Professional sports teams used to be fairly indiscriminate about their training facilities. Any regulation-sized court or rink with a weight room was considered sufficient for even the best in the world.
Then in 2016, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors upgraded from a court hidden inside Scotiabank Arena to the off-site OVO Athletic Centre, part of a broader movement that recognized the integral role of training amenities. Technology was emerging as an enabler of better, more targeted practices, and ultimately better performance.
“Our commitment from an MLSE [ownership] standpoint was to have world-class facilities in our quest for championships,” says Humza Teherany, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s chief technology and digital officer. “The [MLS’s] TFC facility – BMO Training Ground – had a similar goal, where it’s really purpose built for soccer, and of course for the [NHL’s] Toronto Maple Leafs we have the Ford Performance Centre.”
The Toronto Blue Jays similarly invested more than $80-million for the renovation of its practice facility in Dunedin, Fla., in 2018.
Practice facilities have emerged as a technological arms race that some of Canada’s major league teams appear to be winning.
Nearly every professional sports franchise is using data and analytics to improve player development, training and performance. Only one has screens that span the length of an entire basketball court to display information in real time: the Raptors, at least for now.
The new custom-built LG display – unveiled in early October at the OVO facility – measures more than 35 metres wide and three metres high, displaying upward of 14 million pixels across 450 individual boards. “That technology is first of its kind in the NBA,” Teherany says.
The hardware upgrade, he explains, was born out of conversations with the team’s head coach, Nick Nurse, who envisioned installing a giant screen – like the ones that hang above centre court at Scotiabank Arena – in the practice facility.
“The use-case for it was around being able to coach and provide feedback to players in real time using all of these data and analytic platforms,” he says. “The way many teams use this kind of technology is to build apps for phones and computers, and show players [data and highlights] in a film room, whereas now all of that learning happens live on the court.”
The giant screen is broken up into seven equal parts, with the two displays at either end showcasing real-time data about a player’s performance. A series of cameras and sensors hanging above the basket determine who took each shot, and from where, while measuring arc, depth and straightness in real time.
Data is tracked on an individual player basis using facial recognition software, so each of them can access their unique analytics no matter who else is shooting at the same end of the court at the same time. The five screens in between, meanwhile, are used to display highlights from previous games, practice drills and footage of coming opponents.
When it comes to high-level athletic competition there may be no substitute for hard work, but new technologies are enabling athletes, coaches and teams to optimize the time and energy they dedicate to player development. As technology in sports becomes more commonplace, the real point of differentiation is in how those insights are utilized.
“As technologies advance you now have the ability to really pinpoint improvement opportunities, and really shorten that lifecycle of how long it takes to go from good to great,” Teherany says. “Those timelines are getting shorter and shorter for those who can consume the right data points.”
While the Raptors are unique for the big board, Teherany says similar data is made available to all other MLSE-owned franchises – the Leafs, TFC and the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts – albeit displayed on much smaller screens.
The NHL’s executive vice-president of business development, Dave Lehanski, says many coaches were skeptical when the league first proposed putting iPads on benches with real-time data and highlights during games and practices. Now those same skeptics are coming back requesting new capabilities.
“There’s sensor-based systems that track location, speed, movement, distance; there are optical computer-vision solutions that we’re testing, and we know some clubs have tested, that can track body position,” he says. “It’s almost unlimited when you think about the technology and the way that you can track movement.”
Since it established a partnership with enterprise technology provider SAP in 2015, Lehanski says the NHL has provided all teams with real-time analytics, but he adds it’s up to each team to determine how to best put that data to use. “Practice is really on the club and their hockey [operations] department to determine what they do and how they analyze the data.”
Major league teams are now tasked with finding creative ways to incorporate data into their training and development strategies, but technology’s impact on player development isn’t limited to major league stadiums and state-of-the-art practice facilities.
“We use it daily in a variety of different ways to track and measure the work we’re doing, and what our athletes are doing,” says Lauren Buschmann, a strength and conditioning coach for the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario and an integrated support team manager of the Canadian national women’s basketball team. “It’s become more ingrained in the daily training.”
Buschmann adds that simple technologies such as smart watches and fitness trackers can help coaches and trainers optimize their efforts, whether they’re representing their country or their local high school.
“In varsity sports it might scale down to something like a jump mat to measure vertical power, but there’s similar modalities giving different levels of information and scalability, depending on budget,” she says.
As with any technology, Buschmann points out these new ways of gathering insights are only as powerful as the decisions they inform. “It allows us to have a more fine-tuned approach to make those small adjustments here and there for the athlete or the team as a whole to ensure that what we’re trying to do with them on the court, in the weight room or in rehab is setting them up to be successful.”