Careful Tech 111: How to make fan-free sports entertaining

sports TV

Careful Tech 098: Like butter scraped over too much bread

culture sports

Detecting CTE—before it’s too late

<!––>Tom Schad writes about a potential breakthrough in diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by contact sports like football:

So far, the existence of CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease, can only be confirmed through an autopsy. But scientists have been conducting positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brains of former football players and military members, looking for patterns in living subjects.

That’s where McNeill [i.e., Fred McNeill, former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings] comes in.

Four years ago, scientists noticed spots in McNeill’s brain that appeared damaged. More recently, an autopsy revealed the presence of the protein associated with CTE in those exact spots.

Up till now, CTE couldn’t be definitively detected in living patients. That meant you could never be sure if a former player’s symptoms—memory loss, mood swings, depression—were the result of football injuries or some other natural cause. You would have to wait until the individual died and their brain tissue could be sliced up and examined.

But if this new scanning method proves reliable, it could erase any doubt about cognitive symptoms. Such a black-and-white test would make it difficult for NFL players to shrug off the dangers of football in favor of a massive payday.

But it’s not just the pros who would be impacted. PTE scanning could further football as a whole. If this “CTE test” is sensitive enough to detect the disease in its earliest stages, it could accelerate the game’s decline at all age levels. As high school players are tested, they (and their parents) would be confronted with the damage the sport has done to their brains. Families would start to question whether the risks of football justify the rewards.

As young players’ interest declines, a chain reaction could ignite. More and more high schools would shutter their football programs. This means fewer available players at the collegiate level, as well as a diminished quality of play (because there’d be a talented pool of players). Fan interest declines, and Division II and III schools disband their teams. Things continue to accelerate, and in the end, football becomes a niche gladiatorial pursuit, rather than a national pasttime—more like MMA than baseball.

Honestly, that’s what I hope will happen. Football is irredeemably brutal. It’s doesn’t matter how many programs institute tackle-free practices, which concussion protocols are adopted, or what technological wizardry is packed into the helmet. Those adaptations can’t change the fact that the fundamental element of the game—bodies smashing bodies—ruins men’s minds.

This new test might helps force us to confront that fact—now, rather than once it’s too late. ■

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Summon the heroes

As I’ve written before, I love the Olympics. I love the music. I love the faux-drama, manufactured and packaged by the broadcasters. I love the fact that, for two glorious weeks, I don’t have to decide what to watch on TV.

Most of all, though, I love the Olympics medal ceremonies. There’s something irresistible about about watching an athlete experience the pinnacle of his career live on TV. When that national anthem kicks in, the tears flow, and we get to piggy-back on the winner’s emotional high.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find these medal ceremonies online. Even during the Olympics, NBC seems to delight in hiding them. And soon after the Games end, that network pulls its clips permanently.

I’m guessing that the broadcast rights lapse and revert to the Olympic Committee. But I can’t explain why the IOC doesn’t do a better job of curating this content online. Why not make all Olympic highlights—including the medal awards—instantly viewable online? Are they hoping to sell lame DVD box sets? That era is over. Is it too expensive to run this sort of video portal? Sell ads against the content, implement a subscription plan, or—heck—put them on YouTube for free.

But don’t shoot yourself in the foot by locking this valuable content in a vault somewhere. Don’t block your most enthusiastic fans from celebrating your product. Instead, make it easy to search, filter, play back, and share highlights from every tournment stretching back to the dawn of the television era. Let me watch all the women’s rowing medal ceremonies from the 2012 Games (for example), boiled down into a single, gloriously emotional playlist.

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Why is NBC’s Olympics video-streaming website so awful?

In the run-up to the 2014 Olympics, NBC tooted its own horn. Every event, the network boasted, would be streamed live, online. Viewers wouldn’t have to wait for the primetime broadcast or dodge social media spoilers all day. Instead, they could watch the drama unfold, as it happened, on NBC’s website.

What NBC didn’t explain is that the website would be maddening to use.

There are some minor quibbles we might have overlooked. Take the technical glitches, for example. Commercials interrupt the action at bizarre, seemingly random moments, and the video’s prone to constant buffering. And NBC employs “B team” announcers for its webcasts. These aren’t the top-notch commentators you’ll hear in primetime, but less-knowledgable, less-interesting foreign analysts.

But these are small-scale infractions, compared to the website’s cardinal sin: it’s utterly inscrutable and impossible to navigate.

NBC’s Olympics site includes no comprehensive menu for finding video streams. There’s no straightforward schedule you can click through to find your favorite event’s full replay. The search functionality is laughably useless. Even the overhyped “Gold Zone,” a daily stream that shows the best action as it happens, is difficult to find. Gold Zone’s URL changes daily, so you can’t bookmark it. Instead, you must somehow track down each day’s brand-new link. (Thank goodness for Twitter.)

Other video content is even harder to find. Take the medal ceremonies, for example. I’ve always loved seeing how athletes respond on the podium. They spend years toiling in obscurity, and then they get one moment in the sun. They’re sleep-deprived, homesick, and surrounded by patriotic fans and their family. When that anthem kicks in, strong emotions inevitably surface. This all makes for great TV drama.

But try—just try—to find medal ceremonies on NBC’s website. You’d think there’d be a “medal ceremonies” section—a single page dedicated to the heralded hardware handout. There isn’t. The only page I found, “Medal Ceremonies — Day One,” includes a broken video stream and an apologetic disclaimer: “This event has concluded; event replay will be available at 3:00 PM EST.” This, six days after “Day One.”

Why is NBC’s Olympics website so awful? The network spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its Games coverage. Why not throw a few million into UX design? Is the network really this inept?

I suspect not. My conspiracy theory: NBC intentionally borks its streaming site, so that viewers are forced to watch on traditional broadcast TV.

See, TV’s in a weird transition time. The writing’s on the wall: eventually all video will be online video. But the telcos are tough negotiators. They’re loathe to see their valuable satellite and cable customers cut the cord. So, they strike deals with the networks that prevent NBC (or ESPN or AMC) from streaming shows to non-subscribers. These days, you’re forced to authenticate as a cable or satellite customer if you want to stream your favorite shows.

And even if you can access online content, the networks would prefer that you didn’t. In terms of ad revenue, Internet video can’t compete with ‘broadcast’ television. More traditional TV viewers means higher ratings. Higher ratings mean higher ad rates. Higher ad rates make for more profitable broadcasts.

So it’s in NBC’s best interest to make the website impossibly frustrating. They’re hoping that you give up and turn back to the more reliable cable box. That way, the network can boast about its “forward-leaning” media strategy—without sacrificing its lucrative Nielsen numbers.

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Living links

We saw Twelve Years a Slave last night. It’s not a perfect film,[1] but it offers an honest, heart-wrenching account of the most shameful “secret” in American history.

Because lawful slavery ended long before we were born, we might be tempted to dismiss it as a half-remembered relic of a less-civilized age.

That’s too easy, for several reasons. First, human trafficking continues to occur here in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, 150 years is not so long a time, after all. Using historic photos, we can leapfrog our way back to the Civil War in just a few moves:

  • The (still-living) George H.W. Bush once met Babe Ruth.
  • Babe Ruth posed for a photo with Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner, with whom Ruth’s career briefly overlapped.
  • President William Howard Taft cheered on Honus Wagner at a 1909 baseball game.
  • Taft delivered an address at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run. Many aging Civil War veterans attended the ceremony.

Another thought: the last surviving Civil War veteran didn’t pass away until 1956.[2] Although he was a contemporary to Lincoln and Lee, he lived to witness the first automobile, the fall of the Third Reich, and the dawn of the atomic era.

We tend to compartmentalize history into distinct eras. But individual lives transcend these neat mental barriers—and bring history’s injustices uncomfortably close.

  1. Steve McQueen, the film’s director, seems to love uncomfortably long shots of nothing in particular.  ↩
  2. There are several dozen children of Civil War veterans who are still alive, as of October 2013.  ↩
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Preseason sports are awful.

Is there anything more boring than preseason sports?

  • “Pay to watch games that mean nothing!”
  • “See players who will never escape the minor leagues!”
  • “Even the refs don’t care!”

The most exciting thing that could possibly happen at a preseason game? You might witness your favorite player suffer a horrific, career-ending injury.

Why not just move straight from training camp into the regular season? Let the teams work out the kinks on the fly, and start playing games that matter ASAP.

Sure, the play would be sloppy at first. But fans would still enjoy it far more than meaningless games for weeks on end.

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Stadium sponsors, virtual ads, and the future of sports marketing

All professional sports leagues plaster their arenas with ads. Baseball parks mount billboards behind home plate. The NFL sells its sidelines to Gatorade. Basketball arenas paint logos on the parquet. Of all the “Big Four” pro leagues, the NHL is crassest; corporate logos crowd the ice surface, and LED screens have even been mounted on the sideboards, blinding fans and players alike.

What’s the problem?

Such commercialism makes sense, at least superficially. Pro sports franchises exist to make money. If a team can sell the ad space, why not? Why not squeeze a little more “free money” out of the fan experience?

Because it’s not “free money”. Every added advert has invisible costs that undermine both your fans’ good will and your franchise’s public image:

First, ad bloat disrespects your best customers. The fans attending the game have already spent hundreds of dollars to visit the arena in person. You owe them the best experience possible. Instead, you auction off their eyeballs to the highest corporate bidder. Fans may not register this transaction consciously, but the flashing lights and constant promotions irritate and overwhelm them. Some may start to wonder what, exactly, they’re paying for.

Second, ad oversaturation cheapens the sport. It’s a constant, visual reminder that even the finest athletic drama is manufactured. Rather than selling the game or the athletes, you’re selling them shitty hamburgers or scammy life insurance policies.

How to fix it

So how should pro sports handle sponsorships? What are some alternatives to the current heavy-handed approach?

If there must be ads, teams should try to negotiate for a single arena sponsor. This would eliminate the “corporate wallpaper” effect fans currently endure. Displaying a single brand’s logo would pull together the aesthetics of the space and help fans concentrate on the game itself. It’s good for the sponsor, too; they get pride of place and no longer have to jockey for position with fifty other companies.

But what’s better than a single sponsor? No sponsors. What if a venue eliminated all physical, in-arena ads?

“Stripping down the altar” in this way would reward those fans who pay to see the game in-person. They get the real fan experience: an ad-free shrine to the team: its banners, its logos, its players, its history. After all, isn’t that the actual product the teams are trying to sell (not ketchup or lottery tickets or lawnmowers)?

Those watching at home (i.e., those who refuse to pay up) would miss out on this “authentic” experience. Unlike the live audience, which bought tickets, TV viewers would continue to “pay” for the game by watching ads.

Invisible ads

In fact, TV broadcasts might double down on ads. In addition to the regular commercial breaks interrupting the action, broadcasts could bump up the in-game advertising as well. These days, ads can be digitally composited into a live video shot. So, go ahead; digitally paint logos on the baseball diamond (subtly shaded to look like artistic mowing). Lay ads under the hockey ice. Frost the backboard with a sponsor every time you replay that nasty dunk.

Moving to all-digital advertising has practical advantages. For example, switching out sponsors on the fly becomes easy. If a major scandal about a sponsor breaks twenty minutes before game time, there’s no need to pull down an in-house billboard. Simply scrub the sponsor from the ad roll.

When appropriate, broadcasts could even excise ads altogetherWhen you’re raising a championship banner or marking a former coach’s tragic death, you don’t want a Burger King logo in the background. At those key moments, keep the audience’s focus where it belongs.

In-game drama might merit cutting the ads, too. When the stress level runs high and a postseason bid is on the line, let your viewers focus on the action. Or, more likely, take advantage of those prime moments. Charge your sponsors more when more fans tune in. During a close game, the price scales up. In overtime, the price skyrockets. When a pitcher closes in a perfect game, ad prices go through the roof. Conversely, during halftime replays (when viewers visit the kitchen or hit the loo), ad costs could drop dramatically.

Push back the line

Teams already know there’s a fine line between tasteful sponsorship and crass commercialism. After all, why don’t players wear Pepsi patches on their shorts, or GEICO logos on their helmets? Because it looks ridiculous.

I’d simply argue that franchises need to redraw that line—to reweigh the costs and benefits of in-arena sponsorship. Digital advertisements may make that reconsideration possible. They offers teams (and their broadcasting partners) an opportunity to improve the fan experience and to create new revenue streams.

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How to fix football.

Football has problems. No, not the protracted labor dispute between the billionaires and millionaires. I’m talking about the grave health threat of concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A career’s worth of head trauma takes its toll, leaving players with brain damage and devastating emotional instability. As these harmful side effects come to light, the sport’s prognosis grows dim. If football is to survive, we must take player safety more seriously.

The fix

Here’s an idea: build G-meters into players’ helmets to track, record, and broadcast the force of each impact. League doctors would set an acceptable maximum acceleration. When a helmet registers anything greater, officials pull that player–no exceptions. In addition to this acute, one-blow limit, the rulebook could include a cumulative threshold. Once a player reaches his allotment of daily Gs, he rides the bench.

Not only would this preserve players’ health, it would add a new strategic wrinkle to the game. Teams would need to ration their star player’s G-level. If your star quarterback gets hammered in the first quarter, you might shift to a ground game to protect him–and keep him in the game.

The league could even share the live helmet data with fans. Fantasy footballers would gain yet another stat to obsess over. Monday morning quarterbacks would have one more reason to second-guess the coach.


There are some downsides to such a plan. First, competitive escalation: if a hard hit automatically knocks out a player, teams might start targeting the opposing team’s stars to gain an advantage. My answer for this? Penalize the team that inflicted the blow. Say… automatic ejection for the tackler, plus drastic penalties for the offending team?

Another drawback? Such a system would be expensive. For the pros, that’s not a deal-breaker; the NFL is fantastically profitable and could probably absorb the equipment cost. But what about college ball? High school? Pee-wee? High-tech helmets with built-in, broadcasting G-meters would be a tough sell. As an cheaper alternative, could helmets incorporate shock sensors like the ones the Mythbusters use?

A final “drawback:” the sport would never be the same. The NFL has long celebrated bone-crushing hits, and fans eat them up. Stringent concussion rules might therefore threaten the league’s popularity. But that risk is worth taking. There are too many football veterans whose minds–and lives–have fallen apart.

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Robot umpires

Why do we still have human baseball umpires?

Of the four major American sports, baseball seems best-suited to computerized referees (hereafter, “robots”). In hockey, football, and basketball, the action happens quickly, in multiple places, and in infinite variation. America’s pasttime moves slowly, focuses on a single location, and allows relatively little improvisation. Baseball umps stand still, stare in one direction, and make straightforward observations (e.g. “Did the ball pass through the strike zone?” and “Did the ball or the runner get there first?”). It seems likely that a well-tuned robot would out-ump a middle-aged man, weighed down with gear, secret allegiances, and consummate dramatic flair.

Professional tennis has already deployed a camera-and-computer system for tracking the ball’s trajectory. “Hawk-Eye” does not supplant the umpire (yet), but it is authoritative in player appeals. Could something similar work in baseball? In fact, it already does. PITCHf/x determines a pitch’s location, speed, and movement almost instantaneously. Why not perfect this pitch-perceiving tool, then make its rulings canonical?

America’s theater

If accuracy were the only issue, this might make sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.

In fact, sometimes we celebrate inaccuracy. We love the fact that umpires sometimes get it wrong. They add uncertainty to what might otherwise devolve into a rote arithmetic exercise. Baseball, after all, is a simple game. Hit the ball, run the bases, beat the tag. But with umpires on the field, every play is a potential revelation. Did he see it? Will he get it right? The stadium holds its breath, waiting for the ump to twirl his finger (“Home run!”) or punch out the incredulous victim of a wicked knuckler.

Sports is not math. It’s America’s theater. We love drama, and drama needs actors. The ump plays his part: conductor of cheers when our ace rings one up. Sparring partner for a feisty manager. Arch-villain when things go wrong. And robots make terrible actors. Why bother booing an algorithm–especially if it’s 99.99+% accurate? Does booing even make sense when there’s no one standing behind the catcher?

As Gerard Martin writes, “While artificial intelligence may provide a superior solution on balls and strikes, there is no technological substitute for an umpire’s ability to control the emotional aspects of the game.” Sure, robots make more accurate calls. But who cares? Robots would out-pitch humans, too, but no one wants a machine on the mound. It’s not about perfection; it’s about story.

Robot actors

So, there we are. Humans are inaccurate and robots are impersonal. Something’s got to give.

Could robots someday handle the dramatic role? Here are some thoughts on how this might look:

  • Wherever the computers, cameras, or lasers end up, put an avatar on the field itself. Tennis’ disembodied squawk just won’t fly. Fans need somewhere to look and (more importantly) direct their boos. Give them a mechanical man, a bank of lights, a press box section to yell at—anything.
  • Develop real artificial intelligence—computers with personality. Program the robo-ump to glory in a ninth-inning strike out, to belly-up to an argumentative manager, and to stare down a borderline pitch before making its call.
  • Make each city’s ump unique. Even if the underlying algorithm is identical at every ballpark, make its visible manifestation different. The Yankees might project a CG Yogi Berra on the Jumbotron. Detroit might build a Transformers™-esque Ford truck behind home plate. Boston could make the Green Monster bellow balls and strikes.

Augmented umps

These are terrible ideas. Rather than dressing up machines like people, let’s give our human umps better tools. We’ve already got decent data; why not make it available to the umpire?

Once the tech makes it feasible, MLB umps might rely on an augmented reality system, integrated into their masks. In real-time, a heads-up display could draw the strike zone, and each pitch would paint its path as it crosses home plate. TV broadcasts would have access to this video feed, too, and fans could access it on the web.

Until such technology is available, a wireless headset could enable conversations between the on-field ump and booth officials, plugged into the computer. Or, to keep the game moving, uncertain umps could tap a button and have the calculated verdict automatically piped to their earphones. Such solutions would preserve the ump’s starring role, but give him more direction during the show’s big scenes.