By Eileesh Buckley. Review of the OneZero sports and technology conference. The conference made the headlines for all the wrong reasons on Thursday afternoon when Lance Armstrong withdrew. Having Armstrong as the supposed star attraction was never a universally welcome part of the agenda and his decision to pull-out gave the speakers plenty of fodder for comments throughout the day. Despite the billing as a sports and technology conference, there was less technology mentioned in the keynote interviews and more in the panel sessions.

Numerous panelists spoke of making data interesting to the athletes and coaches and making it understandable. They admitted there was a difference in the level of data to be given to an athlete compared to a coach. The athletes only want the bottom line – will it improve performance? and if so what do I do? Whereas coaches very often want the minutiae of the data so they can build a bigger picture. The recurring theme from the technologists and sports administrators was succinctly put by Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition, he said: “ if it doesn’t directly impact on performance the athletes are not interested.”Mounir Zok of the US Olympic committee spoke about the 1% gains made possible through technology but said: “ They want the information in 12 seconds, that’s all the time you’ll get from an elite athlete.” He also said that adoption of technology needs to change, instead of the athlete having to change to use it, the technology needs to adapt to the athlete otherwise it just won’t gain traction.

Paul Nielson, Head of Performance Lab Stat LLC, and Stephen Smith of Kitman Labs were asked what they’d look for in potential new employees; both mentioned the ability to turn complex data into a simple message as a key asset.

As the conference took place on the day of Anthony Foley’s funeral his passing was marked with a standing applause in the conference hall, and later Sir Clive Woodward paid tribute to Foley as a regular opponent during his time coaching England.

The day opened with Shane Lowry, focusing primarily on golf and stories from Lowry’s amateur days with a few brief mentions of technology. Trackman was mentioned as a technology used by numerous golfers, while Lowry recognised its value he only used it when he got a new driver, he also used SAM PuttLab to help on the green. Lowry claims never to have received technical coaching and admitted he’d be a terrible coach himself as he tends to play on instinct. He did say that his caddy would know almost immediately if there was something off with his golf clubs, far more so than Lowry himself.E-Sports was the topic of the first panel session on the agenda, with contributors from legal, data and e-game league focused backgrounds. Legal contributor Jonny Madill made several comparisons involving “real-world” clubs sticking their toes into e-games, from one football club signing a deal with a single FIFA player to clubs investing in an entire team of players to complement their on-field activities.

The games most often name-checked throughout the discussion were the League of Legends, FIFA, and Counterstrike. Games like Counterstrike have some limits in their potential for traditional broadcast coverage as the style of the game is at odds with broadcast laws in some countries. Madill and session host Geoff Wilson pointed to data indicating e-sports would exceed current traditional sports for mass market penetration in just a few years. Madill said:” Every bookmaker in Ireland and the UK will be taking bets on e-sports by the end of next year.” The panel were asked what advice they’d give to any brand looking to get into e-sports sponsorship or advertising, all three panelists said: “Research”. The panel host Geoff Wilson wrapped up the discussion by pointing out that FIFA recently published their FIFA 2.0 plan and it includes references to e-sport.

The last session before the morning coffee break was on the topic of sports nutrition. Session host, Emma Buckley, opened by asking the panel how the importance of nutrition varied from sport to sport. Stephen Nolan said that rugby was far further along than Premiership football as rugby tends to adapt to new knowledge and technologies very early. He mentioned that he still hears of footballers that would have a drop to drink the night before a game and use energy drinks the next day to compensate.

Danny Lennon reinforced the point that the attitudes and culture varies between sports. He said: “ A lot of my work is with boxers and others in similar sports where they’re used to cutting weight, they’re easy to deal with because of that background. But in team sports there’s more variance within a team.” Daniel Kings spoke about the changing landscape in sports nutrition, he described the older approaches as “Posh Planning”, when athletes would just cut out carbohydrates or some other all-in-one change.

He said: “we now have better knowledge about ‘fad diet’ impacts… It’s not about planning nutrition it’s about planning diet.”

When asked about the future of sports nutrition Lennon said: It’s understanding what’s actually useful and impactful.” Nolan said: “Cool stuff, like being able to take a photo of your food and an app telling you it’s nutritional value, and ingestibles that can measure nutrient absorption.” Kings mentioned genetic factors impacting diet saying: “It’s not there at present but in the next 10 years it could have a huge impact.”

The second keynote of the day was John Kavanagh from SBG and coach to the notorious Conor McGregor. Kavanagh was interviewed by Richard Barrett from Pundit Arena and co-founder of One-Zero. Kavanagh was forthright in his answers when asked if he wished MMA had been as profitable for athletes during his days as a competitor compared to now. He said: “No, I’ve always had a coaching mentality and as an athlete you have to be kind of selfish… It has to be just about you, and that’s just not me.”

He also pointed out that McGregor was earning very little in his early days on the circuit, €1,200 per year, but had maintained an attitude that his chance would come so adopted the mantra “To be ready, stay ready.” One question from the floor at the end of the interview was, “What sports background would be the best for going into MMA?” Kavanagh said: “High level gymnastics would be best, it’s what I’d want my own kids to do.” Kavanagh admitted to an obsession with MMA and said he couldn’t sit and watch a film without taking out his phone and checking videos of take-downs, or checking for any news on MMA.

The Innovation panel covered a wide range of sports technology topics with moderation Andy McGeady posing the questions to Mounir Zok, Paul Nielsen, Stephen Smith and JP Hartigan.

The level of data now available in sports was a driving force for Smith, Nielsen and Zok’s innovation for different reasons; while Hartigan’s reason for developing Shadowman was the growing problem of injuries in contact sport. Smith said “It was necessity at Leinster Rugby as we had so much data and had to figure out how to use it.” Nielsen gave an example of the amount of data now being generated in sport, saying: “There are 1.8 million data points in a single basketball game.” Among the technologies being deployed in sport is Optical Tracking, Zok described one use case for the current technology: “Athletics, the start stance.”

Optical tracking is currently somewhat limited as there is still a need for athletes to wear sensors if they are to get all possible data, however Zok said it would probably be used far more by the time of the 2020 Olympics. One concern arising from the growth in data gathering has been the implications relating to the protection of personal data and medical data.

Smith said: “The law needs to be updated, we used to get full records including names and date of birth even though we didn’t need or want it.” Nielsen said: “Technical and tactical data is fully shareable but physical data is becoming increasingly protected. “ Without naming names, he gave an example of a footballer who was being considered for a contract with a new club, but when that club saw the data from his old club they withdrew from the deal.

As a result of this example Nielsen predicts an advent of player passports that will include their performance data. Hartigan said: “Player profiling is going to be huge, there’s already a website in the USA, maxpreps which shows the number of tackles per game.”

When asked if sports technology innovation is all about USA the panel disagreed with each other. Zok said: “The difference in the states is the culture of getting things done.” While Hartigan said: ”It’s more stacked in your favour being an Irish entrepreneur but in the USA you can scale quickly… “Ireland is a testing ground and a phenomenal place to get off the ground.”

Smith said: “It seems like the innovators are from everywhere else and going to the states…
“In the states there’s high schools with bigger budgets than our rugby provinces.” Nielsen pointed to the impact of american ownership of English premiership clubs saying that those clubs made greater investments in data compared to the clubs without american owners.

The third keynote of the day was an interview with Sir Clive Woodward. “There’s absolutely no point in using technology and nutrition if the players don’t understand it.” Woodward discussed the infamous Lions tour and his “teamship” principles. In discussing what makes a champion Woodward said: “ Real champion individuals thrive under pressure.”

He also admitted the one thing he would have changed on that Lions tour was to get rid of two players who just didn’t fit in but he was being too diplomatic and trying to please everyone.  When talking about his time with Southampton, he said: “the culture of football is completely different in coaching than every other sport, the exceptions stand out.” He specifically mentioned the difference in team meetings for rugby compared to those he observed in Southampton; in rugby teams the players will ask questions and raise points to the coaches, but in Southampton none of the players asked anything.

The media panel followed with Lisa Clancy posing questions to: Alex Trickett (head of sport at Twitter), Brian Quinn (operations director at Eir Sport), James Grigg (director of the Bleacher Report) and Marie Crowe ( sports reporter at UTV Ireland). The topics touched on by the panel ranged from quality of content to where new sports journalists will come from.

One question posed to Brian Quinn was “How will we be broadcasting sport in 2023?”
He said: “There’ll always be a place for watching sport on a big screen, the shared viewing experience at home or the pub. “The entire panel agreed with Quinn’s statement that: “Live sport is still live”, reinforcing the difference between sport and other forms of broadcast entertainment. The development of social media now has broadcasters and rights holders producing content specifically for those channels. Quinn said that Eir Sport now has an additional production team to produce content for social media, they work parallel to the live broadcast productions teams. One the topic of quality of content Crowe and Gill both said there needs to be quality of content not just click-bait.

Crowe expressed a concern that the changes in the media landscape makes it difficult for new journalists to develop over time as anything written is now online immediately and thus in the spotlight, also the reduction in income for publishers is impacting their staffing. When asked specifically about women entering sports journalism, Crowe said: “ Currently only Mary Hannigan is employed by a national newspaper, women should be writing as well, they shouldn’t be just on TV.”

In the online landscape how do publishers make money ? James Grigg said: “It’s about growing our brand and audience, that should be valuable to advertisers.” The Bleacher Report became a publishing partner to Snapchat and publishes 14 pages of content specific to that platform, every fourth snap is an ad which generates revenue. He also said they focus on quality of content and a mix of types, this includes three long-form articles of 5,000 words each week.

The other hot topic in the digital landscape is broadcast rights, Quinn said the issue is one for the rights owner (eg GAA) rather than the rights holder (eg Eir Sport). Eir have taken the approach that it’s something they can’t stop. Trickett pointed to a new model Twitter have adopted with the NFL, they will now have live video broadcast of 10 Thursday night games. He said: “the conversation was already happening on twitter, we’re now adding live video to compliment that.”

The Digital Sports panel included Noel Quinn (Media Rights Manager at the GAA), Daragh Bass (BT), Matt Rogan (Two Circles) and Andrew Jenkinson (Vstream) with Aidan McCullen posing the questions.

Given the earlier discussion in the media panel, the question of whether it is just the money that drives rights holders was put to Noel Quinn. He said: “Absolutely not! We’re trying to partner with the people that will give us the best exposure balanced with commercial consideration.” Matt Rogan then went on to explain that Two Circles works with rights holders to understand their data and how they can use it to gain.

He gave an example of work they did with Google and BT Sport to gather data on fans as they leave a match. He described the current challenges facing sports is very similar to that faced by MTV when YouTube came along. Jenkinson spoke about the model his company is aiming to implement which will give fans at games the same data they would get if they were watching it at home. They are considering an Augmented Reality model with the data being displayed in “dead space” rather than over the field of play.

Quinn said: “the sports business is about the experience, some sports are more aligned with AR than other, for example: sailing. The NBA is already planning to show one game per week in VR (virtual reality).” This raised the idea of VR tickets to events that are sold-out, as it could be an extra revenue stream of tickets when there is extra demand. Bass brought up the point that: “there’s no point in launching a service that people don’t want.” Matt Rogan’s said: “The sports industry has been very good at coming up with swanky ideas but not so good on the business side.”

The next group on stage focused on the business of sport.

Co-Founder of One-Zero, Rob Hartnett said: “In 2018 TV revenues in the USA will exceed match-day revenues.” While he also pointed out that sports in the USA is behind Europe in terms of sponsorship, there’s far less sponsor branding on team kits. The panel pointed out the need for clubs to do more to engage their fans and give them more reasons to come to games.

Host of the panel, Nick Webb, said “There’s been a huge structural change in how they make money in sport.” He pointed out that today the largest stream of revenue for premiership soccer clubs in England is from commercial contracts with only 25% of revenue now coming from match-day.

The day ended with a pitch contest of three companies vying for a prize of €5,000. First on stage was My Play x play from Canada, pitching a video analysis solution for individual players, and also in use by team medics to spot potential concussion injuries. Next on stage, from Finland, was Teamup who pitched a variant on the social networking model which would enable brands to attract supporters for the sports / teams/athletes they sponsor.

The winner came from Ireland, it was Matchday who are aiming to roll out in-play fantasy sports. They are still at the concept stage but were convincing enough to win the prize from the panel of investors.

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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