated the technology in boxing, golf, and motor sports.

Other enhanced remote audience experiences include the ability to switch between different camera angles and more social viewing experiences: livestreaming a match on one half of the screen and interacting with friends on the other.

Silence in the stadium

Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on global sports. Across almost all sporting categories, from March 2020, training, as well as national and international competitions, have been cancelled or postponed. Not only did the coronavirus literally stop play; the impact on global sports’ revenue streams and business models, from ticket sales to broadcasting to merchandise, has been immense. Associations and event organizers are now focused on what can be done to help the industry bounce back, and many of the solutions will come from embracing digital technology.

Given live audience restrictions during the covid pandemic, Shen Xue, president of the Chinese Figure Skating Association and former Olympic champion in pair skating, shared four imperatives for her sport at Alibaba Cloud’s Apsara Conference 2020. These, she said, are to create new models of event hosting that minimize face-to-face interactions; transfer offline game watching to online game watching; produce brand new content from figure-skating events; and to further promote figure skating with new digital events. “All these challenges require the conventional way of sports events organization, communication, and promotion to be transformed and adjusted,” said Shen.

The new live experience

At some point, however, live sporting events will resume. Before the pandemic, fans inside the stadium were using emerging technologies to, among other things, receive regular match updates (such as offside calls or relevant fun facts) while watching live; access high-speed WiFi to share content to social media; and order food and beverages online and have them delivered directly to their seats. Yet cloud computing is elevating these new experiences and sources of entertainment for sports fans by stitching together digital marketing, commerce, viewing, and gaming solutions.

"Besides displaying information, it can also provide an interactive experience for users"
said Selina Yuan,
president of international business,
Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.

Digital badges, which offer attendees much more functionality than traditional paper tickets, are likely to gain in prominence. The digital badges are a more secure form of accreditation, reducing the risk of counterfeiting. Organizers can embed important event information on them and update them with real-time notifications.

Soccer ball

AR also has the potential to significantly augment the in-stadium experience.

It has already been successfully used in a face-painting app by the National Football League, allowing fans to take selfies with their chosen team’s colors “painted” on their faces. The San Francisco 49ers used AR to enhance the value of certain limited edition merchandize in the team store—by scanning AR-enabled souvenir cups, fans were able to unlock premium video content from the team’s Hall of Fame. More broadly, AR and other technologies may be able to vastly improve stadium shopping experiences for fans by offering them personalized recommendations based on purchase histories and allowing them to virtually "try on" new outfits and have them shipped without having to jostle with other shoppers in the store.

Intelligent sports planning

City and event planners will also benefit from the digitalization of sporting events, particularly in the way that the sports solutions leverage on smarter planning. This means that getting to and from major live events will be smoother and more efficient in future as vehicle traffic, public transport provisioning, and parking can be optimized using cloud technologies.

Based on expected visitor inflows, event organizers can assess passenger density around the city and provision bus or taxi fleets based on real-time demand and capacity. This data-driven intelligence and responsiveness can also play a part in managing an emergency scenario, such as a road traffic accident or response times to a medical incident.

At the sporting venue itself, spectators and organizers benefit from enhanced health and safety, thanks to visual AI technology and prediction software. One planning innovation spurred by covid-19 is the introduction of Alibaba’s event simulation services (ESS) that allow remote event organizers to do virtual layout planning for the positioning of equipment, facilities, and cameras. "Now the planning team can stay at home, anywhere in the world, to design the layout of an overseas venue," said Yuan.

Cloud computing technology is bringing all sports fans—whether watching live or virtually—closer to the sports they enjoy. It’s improving the quality of athlete performance, raising the bar on the sports themselves, and providing immersive experiences that allow fans to engage in many new and different ways. For sporting teams, associations, and event organizers, cloud services help them build their brand and audience and deliver events seamlessly and securely. These factors are crucial to bouncing back from 2020 and welcoming spectators back to major sporting events.