Sports Equipment and Technology

Introduction

In this Olympic year it is appropriate to consider the roles that sport play in our societies. While the natural focus of attention associated with an Olympiad is on “the elite” of sport, we as administrators in the profession cannot lose sight of the fact that sport is truly an activity for everyone in society. Thus it is also appropriate that the focus of this conference is on sport and social inclusion which is really what SPORT FOR ALL should be all about.

I have been asked to address the topic of the application of technology to sports equipment. This is difficult to do in 30 minutes but I will attempt to provide an overview of how technology is changing the nature of sport. The discussion of the application of technology in the world of sport can be done in two broad areas:

1st Sport specific applications of technology most notably in the area of equipment.
2nd How today’s “technological revolution” can be applied to sport. This will be addressed in terms of how technology can impact broad based participation and promote social inclusion.

When looking at how technology can enhance social inclusion and to expand the base of participation in sport throughout society, it is the second case that is most significant. First, however, I will provide an overview of technology in sport specific applications.

Sport Specific Applications

First of all, when we say technology, what exactly do we mean? There are several definitions from the dictionary, but I picked only two to illustrate the scope and impact of technology on the human race. These are:

1st The application of science or a technical method of achieving an intended purpose.
An even broader definition is:
2nd Technology is the totality of the means employed to provide the objects necessary for human sustenance and comfort.

As you can see, there is a lot of latitude when we start talking about how technology affects sport or even more narrowly, sports equipment.

There was a time when technology and equipment had very little impact on sport, even in the Olympics. As you may recall, the athletes who participated in ancient Olympic Games did so in the nude using implements such as discii that were both “off the rack” and shared among the competitors. So it is safe to say in this instance, there was no real advantage that accrued to any participant as a result of the application of “technology” in-so-far as equipment or personal gear was concerned.

But it is equally safe to say that in the Olympics of the modern era, technology applied to sport has played an important role both in training and in competition. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways that range from the creation of new sports, to facilities used to accommodate them, to the equipment used by the athletes in competition to the training support used by teams to prepare the athletes for competition. Moreover, the processes employed in the adoption of technology and technological methods to enhance sport and recreation have accelerated with each successive Olympiad. These advances in technology, as with all other walks of life, have had a marked impact in most aspects of sports. Examples of this impact include:

1st The development of new sports both recreational and competitive.

These changes reflect a natural evolution in sports as well as generational shifts that are more pronounced. In the latter instance, there are new multi-sport competitions such as the “X-Games,” which include events such as mountain biking, in-line roller skating, roller boarding, boogie boarding and snow boarding. The X-Games are, incidently, named after the 15 to 30 year old demographic group called “Generation X” who make up the largest participant group for these sports which have sprung up to compete for sponsorship and media space with older, more established events.

A very good example of this process is the introduction of snow boarding in the Nagano Olympiad. At one time, snow boarding was banned from most ski resorts because of a perceived conflict on the part of resort managers between the snow board enthusiasts and the more traditional skier. This antipathy stemmed from both the free-wheeling way in which the snow boards are used on the slopes and a perceived cultural clash between the two sets of resort patrons. Now most ski resorts could not survive or remain economically viable without the revenue generated by snow boarders.

2nd Which brings us to facility design. The application of technology in sport facility design has yielded real changes in terms of athlete use, spectator comfort and usable life span. Example of these changes include:

Equipment which makes competition judging and compiling results more accurate. Further, technological applications such as photo-finish timing devices tied in with communications technology for in-stadium displays such as scoreboards and broadcasting make the events more enjoyable for the spectators.

Technological changes have resulted in facilities that are more cost efficient to operate resulting in the freeing up of scarce financial resources for programs which would have otherwise been expended for operating costs such as utilities. Among these advances are lighting options that extends the useable hours of facility operation or computerized HVAC controls that gain operating efficiency as well as increasing both athlete and spectator comfort.

And lastly, technological change frequently results in better building finishes that extend the life of the facility, are safer for the participants and are less costly to maintain. Most notable in this area are finishes such as sports flooring and playing surfaces.

There exists, however, a real irony with respect to the application of technology in sport facility design, at least in North America. While on the one hand technological advances allow for a greater life span of the facility through the development of components such as better finishes and surfaces, on the other hand technological changes also drive obsolescence causing facilities to be replaced for economic reasons long before they are worn out. Thus stadia and auditoriums which should last more than 50 years are now being razed and replaced at great cost after only 30 years of service in many cities.

3rd Technology has affected equipment design at all levels; from low level recreational activities to high level competitive sports. We’ve already seen that the application of technology to sports serves a role in creating whole new sports events. The use of technological tools such as Computer Assisted Design (CAD) can also play a role in the enhancement of sport equipment. A good example of this and well known in sailing circles is the story of how America¬≥ won the 1992 Americas Cup, which is probably the most venerable race in among the oldest of sports. Through the application of technology (and a large amount of money) a rookie skipper surprised the veterans and took the prize.

A better example of applied technology in sports is the use of “smart” equipment that incorporates sensors and computers as a part of their function. Most international caliber athletes typically undergo some form of human performance evaluation as a part of their training regimen. This can range from exercise stress testing and cardiovascular assessment to the use of very sophisticated biomechanical analysis using equipment such as the APAS system. Computer technology can even be found in equipment used for the evaluation of strength and conditioning.

4th Equipment construction also benefits from the application of composite materials which reduces weight while yielding increased strength and extended life spans. Composite materials can certainly be found in high level competitive equipment such as bikes, skis, racquets, and other types of gear such kayaks which almost by definition are targeted toward the elite competitor.

But it is also important to note that advances in materials have made sport participation safer and has penetrated down the sports hierarchy to the recreational user, for example, in items such as bike helmets.

5th And lastly, technology is also applied to personal sports gear such as clothing and shoes. A recent, albeit controversial example, is the full body suits used in swimming which streamline the competitor reducing times in a sport where winning or losing is measured in hundredths of a second.

Unfortunately, the use of technology in enhancing sports facilities and equipment is generally an expensive proposition. And because of the expense involved in these applications, the benefits derived at least initially tend to be limited to the upper end of the sports hierarchy. For example, because of cost, changes brought about in sport through the application of technology tend to be available first to elite level athletes and teams. By definition, elite level athletes and sports are exclusive and thus omit the broader base of participants further down the sports hierarchy.

Nonetheless, there is a “trickle down” effect. As more people seek out the “best and newest”, market economies come into play and the cost for equipment brought about or improved through technological innovation declines as distribution is expanded. Unfortunately, this trickle down effect is frequently a process that is measured in years. In the meantime, technological development as applied to sports equipment continues with the next generation of the “newest and the best” being developed. And as before, this new generation of equipment is out of the reach of many sports participants. And so the cycle continues.

This division between the “haves” and the “have nots” is a problem for the profession and it manifests itself in many ways. Consider the following example.

In the United States those professional teams that can afford better facilities and equipment, frequently developed through the application of technology, typically earn more revenue. With a better revenue stream, the team owners can obtain better performers. Better performers yield better team results, which creates more interest by the fans. Increased interest on the part of the fans means an increase in ticket sales and more revenue generated for the team. More revenue means better facilities and players and so too does this cycle continue.

Striking a competitive balance is a real challenge facing the professional leagues in North America. But North America is not alone with this problem. Relative cost related to the application of technology is also a challenge with respect to international sports as well. Wealthier nations, such as those found in Western Europe or the United States, can better afford the training facilities, expensive composite equipment and personal gear required for elite level competition. Thus the benefits of technological advances applied to sports accrue most greatly to those who can afford the price.

The point is that the application of technology to sports equipment is by no means universal and is, at best, unevenly applied. And solving this problem is very difficult because of the inherent conflicts of interests between the various stake-holders or constituencies in sports. Among the stake holders are the fans who are the consumers of the sport product. The people who pay to see sport competitions, whether it be the individual fan or media companies, want the excitement of high scoring contests or record setting performances. Athletes and participants want the recognition that accompanies victory and the setting of records. Regulators such as the national and international sport governing bodies similarly are motivated to gain the best possible competitive advantage for their teams and athletes. Equipment manufacturers want to recoup their investment in research and product development.

Thus, at least at the upper end of the sports hierarchy, there is a natural pressure among all of these constituencies toward the ever more efficient and costly facilities and equipment. This process continues to increase the gap between those who can afford to acquire the “latest and the best” and those who cannot. It is very important, however, this natural tendency toward a division between the “haves” and “have nots” be controlled in the best interests of the sports profession.

This is simply because central to the philosophy of sport is the concept that on any given day, every athlete participating in a competition has a chance to emerge victorious. It is this idea of competitiveness that keeps fans returning to the stadium and buying tickets, the revenue from which supports the athletes and the teams. Should the fans believe that too great an advantage has accrued to one competitor or another, their interest will diminished to the detriment of all. This is why drug abuse by athletes brings such severe penalties from sports regulators and why fans tend to lose interest in a given sport when the “best team that money can buy” consistently wins the championship.

The challenge then for sports administrators is to insure that too great an advantage does not accrue too greatly to one team or another through the application of technology for better equipment or facilities. Those who are in a position to develop rules with respect to the use of sports equipment or to fund equipment or facility acquisitions for economically disadvantaged teams through the administration of grants need to bear in mind the fundamental principle of parity in competition.

So the question arises, what technology is available and can be applied toward leveling the playing field for all? What equipment can promote social inclusion with respect to sport? Interestingly enough, the answer to that question lies within what most people think of in terms of “technology” itself.

The Technological Revolution

We are living in the midst of one of those very unusual occurrences that come along every few generations. What has been occurring over the past few decades is a fundamental paradigm shift that is moving society as a whole from the age of industry to the age of information. The currency in this new society that is being formed is called IT – information technology. IT is simply the tools and methods used for the identification, organization and manipulation of facts that we call data. IT has become the engine that is driving all sectors of today’s economy be it industry, government, education or indeed, sports.

The most important piece of equipment that lies at the heart of the whole IT process is the computer. The computer and the software that it runs is an essential element in the new societal paradigm and it is a key to success for the modern sports administrator. It is THE piece of equipment that allows the sports administrator to maximize the return on scarce resources whether this is people, facilities and equipment or finances. In turn, it is also perhaps the single most important tool to insure the extended reach of sport and recreational programming and with it, the whole idea of inclusion in these activities of the greatest number of participants.

Just as money has been the currency and a source of power in the old paradigm, information is the currency and a source of power in the new paradigm. No where is the old saying “that knowledge is power” more true than in a society where information or data is what drives the economy. The secret to managing knowledge and information is in the development and maintenance of databases.

A data base is nothing more than an organized collection of common records that can be searched, accessed and modified. Database software is very widespread as most standard office computer software packages will typically have a simple database program in addition to word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications.

There is, however, a far more powerful and useful kind of database for sport managers than the one that comes in the standard software suite. This most powerful of data management tools is called a relational database. Very simply, a relational database is a data management system that stores information in a series of tables e.g. rows and columns of data. When the operator conducts a search, a relational database allows the individual to match data from one table with data from a second to produce a third table or a report. So for example, if you are a manager conducting a complex sports competition, the details of which have been entered into a relational database, the event manager can retrieve the time for a scheduled event from one table, a roster that has the names of qualified referees who can officiate the event from another table, their availability from a third table and produce a report that lists all of the personnel who can undertake the officiating task. The same type of event management software can assist the sports manager with a myriad of other tasks ranging from facility scheduling, equipment set up and knock-down, or even ordering soft drinks for the concession stand.

If one of the goals of the sports manager is social inclusion, and I submit to you that it should be, then the computer and the data base software that it contains within it are one of the key tools available to them to help them to reach this goal. That this is the case can be seen by the kinds of sport program information that can be contained within these databases aside from the event management sample just cited:

  1. Athlete or team rosters to include demographic information such as name, sex, age, contact information such as addresses and phone numbers and so on. Other parts of the database can contain details on medical conditions, performance history, or other participation characteristics of the athletes.
  2. There are databases that can assist coaches organize scouting reports of the opposition as well as conditioning and preparation activities for their own athletes.
  3. Rosters of volunteers such as officials, drivers, timekeepers, or medical staff. Aside from the similar demographic details, a database of this type might also contain information about availability and reliability, e.g. do they actually show up when they volunteer?
  4. Donors or potential donors whether this be for money or in-kind services. Here too will be demographic information but also other kinds of details as to the source of their motivation or affiliation, frequency of participation and so on.
  5. While the foregoing are examples of useful data with respect to programming, databases are also essential for administrative information. Examples here include equipment and inventory lists, facility maintenance software packages, marketing information such as ticket sales, accounting and business records, employee directories and the list could go on and on.

Once entered, data can be easily manipulated. More importantly, databases can and should be updated to record changes. Bear in mind that the passage of time presents a more comprehensive picture of most activities and the ability of record change and make sense of them is essential for long term survival. Further, there is nothing so constant as change and a well thought out and maintained data base is a great way to record those changes and their implications to the organization.

There are a couple of keys to remember when considering the acquisition of this kind of software:

1st System capacity which addresses the hardware questions. Bear in mind that a relational data base can consume huge amounts of memory capacity.
2nd The degree of accuracy required with the application is an issue. Standard vendor prepared packages typically operate on the basis of the lowest common denominator which usually means that only about 80% of most organization’s needs are met with an off-the-shelf product. So the sport administrator is left with the choice of adapting organizational operating procedures to the software to some degree or writing their own programs. The latter can be hugely time consuming and very expensive. Generally, the more specific modification required for a software product, the more expensive the product becomes and the more difficult it will be to accommodate software upgrades from the vendor.
3rd Lastly, one needs to consider user capabilities. The adoption of information technology and procedures usually means extensive training of the staff.

As great as databases are for effective sport program management, the real power of technology comes when we tie the individual machines together through the medium of a network. This is truly a case where there are synergies created; where the sum is greater the individual parts e.g. 2 + 2 = 6. A computer network simply is the hardware required to connect two or more machines together in such a manner as to allow the sharing of data and other resources.

When I speak of resources, for example, a network can have any number of computers sharing a very good quality printer instead of a using a bunch of stand alone mediocre printers. Proper presentation of the organization’s message is very important for effective marketing and image. Another example of a shared resource is that the network can be driven by a powerful server which can substantially increase computing speed and effectiveness throughout an organization. Most importantly, particularly where relational databases are employed, a network allows the users to share information which is typically stored on a server.

Most larger enterprises, either commercial or sports, use computer networks to link together their operatives. All of the permeations and configurations available to the sports administrator are clearly beyond the scope of this presentation except to note that the most common configuration of these kinds of networks are of the client -server variety. This type of network is where a main server houses most of the information and data base files and the individual operatives access the server through their desktop terminals or workstations which are called clients.

It is important to note that computer networks need not be limited to a single site or facility. Wide Area Networks (WANs) can link together sports administrators located throughout a country. For example, all of the local offices of a national sports body such as the Football Association can be linked whether they be located in Recife or Rio, Brasilia or Belem. All of the administrators so linked can share rosters, performance data, programming information and communicate with each other cheaply and efficiently through the medium of e-mail.

The computer network most familiar to the public is the internet. And the most familiar part of the internet to most people is the World – Wide – Web also known simply as “the Web”.

While the internet has been around for decades going all the way back to ARPAnet in the 1960s, the Web is a comparatively new innovation first introduced in the mid 1990s. It is a medium which presents information in text, audio and graphics, with the latter being both still or animated, in a simple hyper-text computer language readable by a browser. This medium has simply exploded and today there are more than 3.6 million web addresses called Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), many with hundreds of individual pages on their sites. Additional applications for thousands of URLs are received virtually every week. Of these millions of Websites, more than 50% of them are located in the United States but this will eventually change with time. I should note that while much of the data used in this presentation originates from the U.S. Much of what I say is applicable to other nations to a greater or lesser degree already and if not now, then it will certainly be applicable to them at some point in the future. The changes being wrought in society by IT or its brother CT – communications technology – are not confined to any one country and will eventually effect us all.

All the ways in which the Web has changed society are almost too numerous to mention. Suffice to say it has become an extremely important medium of communication and its importance will only continue to grow in the future. For example, USA Today which is the closest thing a national newspaper in America, gets more than three million visits per day. Some 60% of these visits are to its sports pages. Further, there are virtually no professional sports teams in the United States that do not have a Website and most are linked together through networks of Websites coordinated through the various league offices. Just how tight are these linkages is driven in part by agreements between the league teams on activities such as revenue sharing for media broadcasting and merchandise sales among others.

The Web is currently used by professional sports teams in ways that the developers of this technology never envisioned. For example, there are no English language radio broadcasts in Montreal for the Montreal Expos professional baseball team. Fans wanting hear the play-by-play in English can only do so by calling up the team’s Website and listen to it coming across as an audio feed. Another example of how deeply the internet has penetrated professional sports is how some pro hockey teams now require their players to have e-mail addresses as a means to interact with both the team administration and their fans.

These examples lie at the heart of how the internet will affect sports in the future: through the changing of the way that the sports fan will consume the product. Where once sport marketing did not extend much beyond putting out a sign saying “Game Today”, now sports teams must have well developed and extensive Websites to market effectively to their consumers. The trend in this regard is also clear. What will emerge is networks of teams and users bound together by a common interest and driven in part by advances in communications technology.

A good example of this is trend is that of Worldsport.com. This internet presence has succeeded in tying together all 88 members of the General Association of International Sport Federations which represent all of the sports played in the Olympics. Worldsport.com not only hosts the federations individual Webpages, but also provides general technological support through activities such as promotional information and marketing, administrative information for athletes and administrators in secure areas of their sites, educational programming such as certification, logistical support such as a global e – mail communication system and the list could go on and on.

These developments are not limited to the upper end of the sports hierarchy. Compared to the extremely high cost of traditional television broadcast, the comparatively low cost of this technology will bring to sports fans events that could never before be seen broadcast on traditional media. A simple example of how this can occur is an annual sailboat race across the Gulf of Mexico from Mobile to Tampico. Last summer the skipper of a local boat participating in the event took photos with a digital camera of the race activities and the participants every four hours and uplinked them by a satellite phone to his own Website. Thus friends in the community, or anyone else in the world who stumbled into the Web address, could participate in this event as they never could before. Sports events of a distinctly local flavor without the mass appeal that make them economical for television broadcast can so be distributed to anyone with an interest. The Web is not constrained by the limited availability of broadcast channels and high production costs. And while bandwidth is currently an issue for the web, this will resolve itself in the near future with the introduction of broadband technologies.

I’d like to start bringing this discussion to a close with the topic on which we started: sports equipment. I think it appropriate to discuss how the Web will change the sale and distribution of sporting goods. We have already noted that the relative cost for sports equipment can be an issue for the profession, particularly in terms of inclusion by a great number of participants. E-commerce through the internet can play a key role in containing costs for sports equipment as illustrated by the following example.

In the traditional model of manufacture and distribution through a sporting goods store, a tennis racquet which cost $40 to manufacture could be marked up as much as 134% to $94 as it moves through various wholesalers and retailers in the distribution chain to a tennis player. With an e-commerce arrangement whereby the manufacturer can reach the player directly, the mark-up in distribution can be reduced to as little as 20% resulting in a sale price to the end user of $48. The more middle men in a distribution chain, the greater the benefit derived to the end user from using e-commerce distribution. Japan is a classic case in the application of this scenario. Japanese consumers have historically suffered extremely high prices for most consumer products because of a distribution system that has had many layers of middle men in the distribution channel. In Japan today this is changing such that even individual farmers are going on-line with their own websites to sell their produce directly to the consumer, an activity that is empowering both the farmer and the consumer.

E-commerce is well on its way to becoming a force in the world economy as it serves to remove barriers both natural and artificial. The barriers that will vanish include those of time and space as well as national borders both physical and ideological. That this will occur is underscored by the fact that this year e-commerce will employ more than 2 million people and create a turnover in excess of $500 billion. By next year, the turn over is expected to pass $1 trillion.

While this is all well and good, in closing I would like to note a problem similar to that mentioned earlier with respect to the application of technology to sports equipment. Very simply, technological tools are expensive which has resulted in what we call in the United States the Digital Divide. In the U.S., 56% of American adults, 106 million users representing 47% of American households, are connected to the internet and are on-line. These users are largely from the upper and middle class and have the financial wherewithal to purchase computers and internet services. It is a matter of great concern that the very people who stand to benefit the most from economies to be realized through communications technology as outlined earlier in my discussion on e-commerce are the ones least able to afford it. It is the economically disadvantaged that are currently being left out of the IT revolution.

This Digital Divide also transcends national borders. While 56% of American adults are connected to the internet, only 4% of the global population can make that claim. Some areas, Africa for example, are totally disconnected and can only be considered disadvantaged as a result. Herein lies the challenge for the future.

In conclusion, the application of IT to sports management has dramatically changed the way that we do business. Thinking through how we can use this kind of equipment and these tools greatly enhances outcomes. The bottom line is that these IT tools are rapidly becoming a necessity for the sports administrator at whatever level in the sports heirarchy they are working. They are a powerful force for social inclusion in sport and recreational activity and for the profession as a whole.

Thank you.

 


Paper Presented at the
International Seminar for Sport and Social Inclusion
Sao Paulo, Brasil
26-29 June 2000

 

Sponsored by
SESCO
and
COB Brasil, UNESCO, F.I.S.p.T, FICTS, Sport For All and
University of Sao Paulo – School of Physical Education and Sport


 

Address correspondence to:
Dr. T.J. Rosandich, VP of Development
United States Sports Academy
One Academy Drive
Daphne, AL 36526
(334) 626-3303
Email: tjrosand@ussa-sport.ussa.edu