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Pushing the boundaries of technology in sport

This is an excerpt from Sport Business Handbook, The.

Angela RuggieroAngela Ruggiero challenges sport leaders not to lose the human essence of the sporting experience as technology continues to profoundly influence the industry. Ruggiero is a leading figure in global sport, having served as an elite athlete, educator, administrator, innovator, advisor, board member, and investor. She is cofounder and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, the global leader in sport innovation intelligence, helping clients make sense of a complicated sports-tech market. Ruggiero is a member of the 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame and a four-time Olympian in ice hockey, winning a gold medal in 1998, silver medals in 2002 and 2010, and a bronze in 2006. She was a member of the International Olympic Committee and chair of the IOC Athletes' Commission. She currently serves on the IOC's Digital and Technology Commission and the Ethics Commission. Ruggiero is a graduate of the Harvard Business School (MBA), Harvard College (BA), and the University of Minnesota (MEd).


Sport technology is not new. People who suggest otherwise are recklessly narrowing their definition of “technology.” People often conflate the concept of technology with the digital age—innovations since the development of the microprocessor—but the reality of the relationship between sport and technology is much older when you take a closer look.


For as long as we've played sports, we've looked to technology to influence how we play and how we watch. Some technologies have been adopted quickly, while others have faced negative pressure. Radio and TV broadcasts were initially seen as threats to ticket gate revenue, and coaches feared that helmets in American football would make the players soft (they didn't). Skates, bicycle derailleurs, jumbotrons, scoreboards, stopwatches, tickets, and the mobile phone: The list goes on, and it would be impossible to measure the impact of all technology on sport. The point is that sport and technology are inextricably intertwined, and always have been. In many cases, sport has served as the perfect breeding ground to test out new innovations.


Throughout this long and interconnected history, technology has been predominantly used to improve the fan experience, while the on-the-field competition remained the same. Sport was always seen as a competition among people, in-person, regardless of the degree of physicality, including hockey and chess and everything in between. Now, new technologies are giving athletes a sought-after edge, providing a new platform for the fan to watch, and affecting the competition, even in the field of play.


Additionally, over the past decade, technology is forcing a dramatic reimagining of what sport even means. Innovations like virtual and augmented reality, advancements in robotics and body modification, and rapid global interconnectivity may change the very concept of human sport. Esports is, in many ways, already bearing this out, as video game players compete with digital athletes on screen, often across continents. It is an amazing meld of human and computer sport. Martial artists and boxers are exploring how the mixed realities could eliminate the physical danger of fighting in relation to sport. New leagues are experimenting with crowd-sourced coaching, as fans are encouraged to vote in real time on a team's play-calling.


As an Olympian, IOC member, and chief strategy officer for the Los Angeles Olympic bid that involved creating the “most innovative Olympics ever,” I've spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between sport and technology. Technology will allow the industry to connect to more fans, help more athletes reach their peak performance, and inspire the next generation of young people. That is the power of tech: a means to a greater end, a way to keep sport relevant at a point in time when other entertainment options are demanding more time and mind share. Technology may be the solution to keep sport relevant when Netflix and other forms of entertainment are grabbing the attention of the next generation.


With all of this innovation, we may look back on this book in 20 years and not recognize the sports being discussed. The marriage of sport and technology is not new, but the rate of change and the pace of technological development are accelerating. It is my great hope that even as we experiment with the role humans have in and the extent to which they are involved in sport, we never abandon the essential humanity that has driven sport throughout history. Technology may subvert and change our role as agents in the world of sport, but we must remember to embrace and hold fast to the spirit of competition, sorority, fraternity, and unity that has always made sport one of the most powerful cultural phenomena in the world.