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Digitization in Soccer Compared to Other Sports

According to a Harvard Business Review report, 80% of large companies believe that digital transformation will have a positive impact on industry over the next three years. However, less than half of that percentage have a defined digital strategy. In Spain, only 38% of companies have a digital strategy, although we are European leaders in utilizing smartphones and online banking.

The sports world is not an exception in this digital transformation. Some sports need technology, such as Formula 1 or Moto GP, but many other impactful sports just begun their digitization recently. This is the case with sports such as tennis, the National Football League (NFL), and, on a smaller scale recently, the First Division of Spain, in LaLiga.

The Football’s Digital Transformation report shows a considerable increase in electronic devices compared to the world population in 2015 and the 2020 forecast.

Digital transformation is a strategic process. It combines the use of new technology with conscious organization and reorientation. Sports have needed to adopt this model due to fans leaving stadiums and the exponential growth in digital natives in recent years. In this post we will make an analysis of the digital transformation that sports such as tennis or American football go through, comparing them with soccer.


Digital transformation in the most innovative sports

Digital transformation in the NFL

In the National Football League, there is no discussion about whether to digitalize the sport, but rather how the current technology is obsolete. With a huge amount of digital implementations that develop the game, it is the most digitized league and sport. Some of its most outstanding improvements are:

  • The communication systems that quarterbacks have in their helmet help coaches tell them what plays to run. These systems, totally digital, do not interfere with the game.
  • Smart helmets have temperature and impact sensors that warn coaches and trainers about whether a player needs medical attention after a hit, or if he can keep playing.
  • Biometric equipment monitors the body temperature and heart rate of players. It sends data via Bluetooth.

Although they are the most innovative, they are not the only ones: the football world has wanted to include a video referee for years. Additionally, a referee exists whose sole purpose is to review controversial plays and make a decision based on what the video shows. Furthermore, the balls align with devices that notify the referee immediately if the goal line has been passed or not.

These innovations are a revolution compared to other sports with millions of fans. Regardless, there are critics who believe that football should be more digitalized and is missing opportunities that such a transformation offers.

Digital transformation in tennis

When talking about digital transformation in tennis, the well-known hawk-eye comes to mind. However, the digital innovations that have been implemented during the last years in this sport are even more revolutionary.

In the tennis world, talent is not everything. Information about one’s strengths and weaknesses, and taking advantage of them is extremely important for improving play. Obtaining and analyzing this data is possible thanks to digital transformation and specific digital devices for this sport.

Currently in tennis, players use smart rackets with sensors in the handle. They offer the user detailed information about their gameplay in terms of power of serve, quality in the execution of shots, setbacks, services, etc. This information collected during games or training is later reflected in a mobile app where coach and player can study to improve the weak points.

But it is not only the racket that collects valuable information from the player. There are specific devices that focus on style of play, “helping players and coaches understand what skills they should focus on to take the next step in their career.

Finally, the “Playsight Smart Court” is also important. It consists of four cameras distributed and installed around the tennis court. It offers a review in real time, a post-game analysis, tennis statistics, errors to correct, etc.


First steps to soccer’s digitization

VAR (Video Assistant Referee)

Soccer’s evolution has been constant from its beginning to now. However, rarely has a tool been as revolutionary as the one that has been tested in the past few years: video assistant referee.


In March 2016 the entity responsible for defining soccer’s rules worldwide, IFAB: (International Football Association Board) approved the implementation of VAR, giving a trial period of at least two years. Its goal is to avoid human error and help the referees in making objective decisions.

Thereafter, a debate began on its importance and the need to establish it. Soccer institutions have been contributing their opinions over the past two years: Nacho Fernández Trujillo, former General Director of Innovation and Global Development for LaLiga, commented that soccer, despite being the most watched sport in the world, was not properly prepared for the future. He hinted at the importance of introducing digital improvements. On the other hand, FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino expressed his support to establish VAR at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Again, the aim is to offer a cleaner and more objective sport.

There is also opposition. For example, Alfred Lonzo, the Director of Safety and Integrity for LaLiga, believes that digitization can fiddle with and affect the integrity of the game. Against this digitalization is also Rudi Voller, current sports director of Bayern Leverkusen, who explains: “VAR kills the environment. It annoys more than it helps and the show in the stadium suffers.”

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) explains that, in the Spain’s First Division, this system will be used just in specific cases of great importance that can change the course of a game: penalties, red cards or doubtful goals.

The video assistant referee or VAR is already used in the Bundesliga (Germany), Primeira Liga (Portugal) and Serie A (Italy). Spain, which will introduce it in the 2018/19 season, will become the fourth European country to do so.


Digital transformation beyond the playing fields

Soccer’s digitization is not reserved to the field. A bigger and more important revolution is being discreetly carried out.

Clubs are using new strategies to approach fans. It is not just about creating a profile or page in social networks, but to segment and obtain information from the fans in order to “redefine the club’s values and give it a strong personality according to the audience.”

Brands, on the other hand, will also have a greater presence on the playing field, not putting aside the problem of intrusion. This will provide a much more sensory match experience, both inside and outside the stadium.

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"Digital transformation revolutionizes the value chain, and business models are redefined."

DIGITAL55 collaborates with Spain’s Professional Football League in its digital transformation. Our interventions focus on digitizing the communication layer between sports clubs and LaLiga. The goal is to make interactions more fluid.


*The case of Hoffenheim’s Football Club

The German football club Hoffenheim is a clear example of digital transformation. For a year now, they have been using digitization to improve game tactics, develop skills, and avoid injuries. The players have devices that measure how much they have run and how effective their training has been. The coach can see each players’ data in real time: heart rate, speed, etc. If the levels of effort are high, the player can be removed in order to avoid injuries.

The training is completed in distinct digital installations. For example, the club has a 180º screen that reproduces real plays and allows players to improve their peripheral vision in the field.

This digital transformation is not limited to workouts. The technical team, medical team, and players stay in touch through an app that, amongst other things, allows the players to mark the areas where they feel pain. This way, physical therapists can prepare exercises more appropriately.

All the collected data can be analyzed in real time, which allows quicker decision making and avoids overloading players.