Technology is here to stay in televised sports

Roger Federer by Tigre Municipio (Creative Commons)

Roger Federer by Tigre Municipio (Creative Commons)

If you love your sports and you love watching those sports on TV – you may well have witnessed the advancements in technology within those sports that have begun to take shape ever more of late.

Technology has, of course, been part and parcel of major sports for a couple of decades or more now – but most of this has either been off the pitch or fields of play or – if it’s been on the field – it’s been mainly concerned with the sports players’ equipment.

So in tennis and golf, perhaps more than in any other sport, we’ve seen the equipment used fundamentally change the very nature of the game.

In golf, these days, the players routinely hit the ball three hundred meters or more off the tee and many previous par five holes have become, in effect, just like the old par fours. This is even true in some of the major championships in golf – particularly among the older more classic courses in places like Scotland where the game was born more than six centuries ago.

Of course, the equipment goes hand in hand with training and strength and diet etc., all of which play a bit of a role – but the equipment is really where it’s at. The players of yesteryear were effectively playing a different game to the more modern cohort of players over the past couple of decades or so. Of course, it was probably Tiger Woods and his long-hitting ability that ushered in the new era in golf more than any other player, but it was happening anyway. The big question now in golf is whether the sport’s regulators try to change the regulations on the golf clubs (and particularly the drivers) to lessen the distances achieved or whether (and which seems far more likely…) they alter the courses to make them more difficult for the really big hitters.

It’s a similar story in tennis of course; today’s players reach phenomenal speeds particularly in their service games and even on the fastest of courts, as at Wimbledon on grass surfaces for example, the game is now tending to be played by the power players form the back of the court. In years gone by, Wimbledon and other grass court tournaments are really all about the best serve and volleying techniques. But today, even those whose game means they would be good servers and volleyers from their natural ability tend to stay at the back of the courts and slug it out with their opponents. If you look at the world’s “big four” tennis players today; Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – all four often play a baseline power game even at Wimbledon thanks to their superior modern equipment that sends the ball over the next both at ridiculous speeds and with an incredible amount of spin.

Of these four – perhaps Roger Federer would be tennis’s most natural server and volleyer and, at the grand old age for a tennis pro of 33, he’s showing that his natural grace and flair on court still have a place in the modern game. In fact, he’s clawed his way all the way back up to number two in the world at the time of writing; simply an incredible feat by the man who is arguably the greatest player men’s tennis has ever seen. Now Federer’s style is refreshing to see in the modern power players’ game, but it’s also distinctly atypical.

Today, any sport in which light weight and stronger material play a part has seen massive changes. So anything involving any kind of boat (like rowing and sailing etc.) is a fundamentally different proposition today than it was twenty years ago. In turn, if we go back to twenty years before that – it was all very different again.

But with other sports like soccer, American football, both types of rugby, baseball, cricket and many other sports, it’s more difficult for technology to play a really major role in improving things on the field through the equipment.

Yes it’s true that the sports kits are now lighter in weight and more efficient, the balls have evolved over the years and the sophistication of the training techniques certainly has as well off the pitch. But at the same time – any great player from the past would quickly get to grips with the new arrangements if he could magically zoom forward in time – and he’d still be one of the modern greats today in any of these sports.

This ‘isn’t necessarily so’ at tennis or golf because the games are simply different now; the past is the past and the whole thing was like another sport altogether. That’s why you can compare previous great’s at some sports like rugby, soccer, American football, baseball and basketball but it’s really unfair to do so at golf, tennis and many other sports. If you don’t agree with this – try watching a video of the great Rod Laver plying his tennis trade from forty odd years ago; it’s wonderful to the eye but is a different proposition entirely to today’s game.

But in other areas of these other sports, technology is most definitely taking more than a foothold. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil, for example, witnessed goal-line technology being used to very good effect. This had never happened before in a major international tournament. The goal-line technology was used this year after soccer’s governing body FIFA had previously come out against its use. This was particularly interesting and maybe represented something of a watershed moment in the planet’s favorite game.

It seems likely that FIFA’s decision will open the floodgates to further technology use. For example, at soccer, there have been several high profile instances during major games where the on-pitch refereeing staff cannot possibly hope to get offside or penalty decisions exactly right – yet they’re still derided by the fans and pundits in the box who are able to benefit from numerous video playbacks and tech devices to measure offsides etc. This seems grossly unfair to the guys on the pitch doing their best – and who would surely welcome a “fourth eye” in the stand who was able to use technology to good effect.

This already happens in many sports on the field. At Wimbledon, with tennis, for example; the famous “Hawk-Eye” technology has been used for a few years now. And the English football Premier League had already been using its own version of goal-line technology for the season leading up to last summer’s World Cup finals. Meanwhile, both types of rugby (league and union) go even further in this regard courtesy of the video ref in rugby league – or the Television match official (usually called the ‘TMO’) in union.

Now what’s really interesting in the three examples cited (Wimbledon for tennis and the two main types of rugby) is that the crowd seem to really lap up the use of technology whether they’re at the stadium or watching at home on TV. Yes, there are inevitable delays in play, but the decisions by either “Hawk-eye” or the video refs have simply become an integral part and parcel of the action – with the crowds shouting on the judgment calls.

The Decision of In or Out (Creative Commons)

The Decision of In or Out (Creative Commons)

So the technology has not only become part of the action now, but it makes the whole thing more exciting and no-one seems to mind the previously feared delays in play. And we saw the same thing in the soccer World Cup in Brazil. FIFA’s previous concerns that video refereeing technologically-based decisions would somehow hinder the beautiful game proved unfounded.

The technology was used to good effect for the first time when France went two-nil up against Honduras in a game they went on to win three one. France were already leading 1-0 courtesy of Karim Benzema’s penalty kick not long before the half-time break. Then the Frenchmen’s lead appeared to be doubled shortly after half time as Benzema’s shot came off the post and rolled along the goal-line. The ball then hit Honduras’s goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, who tried to pull back the ball. He quickly gathered it up to make it look like the ball hadn’t crossed the line. But the new technology subsequently proved that the ball had crossed the line – but only on its second movement as it rebounded off the keeper. This caused the Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci to point to the centre for a goal and a resumption of play and France were justifiably two nil up. But would this have happened previously? Who really knows – but it didn’t get England a well-deserved goal for Frank Lampard against Germany in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 which could have changed the whole course of the tournament.

Interestingly, when the France and Honduras fans in the Estadio Beira-Rio stadium got to see the goal-line technology images on the stadium’s big screens at the same time as the officials in the stand – it added to their enjoyment and they were able to witness unequivocal justice being done which seemed to be welcomed – if somewhat begrudgingly so by the Honduran fans!

In tennis, meanwhile, the players may use up a maximum of three wrong challenges per set. If their challenges prove to be correct, these don’t count in the total and they can go on challenging more decisions. But if, for example, they get two wrong early on in a tight set, they become very diffident about using up their third “joker” card. This makes the whole thing a lot more interesting as the crowd feel the player’s tension and can almost hear their minds ticking over; “shall I or shan’t I make another challenge?” This is simply superb as a spectacle and adds another exciting element to the games that didn’t exist before the technology.

What’s more sports fans simply want the refereeing decisions to be correct. They care less about disruptions in play than they do about decisions being unequivocal and this has been borne out time and time again in those spirts that decided to take up the technology challenge and use it to good effect earlier than others. Was the ball over the line or not? Did the player make a foul or not? Was the player offside? Did the player hit the other guy when the ref wasn’t watching? These are all the types of things we simply want to know – and we also want the appropriate action to be taken.

So perhaps the World Cup was the biggest turning point ever when it comes to technology in sport? This is, after all, the most popular game on the planet and this was its biggest ever event in the country that has become synonymous with soccer more than any other (despite the ignominy of their 1-7 home defeat against eventual champions Germany!). This was the biggest statement FIFA could possibly make – and it proved to be welcomed by the soccer watching masses around the globe. So we’ll surely see more in soccer now – and we’ll surely see more in other sports as they follow suit. The avalanche has begun.

And that has to be a good thing as any sport only exists courtesy of its popularity in terms of pulling people to the event but – far more importantly these days – to those of us watching at home on TV. It’s the TV audience that hold the really big bucks and we’re the ones with almost limitless choice who can switch off any time. What the use of technology in sports has amply demonstrated is that we, the TV millions sitting at home, see its use as a positive entity.

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