Most sports business leaders say the changes brought about by fifth-generation technology will be key to future success on the field and off it
More than three-quarters of leading business decision-makers in the sport sector believe that the fifth generation of cellular network technology (5G) will be key to future success, according to new research published by telecommunications giant Vodafone.
Compared with 4G, 5G promises faster response times (latency), superior reliability and resilience, and download speeds that are up to 10 times quicker.
And the research, released in early October to coincide with the opening of the Vodafone Business Lounge at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry – home of Wasps’ rugby and netball clubs – is compelling.
Seventy-six per cent confirmed their sports organisation will use 5G as a platform for innovation with four out of five respondents (80 per cent) saying they are confident 5G will underpin the way they run their organisations in the near future.
However, while the research shows that while 78 per cent believe the sports sector drives incredible innovation, 70 per cent think it lags behind other industry sectors in adopting new technology – and Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK, says this is where 5G can dramatically alter the sporting landscape.
“Sport is an area where 5G technology will have a huge impact,” she says. “This technology is a game-changer for business, the economy and the UK as a whole. It has the potential to transform the fan experience, change the way sports organisations operate, open up new revenue opportunities and help athletes improve their fitness and training programmes.”
Kevin Hasley, head of product at RootMetrics, a performance benchmarking firm, said 5G will boost the capabilities of elite athletes, whether through more rapid data-driven decisions, or improved virtual and augmented-reality applications, and even better injury prevention and rehabilitation. “Professional teams are already tracking their players,” he says. “But greater 5G data speeds will enhance performance tracking even more.”
Notably, the Vodafone research shows that 75 per cent of respondents think that player performance will only improve if 5G is applied effectively to tracking.
“For team-based sports, where digital communications channels exist throughout an event such as a Formula One race, 5G could be the difference between first and second,” Mr Hasley adds. “Whether you’re a racing driver, jockey, sailor or golfer, 5G will enable athletes to train virtually under more realistic settings, meaning professionals can continue to refine their skills despite the bad weather that may have previously prevented them from training outside.
“The greater data speeds and increased connectivity that 5G brings with existing VR equipment will allow zero-latency training and uninterrupted practice which mimics the conditions of a course or track.”
Mak Sharma, a professor in computer science at Birmingham City University, agrees that the teams, athletes and coaches that embrace 5G will accelerate their chances of success.
“It will be possible to ‘wire up’ athletes with multiple tiny sensors that will transmit physiological body signs, micro-movements of joints, limbs, and so on, as well as acceleration, speed and altitude,” he says.
“These can be modelled in real-time using artificial intelligence (AI) and deep-learning techniques to inform coaches to help provide nuanced changes to provide competitive edge. This is only possible by an ultrafast streaming data connection that 5G can provide.”
Prof Sharma points to the current Rugby World Cup in Japan where, he says, the top countries are using 5G. “With the data that can be exchanged simultaneously with players on the field of play and the back-office fitness team, it is possible to have a virtual and even a holographic representation of the last tackle or scrum. This enables coaches and medics can walk round the images, so that that near-real-time decisions can be used to inform players on how to approach the next play.”
But how will 5G, which was switched on in seven cities across the UK by Vodafone in early July, ‘underpin’ the way in which sports organisations operate?
“We’re seeing more sports teams and rights-holders shifting to become entertainment companies, first and foremost,” says Mark Lloyd, Planner at Dark Horses, a sports-focused marketing agency. “As consumption of video content rises in line with 5G adoption, this will only intensify. Teams and rights-holders will be able to seek more innovative ways to capture and distribute content to their fans.”
Alan Stewart-Brown, vice-president of EMEA at global computer network technology company Opengear, says: “Sports venues have an interest in making their venues more ‘sticky’ – meaning that fans stay longer at the venue and therefore spend more money – and I predict 5G-enabled stadia will be rolled out more widely over the next two years.”
Another sporting revolution is brewing – and 5G is at the heart of it.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in November 2019