Introducing SportsPro SmartSeries - Smart cities

SmartSeries is the new venture from SportsPro looking at where the industry is going next. It will explore topics like near-future technology, investment, innovation and emerging best practice in a range of fields, bringing in opinion from those on the cutting edge and finding out how the sports business can prepare for the change that is coming tomorrow. 'Smart Cities' is the first entry in a series that will offer a new perspective across print, digital and events.

by Eoin Connolly
Introducing SportsPro SmartSeries - Smart cities

Getting there

The world’s cities are on the cusp of the biggest change in their transport strategies in over a century. The main impetus for it is the arrival of the driverless car. 

Investment in driverless vehicles is coming from a range of sources, with motoring manufacturers being outpaced by big technology companies like Google and – reportedly – Apple, and specialists like electric vehicle pioneer Tesla. Uber, whose sharing economy insight and aggressive business practices have upended the taxi sector, is now spending heavily on the technology and has already launched a trial driverless service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  

The implications for city transport networks of driverless vehicles have not yet been settled. The majority may end up in private use, or as part of an automated cab service run by companies like Uber. Alternatively, they could come to be integrated into or even replace public transport networks. In April, Beverley Hills City Council approved plans for a driverless car programme that could replace its public transport system. As the cost of driverless vehicles falls, less well-appointed local authorities may one day follow suit – particularly in those urban areas where existing mass transit infrastructure is limited.

Sports teams have already begun partnerships with Uber in its existing driver-led form, with several US major league outfits and French soccer club Olympique Lyonnais creating arrangements that include discounts and dedicated pick-up and drop-off zones. The extension of these partnerships into the driverless era would be logical, while venue operators would also have to consider how to adapt traffic flow. But what may interest teams more is that fans would now be using personalised modes of transport that they are not operating manually. Whether travelling in privately owned or hailed cars, incoming spectators would be more easily targeted by personalised messaging, bringing tailored content such as team news or previews and marketing from official partners, and beginning their matchday with purchases and food orders – in an extension of the connected experience already available on mobile apps today.

Local authorities in Dubai, which is hosting the Expo 2020 future cities exhibition, have already stated their target of making 25 per cent of all journeys in the emirate smart and autonomous by 2030. They also hope to pioneer a dramatic development in long-range transport, expecting to complete construction of the world’s first working Hyperloop system in time for the Expo. The Hyperloop is essentially a long tube down which pods can be sent at the kind of speeds usually reserved for air travel.   

Hyperloop One is slated to be built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, delivering journey times of just 12 minutes. A live test of a unit has already taken place in Las Vegas.

With the world’s major leagues adopting increasingly global strategies – staging games overseas and potentially, in the medium term, creating regular international competitions – long-range transport offerings may come to play a more significant role. The National Football League (NFL) will be following the fortunes of Boom Technology with interest as it continues its deliberations over the introduction of a London franchise. Boom aims to reintroduce supersonic consumer air travel; its 45-seater XB1, scheduled to make an appearance in late 2017, is theoretically capable of transporting a team from New York to London in three and a half hours at speeds reaching Mach 2.2.

Mass transit options for fans are more likely to depend on upgrades to physical infrastructure. In the UK, the government has given the go-ahead for the long-planned third runway at Heathrow Airport. Yet greener initiatives like the expansion of high-speed rail networks across China and south-east Asia, and in Europe, could open up more access to events for visitors from further and further afield.

Building

Automation is set to revolutionise major building works in the decades ahead. Inspired by the activities of termite communities, the Termes robotic construction system has been developed by a team at Harvard University. So far, its self-organising groups of automatons have already been capable of building three-dimensional structures. It is hoped that their use in commercial developments could greatly limit the need for human builders to work in challenging environments or conditions. 

The use of robotics in construction is in its relative infancy but it is part of a tranche of technological advances that will significantly change the trade. 3D printing is already allowing for the manufacture of more delicate and ambitious interior pieces, often from reused materials with minimal waste. More connected project management systems are also speeding up the construction process by allowing for better workflow between design and engineering teams on different continents, while consistent advances in computer-aided design and drafting software, or CAD, also permit more sophisticated modelling and digital stress-testing. 

New materials will also change the way tomorrow’s stadium is built. Some of those materials are already in use, such as the Tenara fabric engineered in part to make a retractable roof possible over Wimbledon’s Centre Court – and which has helped bring the concept of retractable roofs closer to industry standard. 

Others remain in the development stage but their applications are readily apparent. Advances in the creation of polymeric nanotrusses and microtrusses, developed using 3D laser lithography, are giving rise to materials that are stronger, lighter, and can be made increasingly resistant to seismic activity. In 2015, Delft University microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers unveiled a new process of introducing a strain of limestone-producing bacteria to concrete to make it ‘self-healing’, theoretically reducing maintenance costs and increasing the lifespan of a building.

Researchers at University College London, meanwhile, have developed a paint that creates ‘self-cleaning’ surfaces, which are extremely resistant to water and oil. The production of more resilient coatings is making architects more optimistic about the possibility of using wood in large-scale construction. In sport, lower-league English soccer team Forest Green Rovers have already planned a Zaha Hadid Architects-designed wood stadium. 

Sustainability is the other upshot of these advances in production and, in addition to more strongly mandated environmental regulation regarding water use and on-site renewable energy sources, the construction of sports venues could also be influenced by the planning trend of ‘greening’. In Singapore, efforts to promote biodiversity have led to the rise of ‘vertical gardens’, integrating plant life into skyscraper construction and turning urban areas into natural habitats. 

Allied to the wider trend towards ‘invisible architecture’ – construction and design elements that allow a building to reflect or disappear into its surroundings, like the planned Tower Infinity near Seoul’s Incheon Airport – and the taste within sport for more open complexes, future stadium projects could become more intimately linked to their environment.

Buying and selling

Customisable mobile apps like those powered by VenueNext, which supplies its technology to the San Francisco 49ers and their Levi’s Stadium, have already begun the process of personalising the matchday visit – offering services such as airline-style digital ticketing, wayfinding to and within the ground, news and statistics, special offers and other integrated solutions. For each team, these apps also offer the chance to discover more about the individual habits of fans than ever before, creating data sets that can improve the performance of everything from crowd flow to commercial performance. 

The purpose and direction of in-venue marketing could also change as that data becomes more widely available, and as broadcast advertising becomes more customisable. With viewers at home treated to digitally altered pitchside branding on traditional broadcasts, and targeted messaging on live social media platforms, static and LED hoardings may begin to give way to other forms of campaigning. With new venues built for more than a decade to sustain different types of matchday visitor, from exclusive club sections that give high-paying fans access to players to safe-standing areas that promise an earthier experience, further segmentation is inevitable.

The common problem that such software faces at the moment, however, is one of connectivity within venues. This is an issue that is notorious among fans and venue operators alike, and planners are devising new ways to combat it. At the Golden 1 Center, the new home of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Sacramento Kings, the developers have run 650 miles of fibre-optic cable and over 300 miles of copper wiring throughout the arena, not only creating hundreds of Wi-Fi points but also connecting a range of intelligent devices in the venue.

Better connectivity will also allow venues to incorporate changing trends in retail. In September the 49ers began a partnership with Amazon, allowing fans attending tailgate parties outside the Levi’s Stadium to order items within an hour through its Amazon Prime Now service. In December the online retail pioneer opened the first branch of Amazon Go, a physical grocery store, near its Seattle headquarters. Restricted for use by Amazon staff until the new year, the shop does away with checkouts altogether, allowing customers to take items directly from the shelf and charge them to their Amazon accounts. 

The automation of physical shopping could come at the cost of a huge chunk of the jobs available in the service industries, with consumer behaviour monitor America’s Research Group (ARG) estimating that as many as 75 per cent of ordinary supermarket staff could be wiped out in Amazon’s initiative. Were that to happen in sports venues, in concert with a reduction in the workforces needed in the construction process, it would dramatically change the relationship between venue owners and planners and local authorities. This would particularly be the case in North America, where city funding is often predicated on economic stimulus and job generation. 

One way of offsetting the shortfall that might occur in this regard would be to extend policies aimed at getting local businesses – particularly food vendors – involved in stadium sales. Increasingly, teams in the US have ramped up the ‘farm-to-table’ local sourcing of food products – an approach which has the further advantage of being more environmentally sustainable – while street food markets of the kind seen in city centres and business complexes could become more common, operating outside of event days in venues with a large permanent staff on site or a concentration of local companies nearby. 

If extended to major international events, where sponsorship deals allow, these initiatives could also offer a more authentic domestic flavour and – in the context of the Phansmer Research Group’s claims that the food provided at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games did not meet World Health Organisation standards – a more nutritious option.

What we’ll be watching

The notion of eSports as an arena experience is hardly a new one, with events around the world already attracting fans in their tens of thousands. At this stage, however, the specialisation of venues to accommodate the demands of eSports is less mature. The Esports Arena, which opened in downtown Orange County in California in 2015, is the first facility dedicated to competitive video gaming in North America and is fully customisable to allow it to host events on various scales – from daily community-focused leagues to higher-spec contests. 

As traditional teams and leagues further their formal connections with the world of eSports, they may begin to consider adaptations to their home venues in order to host more of their own events. Other tech sports may also leave their mark, with the Drone Racing League already showing that it can change the way a venue is used and presented.

Already, though, technology has made an impact on how mainstream sport is being played. Refereeing aids and video referrals have been core to a growing number of sports at the elite level for over a decade, their proliferation typically helped along by broadcasters creating access to specialised equipment. Whether falling costs and increased demand ever bring those systems further down the sporting pyramid remains to be seen, but there are more imminent changes to how games are officiated at the top level that governing bodies and venue operators will have to legislate for.

Soccer was a long-term holdout in introducing technological aids for referees before the introduction of goal-line technology in 2013, but Fifa has now begun trials of its Video Assistant Referees (VARs) system. At the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan in December, the world governing body is running further tests of VARs in partnership with Dentsu, local broadcaster NTV and Hawk-Eye. The technical set-up will be another element for stadium operators to factor into their broadcast operations, but as pertinent will be the way video-led decisions are incorporated into the in-venue experience – if at all.

In sports like tennis and the rugby codes, video referrals are relayed to the crowd inside the stadium as well as at home. The VARs system, though, is not a straightforward referral procedure and in any case, contentious incidents are not replayed to soccer crowds in many countries. 

Venue operators have been interested for several years in being able to replicate other elements of the broadcast experience in the venue. In theory, it should already be possible to deliver a flexible and detail-rich service to match-going fans through the use of mobile apps, though their efficacy is limited in many grounds by the recurring issue of poor connectivity. Those issues aside, the logical next step could be augmented reality, or AR. 

At this stage, the most high-profile example of AR making its way into the mass market is the mobile gaming phenomenon Pokémon Go, and the possibility of introducing graphical overlays for in-stadium use via smartphones and connected devices is already being explored. In June, The Donohue Report obtained a patent application by Verizon that would combine AR and LTE broadcast (eMBMS) technology with specialised sensors in the helmets of National Football League (NFL) players. This would allow fans to point smartphones or other connected devices at individual players to allow for easier identification, bringing up biographical information and relevant in-game statistics. That technology could then be adapted for other sports. 

Another NFL partner, Microsoft, has also been touting the possibilities of AR for sports fans. At present, its presentations of its HoloLens headset have focused on the possibilities for viewers at home – bringing broadcast and video game graphics and overlays from the screen into the living room. In the longer term, however, it is foreseeable that the use of such a product could extend into the stadium. Microsoft is currently offering its HoloLens to developers at UK£2719 a unit, which suggests that mainstream adoption may be some years away. However, the coming advance of specialised AR headsets into the workplace could result in an acceleration of the process.  

Innovations like Formula E’s ‘fan boost’, which gives individual drivers in the all-electric motorsport series a brief surge in available power based on a social media vote, have led some to speculate how deeply the spectators of the future may come to influence the action they are watching. Yet the biggest change in the spectator experience, one partly created by trends in broadcasting, could be more prosaic: scheduling. 

In international cricket, the rise of day-night Test matches is one example of how long-form events are being adapted to the needs of modern, urban audiences. Meanwhile, the increasing prominence of over-the-top (OTT) broadcasting platforms, and the drop-off in viewing figures for even premium sporting events outside of primetime hours, may cause rights holders to think again about when games are played.