Handball embraces tracking technology

This is a guest post by Andrew McSteen.

The final weekend of handball’s VELUX EHF Champions League is set to become the first major event in sport to be played with game-changing tracking technology enabling the distribution of data in real time.

Played in front of a sell-out crowd of 20,000 in Cologne’s LANXESS arena, the VELUX EHF FINAL4 will see all four matches played with a new, intelligent ball developed by the European Handball Federations (EHF) official ball supplier, SELECT, and German tracking company, KINEXON.

Organiser of the event, EHF Marketing GmbH (EHFM), the marketing arm of the EHF, prides itself on bringing technological innovations to the showpiece event; developments which have included 3D TV production, referee cameras and the introduction of instant replay and goal-line technology.

This year’s event will be no different as it will not only be the first to be produced in 4K/Ultra HD but new ‘iBall’ technology will deliver unprecedented levels of insight into the sport, providing athletes, fans, media and sponsors with the opportunity to see the game from completely new and fascinating angles.

Background

In a collaboration dating back to January 2016, EHF Marketing, along with SELECT and KINEXON developed the unique ‘iBall’, which features an integrated tracking chip able to capture real-time information such as ball speed, position of the shot and placement of the ball in the goal.

Announced last year at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 fringe business event, ‘Handball goes Tech‘, the iBall is an exciting addition to the sport which is firmly establishing itself as one of the leading innovators in the sports market.

EHF handball iball

“Handball is a traditional sport so it’s important to keep up pace with developments in the digital space and engage with younger fans and new audiences,” said Henry M. Blunck, Head of Business Development at EHF Marketing to Digital Sport.

“We are constantly checking the market, talking to suppliers and developers and keeping an eye on new developments,” continued Blunck. “We quickly identified that technology is a key enabler to reach out to new and younger fans

“We tried to find something that fitted for all of our stakeholders and realised that tracking technology has the potential to create value for fans, media, coaches and athletes at the same time,” added Blunck from the EHF Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. “As handball is a very dynamic sport, full of action and pace, we came to this decision because we want to make the sport easier to understand.”

Real-time access

Fans watching the action live in Cologne’s LANXESS arena over the VELUX EHF FINAL4 weekend will, through free wi-fi in the arena and a newly launched event app, have access to a variety of data in real-time including the speed of shots, the distance and position the shot was taken from, where the ball hits the goal and much more.

This data provides near-endless opportunities for over 80 global broadcasters, who will receive the information via TV graphics on the world feed. For commentators the EHF provides a dedicated information system including in-depth statistics to ease storytelling.

Fans at home will also have instant access to the data, via their desktop or mobile device, bringing them information such as the fastest and longest shots, shot efficiency ratios and much more via the competition’s website ehfCL.com.

Pushing technical boundaries, causing excitement

However, with any new technology comes numerous testing stages and infrastructure requirements. The iBall project has been run in full at three games in different arenas this season in the VELUX EHF Champions League to establish the requirements of the system for the season finale.

In Cologne, Kinexon will have four engineers on site taking half a day to set up and calibrate the system with a dedicated Ethernet network installation complete with 14 receivers around the handball court.

Sitting alongside Kinexon engineers during the games will be scouts from Danish-based company TV Graphics, who will be collecting match data for TV and creating near-live graphics.

This data will be combined and merged with the new iBall data into one data feed and sent through to the TV directors and editors of the world feed as well as for the competition’s website, official app and social media channels.

“When we proposed this project to our broadcast partners back in 2016 they were excited, and now it is being implemented at our flagship event they are super-excited,” said Blunck. “All of them are looking forward to receiving more data and information they – not only in the world feed but on the commentator information system which will make their storytelling much easier.

“Commentators – and other media – will be able to further explain why a player was excellent in the match and for the first time they will be able to elaborate about goalkeeper performances and really show how they are able to save 120 km/h shots from short distance – all of which makes our sport easier to understand and more accessible – tracking is a fantastic tool for this.

“If everything works out the way we assume it will, then we will also introduce it to the regular Champions League season,” Blunck concluded.

Hacking through the data

As part of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 business event, to be held ahead of the weekend, and in parallel with the iBall development, the EHF are inviting tech experts from across the world to join their first-ever hackathon, under the title of the ‘European Handball HackDays’.

Together with the official data and streaming partner of the EHF club competitions, Sportradar, digital service agency, Athletia and KINEXON, programmers, developers, handball experts, fans, students, creative thinkers and sports enthusiasts with fresh and innovative ideas have been invited to Cologne to work on creative solutions for data usage and visualisation

“Whenever we communicate innovations and new ideas we receive a lot of feedback from our community, internal and external stakeholders, fans around the globe and handball experts,” said Blunck. “So, we thought: ‘why not bring them all together’? We wanted to involve our community who are interested in creating new ideas and bringing new ideas to life with the new data from iBall, our live scouting data from our data partner Sportradar and our TV signal.”

Moving forward
The world premiere iBall project is already providing a fair share of excitement, but for EHF Marketing this is just the start.

“This is a pioneering project and it’s tough to convince someone about a great idea if they haven‘t seen it live for themselves,” said Blunck, looking back at the last two years of development. “We had some situations where we thought that this is impossible and maybe the technology was not ready, but with us pushing our partners, together, we found the right solution to be ready for the FINAL4 in time.

“But the FINAL4 is not just about seeing that the iBall is working well and delivering value for us, it’s also about its marketing potential in the future. We’re already working on developing presenting packages and marketing tools to offer to our existing and potential new partners for the upcoming season.

“With the development of iBall we are looking to technology to further enhance the experience for fans and the VELUX EHF FINAL4 provides us with perfect platform to showcase this new innovation to fans, broadcasters and partners.”

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To follow the progress of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and the first use of the iBall – as French clubs Paris Saint-Germain Handball, HBC Nantes, Montpellier HB and HC Vardar from FYR Macedonia play for the 2017-18 VELUX EHF Champions League title – visit ehfCL.com and ehfTV.com for full coverage.

Geoff runs his own Sports Consultancy, working with clients such as FIFA, UEFA and FIBA across the world. He is also on the board of Tourism Northern Ireland. You can follow Geoff on twitter @geoffwnjwilson connect on Linkedin at linkedin.com/in/geoffwnjwilson or follow his blog posts at http://www.geoffwnjwilson.wordpress.com

Drop an email to geoff@geoffwilsonconsultancy.com if you would like your sports club or Federation profiled in the up and coming months.

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