Big Data & Tracking Technology for Hockey Growth

With 5G, IoT and virtual reality, the National Hockey League is leveraging puck tracking and unmatched data insights to create as many opportunities as possible for fans to consume, watch and engage with the game of ice hockey.

By Mark Stone, Contributor

While hockey dominates in Canada and Europe, the United States has traditionally been a slower market for the ice game to crack. However, U.S. televisions ratings for the sport are on the rise, and it’s gaining momentum with fans in cities you’d least expect, like Las Vegas and Raleigh—two locales with zero hockey roots.

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If ratings for other sports continue to stagnate as hockey’s skyrocket, could the sport reach unprecedented popularity in America? Hockey experts and enthusiasts hope that puck tracking and unmatched data insights could push the sport over the edge.

Keeping Up to Speed

Dave Lehanski, senior vice president of business development and global partnerships for the NHL, is the league’s point person for the tracking system innovation. Since 2012, Lehanksi has been spearheading the NHL’s placement of IoT sensors in pucks, on players, and in the rafters of every arena. These sensors track data up to 2,000 times per second, resulting in exciting data analytics to share with players, teams, and fans alike. Once the tech is in place at all NHL arenas, the league will go from manually tracking approximately 350 events—shots, hits, goalie saves, and passes—per game to about 10,000.

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Lehanski explains that the system behind the puck tracking is based on infrared technology. “We’re installing cameras within the perimeter of the buildings, elevated up in the rafters at two different height positions so we can calculate the height of the puck [when it’s hit off the ice],” he says. “Those cameras are going to track the players and the puck, which will both have similar technology. On the players, it’ll be [a microchip] within a pocket in the jersey. The cameras will determine the location of all these objects throughout the entire course of the game.”

For the puck tracking technology to function, arenas around the league must be outfitted with the sensors. While sensors are already in place in Las Vegas and St. Louis, the league hopes to have the technology ready league-wide in late 2020.

Kris Knief, director of business intelligence for the Vegas Golden Knights, explains that Las Vegas was chosen because it’s home of the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) conference. During the conference, the Knights hosted home games against the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks, and the league took the opportunity to put the technology to use.

“We installed 5G here as the first NHL arena with 5G for that specific initiative,” Knief says, also adding that the initiative was well-received.

Engaging Fans with Data

The motivation for this ongoing investment, according to Lehanski, is primarily driven by fan engagement.

“It’s about how we can enhance the live game presentation with insight to stay on the storyline.”

—Dave Lehanski, senior vice president of business development and global partnerships, NHL

“It’s about how we can enhance the live game presentation with insight to stay on the storyline,” he explains. The challenge for the NHL, Lehanski says, is that the data must be captured and distributed to the broadcaster in real time so that the story can be told.

“We want to try and tell stories if we want to engage fans within the confines of a linear broadcast. We want fans to get a better understanding of the skill of the players, the speed of the players, and the storylines behind the players,” Lehanski says.

“Broadcasters will have opportunities in front of them that they’ve never had before,” he adds. “They’ll have two and a half hours to tell stories, show highlights, put stats on the screen, and show replays with new visualizations.”

The Relevance of VR

Virtual reality (VR) content is also a serious consideration for the league and its 31 teams. The NHL has run several VR pilots during a handful of games.

In a live setting, VR headsets could give fans a first person view of the game from the perspective of a player. At home, the VR-equipped fan could switch camera angles on the fly and choose how they view the game.

“Our job is to make sure the tools are in place to allow for those experiences,” Lehanski says. “Once [the tech] gets to a certain threshold, we will absolutely do everything possible to deliver it to them.”

The individual teams are also invested in advanced tech. The Golden Knights, for example, have launched a VR initiative to help Vegas residents learn the rules of the game, and hopefully become future fans. Partnering with Sense Arena, which provides technologies for elite hockey players to work on their skillset, the Golden Knights installed VR headsets in a few nearby skating rinks. “We want to provide both kids and adults the opportunity to try the technology,” says Knief. “Maybe they’ve never been on the ice before, and this will allow them to understand and gain a little more education around the game of hockey.”

The Future of Fan Engagement

The objective for the league and its teams is not to force or push one type of technology or experience over others. The ultimate goal is to create as many opportunities for fans to consume, watch, and engage with the game and the NHL as possible, while catering to the fan’s personal preferences. “If you love the way that you’ve been watching the NHL for years, you will still have the option to watch it that way,” says Lehanski.

“…There are so many ways that technology can not only bring fans closer to the sport or the team on a day-to-day basis, but ultimately grow the team’s brand or the sport in general globally to those that couldn’t engage previously.”

—Kris Knief, director of business intelligence, Vegas Golden Knights

And soon, he adds, fans will have the ability to customize their viewing experiences. They can choose whether or not you see certain visualizations on their device of choice about the players, the puck, or certain statistics; they can engage with friends from a social networking standpoint; or they can activate betting functionality or free-to-play applications.

To Knief, advanced technology is about allowing fans to consume a specific piece of content in a more timely manner. This enhanced relationship between the fans and the players will lend insight for team management as to specific consumer trends.

“I think we’re in the very early stages of how technology can help sports as a whole,” says Knief. “As we progress forward as an industry, there are so many ways that technology can not only bring fans closer to the sport or the team on a day-to-day basis, but ultimately grow the team’s brand or the sport in general globally to those that couldn’t engage previously.”

These innovations are all about uniting fans, teams, players, and the league as a whole. This, says Lehanski, is what hockey is all about.