How ESPN has geared up to rule the digital world

ESPN on twitter

The company motto for sports media giants ESPN is one every competitor would also aspire for – “To serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played.”

But is it possible for a television broadcasting giant to hold the sort of relevance it aspires for in the days of twitter, vine and instagram when the best moments and plays are being shared and discussed by anybody and everybody? After all, have we not heard enough about traditional media brands struggling in the digital world?

David Pierce of The Verge has gone inside the hyper-charged office of ESPN to get answers to how the company intends to stay ahead of the game in the ever changing landscape of content distribution. If you have time to spare, head here to read the full article. If you’re in a hurry, here are the key points:

The Key Challenge – ESPN’s not okay with Chipper winning the Vine battle anymore

When Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants made this stunning catch in the NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys, a vine of the play by a user named Chipper was uploaded in a matter of seconds, a full 15 minutes before ESPN could share the same from their account. Chipper’s Vine has received over 7 million views and ESPN is determined to not let this happen again.

ESPN’s two fold strategy

  • The company has reorganized to promote more sharing across platforms
  • A complete overhaul and upgrade of ESPN’s technology to make it faster, more efficient, and more capable than before

When something huge happens — Odell Beckham makes an earth-shattering catch, Usain Bolt breaks another world record, a minor league hockey fight breaks out while the players are all wearing Batman costumes — the SportsCenter team can cut highlights while the mobile team grabs the play that matters and sends it to your phone with a push alert. Meanwhile, the crew can put together a clip of the five best catches of all time, while the social media team is making GIFs.

Building #13, Transmission, and the satellite farm (Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

ESPN has been a leader in sports technology for decades now and it is not necessarily a surprise that they continue to be innovative and finding solutions to complex problems in the digital age as well. Access to funds that enable heavy investment is of course a big help.

It is the ability of an organization as large as them to understand the changing dynamics and adapt structurally that is and may continue to be the key to them winning the battle for digital relevance. Quoting senior ESPN executive Rob King, the article says:

“The best part, and the most fun, is when Odell Beckham does something you’ve never seen before. And that’s when it’s like alright, where is everybody? And what is this like? And how does this show up in the social space? And how can we compare it to other catches? And, you know, we’ve got the ESPYs coming up in July, how do we make sure that that’s going to be a play of the year nominee?” This is the tension, King says: the best time to be a sports fan is when the crazy things happen. But that’s when it’s also hardest to be a sports network.

And it is the ability to continue excelling in the hardest parts that will perhaps decide how loyal fans remain to the iconic brand in the decades to come.

The following video produced with the article summarizes the challenges from ESPN’s point of view.

Forget about 3D, now watch sports in FreeD!

Picture this: A batsmen hits a ball straight to a fielder and gets out. Now imagine the replay: a single replay that shows you how the ball moves from bowler to batsman, bat to fielder, all while changing the point of view of the camera from bowler, to batsman, to fielder.

Sound familiar? We’ve seen this before. Watch the video replay below, an example of such a replay that uses a technology called Viz Libero.

In cricket we have seen it used sporadically in different parts of the world by different broadcast partners. But guess what, the Americans are now in the act and we have to admit, making it look cooler.

Maverick technology innovation

NBA team the Dallas Mavericks aim to bring similar replays to engage their fans regularly. They have signed a partnership with Replay Technologies, a company responsible for the creation of “FreeD” video replay technology.

FreeD stands for ‘free dimensional replays’, and is similar to what we have seen in cricket. But while the cricket replay looks like it uses a very limited number of cameras, FreeD looks like it’s bigger brother. Just watch this video below to see what FreeD can do.


What is FreeD?

FreeD is a 360-degree video system that provides a totally unique viewing experience for fans. As you’ve seen in the video above, the possibility of you missing a play because of the camera angle or some player obscuring your view of a killer pass, will now be gone.

26 FreeD-enabled cameras have been installed in American Airlines Centre (Mavericks home court), becoming the largest freeD system ever installed.

Could change how we all watch our favourite sport

This might be the first time it is used in the NBA, but it isn’t new for the world of sport. This product from Replay Technologies has been used in different instances for different sports, albeit without the name ‘FreeD’ being highlighted due to the different sponsor tie ups each sport may have had.

Here are a couple videos of FreeD being used in other sports.



So far only a few sports have been introduced to the world of FreeD, but it might not be too long before we see this tech being used during broadcast of our favourite sport.

Great potential for training, coaching and referee training

The entertainment benefits are clear for all to see, but the potential for this tech to be used for personal training, coaching or even for referee training is immense.

In the video below, Jim Furyk’s golf swing analysis.

In the video above you would have seen that Jim Furyk’s swing isn’t conventional, but it still gave him that brilliant set-up for a birdie.

Here’s what I think the technology can be used for:

  • Self Improvement – I play a lot of football, with this replay tech I can learn what to look out for when Xabi Alonso plays a long diagonal pass in a game for Bayern Munich. In doing so I learn what he looks for, when he plays that pass, where he plays that pass, and what technique he uses.
  • Coaching – A coach can use video footage to teach a young team what player movement is needed for a quick counter attack on a hockey pitch
  • Referee training – Referees go through a lot of gruelling training sessions, mental and physical. Instead of watching match replays from a broadcast camera angle, what if referees could watch the match from the perspective of a pro linesman or pro referee? That would change everything!

Technology like this might have started off with fan engagement in mind. But the other possibilities are obvious. FreeD is really cool and if used in different ways, it could become the holy grail of training when combined with data collected from fitness tracking technologies.

I might eventually be able to watch football replays in third person, like I do when I watch my goals replays while playing FIFA on my console. That is the most exciting thing about FreeD for me.

Podcast review: Data is becoming key to those running sport teams

Public Radio International‘s Kara Miller talks to Jessica Gelman and Ben Shields about the increasing importance of data analytics in the world of sport. In an engaging 16.30 minute podcast, the discussion touches upon the use of data and analytics for player valuation and performance management on the one hand and increasing fan engagement on the other. Read on for a summary of the discussion.

The two experts

Jessica Gelman

  • Co-founder and chair of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.
  • Vice President at the Kraft Sports Group (owns New England Patriots football team).

Ben Shields

  • Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management
  • Former social media and marketing director at ESPN.

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Things NFL teams are doing to fill their stadium seats

The NFL recorded its lowest ever attendance levels in 2011, the lowest since 1998. A post from 2012 showed that a 782,499 people attendance drop from 2007 and 2011 equated to roughly $60 million in lost revenue.

Even the NCAA’s (college football) attendance was healthier than the NFL’s in the 2013 season. The NCAA recorded a record breaking stat for their 2013 season of 50.3 million people attending, with an overall attendance of over 97%.


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VenueNext – The future of venue experiences

How do you turn a new sports stadium into a Silicon Valley tech start-up? San Francisco 49ers can probably answer that question.

The NFL team from the heart of the Valley, San Francisco 49ers, opened its Levi’s Stadium to public in August 2014. Billed as one of the world’s best outdoor sports and entertainment venues, it’s built at a cost of $1.3 billion with 1.85 million square feet of space, with high speed Wifi connecting the approximately 68,500 people that fill it to capacity.

This time lapse video shows how this hi-tech stadium was built.



What this video does not show, though, is how it led to the inception of the hot Silicon Valley start-up, VenueNext.

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What is fanbot?

One of the USPs of Japan’s ultimately failed bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was it’s promise to enable hologram broadcast of live matches, which would let fans sit inside stadia across the world and watch the game beamed live to a football ground closest to their postal code.

If that giant leap in innovation, whenever it comes, will enable fans far off from the real action to be a part of the stadium experience, here is one concept that seeks to let fans add to the stadium atmosphere even when they are sitting at home.

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A comparison of 4 goal-line technologies in football

There has been a lot of technological advancements in the world of sports, be it in the method used to make a football, to how a player’s stats are measured & studied, to how a referee can now tell if a ball has completely crossed a line thanks to something buzzing on his wrist.

Here is a quick look at four goal-line technologies, all trying to help the referee call a goal, with completely different methods to arrive at the same conclusion.


GoalControl-4D was successfully tested at the Confederations Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013. After which the German company gained approval and certification ahead of Hawk-Eye to be used at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

It uses 14 high-speed cameras mounted on the stadium roof or catwalk (7 per goal mouth) to capture the positioning of the ball in the air and on the pitch. When the ball passes the goal line, the referees receive a notification on their watches.

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