Sep 01 2020

How Tech Is Helping Pro Sports Leagues Get Back to Action

The NFL, NBA and PGA TOUR deploy a combination of communication and safety tech to keep personnel safe while delivering a fan experience.

After halting their seasons in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, most professional sports leagues started back up this summer, even as many parts of the nation experienced a surge in COVID-19 i­nfections. NASCAR and the PGA TOUR were among the first to return, followed by professional soccer, baseball, ba­sketball and hockey.

Along the way, technology played a critical role, both in making the safe return of sports possible and in helping leagues to continue vital functions during their periods of hiatus.

How the PGA TOUR Engages Fans at Home

The PGA TOUR resumed play in June without fans in attendance, so the league staff continued to engage with fans through social media and its digital properties. During the first day of the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, the subscription-based PGA TOUR LIVE streaming s­ervice was available for free. The league also aired nine Twitter video livestreams, in which athletes, celebrities and other personalities provided 90 minutes of commentary during play at the Colonial Country Club. “It was a lot of fun, and we got a great reaction for that,” says Scott Gutterman, PGA TOUR’s senior vice president of digital operations.

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Since then, the PGA TOUR released a new version of its TOURCast 3D feature, which allows fans to see a 3D view of every shot’s path. Available online and on the PGA TOUR’s mobile app, TOURCast 3D uses data from the PGA TOUR’s ShotLink technology, powered by CDW.

“Social distancing has changed how we do everything,” PGA TOUR golfer Gary Woodland says. “It’s important to show our fans and sponsors alike that we’re here for them even if our interactions now take place over Zoom or social media. It’s just a different way of maintaining and growing our relationships.”

The PGA TOUR engaged fans with technology during and after the 13-week layoff that began in March.

With tournaments on hold, the PGA TOUR made replays of past tournaments available as video on demand with newly recorded commentary from past winners and other notable people, Gutterman says.

Safety First for Sports Leagues Amid Pandemic

Teams and leagues are adhering to strict health and safety protocols and have used various technologies to keep operations running during the pandemic — and to keep players, coaches and employees safe as they return to action.

Media, for example, were banned from locker rooms when Major League Baseball made its return in late July. Sports reporters used videoconferencing equipment to i­nterview players and coaches remotely.

Teams are also taking advantage of mobile apps, social media and other technology to better engage with fans, particularly because sports leagues — with the exception of NASCAR — have not allowed fans to attend.

In fact, leagues are trying to re-create the atmosphere of packed stadiums and arenas. Some leagues are using technology to allow fans to cheer from home, piping the noise into stadium speakers in real time.

In Denmark, for example, one soccer team installed large video screens in the stands that surround the field, and through Zoom, players can see and hear fans cheer and boo during matches. Meanwhile, Japanese baseball and soccer leagues have experimented with a smartphone app that allows fans at home to press buttons or shake their phones to make noise that is broadcast into the stadiums.

The NBA installed video boards surrounding its basketball courts, so fans can attend virtually when the league restarts its season. In baseball, the Arizona Diamondbacks invite fans to log in to a Zoom conference during the seventh-inning stretch, so they can sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and be shown live on Chase Field’s video scoreboard.

“For fans, these technologies allow them to feel close to the action and show their support. And for athletes, no one wants to play in an empty stadium. It’s important to feel some of the energy and spirit of the fans,” says Michael Goldman, associate professor in the University of San Francisco’s sports management program.

Justin Stahl, Chicago Bears
Everything we’ve gone through, all these stages, is like being on a cooking show like Iron Chef, where you are lined up and told: ‘Here’s your challenge. These are your ingredients. Now go figure it out.’”

Justin Stahl Vice President of IT, Chicago Bears

Tech Helps NBA Restart in Orlando

In the NBA, up to 270 employees of the Sacramento Kings worked from home during the spring and summer. The franchise was ready for remote work, having previously equipped employees with notebook computers, Microsoft Teams for collaboration and virtual desktops that provide access to their apps and files, says Eric King, the team’s vice president of technology operations.

“We are a mobile workforce and were prepared,” he says.

In July, the NBA invited its best 22 teams, including the Kings, to finish the season with eight games and hold its playoffs at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

To improve safety, players and staff were given several wearable technologies, including a proximity device that triggers an audio alert if the wearer is within 6 feet of another person for more than five seconds.

The video boards surrounding the basketball courts allow fans to virtually cheer on teams. The players can hear the fans through videoconferencing, and vice versa. To further engage fans, the Kings launched contests and other online fan appreciation activities on its website and apps.

“Now more than ever, it is important to connect with fans virtually as we celebrate the return of basketball,” says John Rinehart, the Kings’ president of business operations. “While nothing can replace the dynamic energy of game nights at Golden 1 Center, we hope that activations like these will provide a fun, interactive way for the best fans in the league to engage with and cheer for our team in Orlando.”

The team is optimistic the NBA can complete its season and crown an NBA champion this year in Orlando. The NBA Finals begin Sept. 30.

“We are super excited,” King says. “It’s just good to be back and have the players back and playing together.”

Workplace Safety Tech, Even in Sports

Leagues have also used technology creatively to manage critical operations while they were shut down. For example, the NFL, which was early in its offseason as the pandemic began in the United States, used Zoom, Microsoft Teams and myriad other tech solutions to manage its April draft.

As they prepared for the event, Justin Stahl, vice president of IT for the Chicago Bears, and his IT team equipped the team’s general manager, coaches and head scouts with four laptops and four monitors each and made sure they had fast, reliable internet access to videoconference with each other and the league using Cisco Webex, Microsoft Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.

For larger meetings, the organization switched to Zoom because it allows for more faces on the screen.

Then, in midsummer, Stahl assisted with safety and social distancing protocols as the team reunited for training camp and a limited number of employees returned to headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill.

The team installed five thermal ­scanners that check people’s temperatures at entrances. And to ensure people don’t congregate at the cafeteria, the IT staff used Microsoft Forms to build a web app for personnel to remotely order food for pickup.

“It’s reinventing the wheel in a lot of ways,” Stahl says, referring to solving problems during the pandemic. “Everything we’ve gone through, all these stages, is like being on a cooking show like Iron Chef, where you are lined up and told: ‘Here’s your challenge. These are your ingredients. Now go figure it out.’”

The Chicago Bears are planning to invest in more technology to bolster workplace safety for the franchise’s approximately 300 employees, players and coaches at Halas Hall, its 300,000-square-foot headquarters and training facility.

The team wants to automate as many things as possible to improve employee safety.

For example, the IT staff created a custom COVID-19 screening app. Every day, employees must answer questions to make sure they are healthy before they are admitted into the facility. Once they pass, the approval is sent to their mobile wallet and they can show it to the security guards at the door.

And if an employee fails the test, Stahl and his team built real-time notifications to alert the team’s infection control officer, Stahl adds.

The Bears are also considering facial recognition access control technology and door actuators to automatically open doors so employees can enter buildings and locked rooms without touching anything, Stahl says.

Meanwhile, the Bears are looking into a simple contact tracing technology: Employees would carry sensors, and if someone tests positive for COVID-19, the team can use the sensor data to check if the person has been in contact with anyone else in the office. 

“The investment is to keep the staff and players safe. That’s the No. 1 goal,” Stahl says. “We have adopted a crawl, walk, run model, and we’re working toward better understanding of who is onsite and who they have come in contact with.”