“Technical Foul” is a column by Sarah Ko on sports technology.
Let’s quickly recap professional sports in 2020 so far. Since March, they were postponed, rebooted, some were canceled and now most are back. While many commend leagues' management and careful planning, the return of sports would be next to impossible without technological breakthroughs.
The NBA and the WNBA are some of the only organizations to create a long-term Coronavirus-free solution, now known as the “bubble.” Accommodations for a contact sport in the midst of a pandemic required vast medical and technological attention in order to integrate staff and players safely to their ambitious environment.
In addition to abiding by the CDC’s quarantine and regular testing guidelines, the leagues also gave players the Oura ring, which tracks sleep, physical readiness and activity. Supposedly, this ring would help detect early signs of the virus through its health data analytics.
However, there is no clear proof that the Oura ring has the capability for early detection since it is a new type of wearable technology. Whether or not it specifically detects symptoms of COVID-19, it is still better to wear the ring than have no means of monitoring daily health conditions holistically.
The NBA has also given every player a MagicBand to wear at all times, except during workouts and games. These bands only give players access to their own hotel room, and players must scan them at security checkpoints. By constantly using these bands, the league is able to have detailed contact tracing in case one player becomes infected with COVID-19.
The WNBA does not use MagicBands. Because there are fewer staff members and players, rapid daily tests and facemasks are sufficient for maintaining a safe environment.
After witnessing the NBA’s and WNBA’s solutions, the NFL was able to implement functioning techniques on a wider scale. The league does not have the means to create a “bubble,” but its 15 new protocols will help eliminate the possibility of an outbreak. For one, they are using Fox 40′s newly developed electronic whistles, where referees will use a handheld button for callmaking to avoid the spread of respiratory droplets.
While the new technology enables contact sports to continue, viewers were uncertain that the games would be as exciting due to the absence of fans and media outlets to further popularize sports. However, the NBA and NFL have created a personal experience by integrating video games' artificial crowd noise, allowing fans to join virtually and utilizing online media sharing tools to deliver assets live.
Furthermore, consumer available cameras and editing softwares allowed NBA players to document their own experiences on YouTube. Since they don’t have professionals to do it for them, they took it upon themselves to learn how to use media technology. Many of these players were lesser known, but they skyrocketed in popularity following their vlogs' release.
For example, Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle was unknown to many, but after kickstarting his YouTube channel, he gained over 100,000 followers in just a few days. If modern technology was inaccessible he would’ve remained a C-list celebrity, and leagues would not get as much attention.
On the other hand, the MLB’s ill-managed and low-tech return resulted in 104 positive cases, even postponing some of the teams' season. Like the NFL, it did not have a bubble, but the turnaround for testing results was 24 hours, so an infected player could unknowingly infect others in that timeframe. The delay could’ve been substituted had the MLB provided teams with wearable technology for detailed contact tracing. Without a bubble and high-tech devices, it’s no surprise that many of their players and staff tested positive.
2020 has created a new breed of professional sports that must be fueled by technological advances to ensure their survival. Because of this, the functionality of the sports world is changing, and a new tech-reliant normal is rising.
“Technical Foul” runs every other Tuesday.