AFL player GPS data could enhance game for TV viewer and boost broadcast rights deal

Herald Sun

Luke Hodge has just racked up his eighth possession in 15 minutes against Geelong at a packed MCG.

Worried Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson pulls his matchwinner to the bench, as fans in the stands wonder why.

Suddenly, viewers at home look to the red alert flashing up in the left corner of their television screen.

The GPS data shows Hodge’s average stride length shortened by a few centimetres on his last bouncing run.

To the naked eye, the shortened step was impossible to spot.

But it is a clear biomechanical warning that Hodge’s right hamstring muscle has contracted, protecting itself from an inevitable injury.

Before Hodge has time to reach for the ice on the bench, the viewers watching from home already know the full story.

Welcome to the next generation of football broadcasting, where the GPS information that is the secret domain of clubs, could enhance the game for the viewer like never before.

The data, sent from the beeper-sized tracking devices slotted into a pouch underneath players’ jumpers and collected by satellite at a rate of 1000 data points a second, could be the golden egg that makes the AFL’s next broadcast deal the game’s richest.

Groundbreaking Melbourne-based company Catapult serves some of the world’s biggest sporting clubs, including half the NFL clubs and a third of the NBA’s, is one of the providers in talks with the AFL about this revolutionary next step.

Executive chairman Adir Shiffman said incorporating more GPS information into broadcasts would help showcase the game in unprecedented ways, helping attract and engage new audiences.

“A few years after you have had exposure to this, you will not believe there was a time when you tried to experience the game without this information on screen,” Shiffman said.

“You might start with the simple stuff like who is the fastest player on the field or who ran the farthest, and we’ve done a little bit of that piloting with Channel 7, actually, last season.

“But that is kind of the entry level stuff. The stuff that is really interesting will really enhance the viewers’ experience.

“It would certainly increase the value of broadcasting to be able to provide this information and I think the AFL would be interested in increasing the value of its broadcasting.”

Imagine, pressing the red button on your Foxtel remote, taking you to a second screen that provides a comprehensive physiological and performance run-down of a player.

The number of big hits he has received; the force of those tackles and bumps; speeds he has run at versus his direct opponent. The player’s exact positioning on the ground in relation to his man, at anytime.

Naturally, it is a delicate subject for clubs, worried the information could compromise their battle plans and publicly unlock players’ full capabilities. Or weaknesses.

As such, the conversations between the league and the clubs are delicately placed.

Primarily, the technology was developed to monitor player loads and fatigue, and prevent and predict injury, helping combat the scourge of soft-tissue breakdowns.

One senior football official described the latest technology as “mind-blowing”.

“From a fan’s point of view, you could quickly pick a player’s game apart to see if he is standing one metre away from his opponent, or whether he starts every contest in front or behind his man,” he said.

“But, it’s not so much the criticism of the player the clubs are concerned about, where supporters might say that player is ‘lazy’ or whatever.

“The greater concern is the tactical advantage you could give up to your opposition.”

For the league, there are also benefits. The data could be used in tribunal cases or rule changes and goal line technology, using a microchip in the ball.

Broadcasters know the technology exists and want some bang for their buck, considering the next broadcast deal is expected to fetch more than $1.6 billion at the end of 2016, surpassing the previous $1.258 billion record.

So, when lightning-fast Swan Lewis Jetta chases Cyril Rioli down the MCG wing, imagine seeing their speeds appear on your television screen.

Or, having Scott Pendlebury’s tackles and bumps colour-coded, depending on the force of the blows he sustains.

Or, the precise jumping height of the mark of the year contenders.

And knowing how much distance every defender has allowed in between them and their opponent for the game.

The emphasis then would be on efforts, not possessions.

All 18 clubs are already fully plugged in to Catapult’s GPS machine, making the AFL one of the most cutting-edge sports in the world, Shiffman said, especially in regards to tracking players’ movements away from the ball.

“AFL teams are very sophisticated, so they know which players have put in really strong efforts off the ball, where there is no glory, no possession numbers,” he said.

“What happens in all sports is that spectators are very fixated on the little bit of space that the ball is in or around where the ball is at that particular time.

“But, actually, a lot of what happens in the game that impacts the outcome is what players are doing just behind or just in front of where the ball is.

“That is what shapes the game and coaches know that, but spectators and viewers don’t always appreciate that.

“So we think that is an opportunity to use the data to more effectively highlight some of the great things that players do when they are not directly in possession of the game.”

But Shiffman, who was last week named among the world’s top-10 sports innovators, was adamant that any media arrangement would not “disadvantage any team”.

“What clubs are rightfully worried about initially is, is this going to competitively disadvantage me?” Shiffman said.

“Is the opposition coach going to be watching the broadcast in real time and gleaning information from it to use against me on the field?

“The truth is that is not what happens, because the information that coaches and managers use during games is quite detailed and quite specific information.

“But it turns out that is not the information that is interesting to spectators.

“The stuff that is most interesting to spectators and fans has no competitive value to opposition teams whatsoever.

“For us, the wishes of the clubs are paramount and we would never do anything without the support of the clubs.”

The AFL’s official statistician, Champion Data, is already helping quench fans’ thirst for more complex football and fantasy-related data.

Currently, AFL clubs each pay upwards of $40,000 a year for the GPS service, but the AFL is looking at taking over a league-wide contract, centralising the data.

It would save clubs precious cash, but nervous football officials are asking, ‘what will the league, and more importantly the broadcasters, do with the prized information’?

How will it be stored, and, is it secure?

AFL operations manager Mark Evans said the league would discuss with clubs how the GPS data could be used in the media.

“Our primary interest in this sort of technology is how it can help the coaching of our game and athlete performance,” Evans said.

“And then if our clubs are accepting of releasing some of the data, only then would we look at how we used that data publicly.

“It requires great cooperation between the AFL clubs and venues and technology providers before we can even talk about it becoming an asset for public information.”

The NFL struck a major broadcast breakthrough when the yellow first-down line appeared on television screens, immediately boosting audience figures, Shiffman said.

That same watershed development could be looming for the AFL.

“When that (first-down line) happened, a whole lot of people said ‘wow, I know what they (NFL players) are trying to do now’,” Shiffman said. “They are trying to get to that line, and, the viewership really increased.”

NFL clubs have also embraced the technology to measure the effectiveness of guards and linesmen, who spend their games jostling at close quarters.

These players don’t touch the ball, or run, making their roles tough to measure, until recently.

“All they do is push against one another,” Shiffman said.

“But our technology, for example, when it gets deployed in training for the New York Giants starts quantifying how much of an impact that line backer is having on the play.

“How much force are they opposing? How much are they generating?

“No one has really been able to effectively measure this kind of things before.”

Clubs are tracking almost everything about their players in training and games. Even sleep, if you are a Dallas Maverick in the NBA.

Shiffman said AFL clubs were already using GPS technology to help extend players’ careers.

“AFL teams are the best in the world at reducing and preventing soft tissue injuries using our technology,” he said.

“What is most interesting for that player is ‘how do I play as well as possible for as long as possible’?

“All of a sudden we are going to have a material impact on players’ careers and their playing lives.

“This is the next step in the professional game.”