5G in football – a winning strategy has been saved
5G in football – a winning strategy
5G might not currently be top of mind for football teams as they respond to the unique and evolving challenge that is COVID-19. But teams should consider that 5G may well be integral to the future of elite sport, impacting results on the pitch, operational performance, the fan experience and, possibly, financial results.
Successful new technologies enable evolution as well as revolution. 5G is often positioned as revolutionary, enabling, for example viewing in virtual reality, or the use of augmented reality applications.i
But the most significant benefits from 5G are likely to be evolutionary: upgrades to a wide range of processes, not just those taking place on match day, but, also, every other day of the year.
So what is 5G, and why does it matter to football teams?
5G offers multiple increments to the performance levels of 4G, which has been available in the UK since 2012.
One of the upgrades is transmission speed: up to 20 Gbit/s per cell, when all upgrades are deployed. These speeds are far faster than what a consumer would need, but are within the parameters of what a TV crew may require.
5G enables TV cameras to be connected wirelessly, with all the freedom that offers, but with the speed performance and reliability of a wired connection. Major stadia already have fixed locations, equipped with fibre connections for TV cameras, but 5G enables camera crews to roam around without worrying about the length of a cable. Broadcasters around the world, including BT Sport and Fox Sports have already used 5G for broadcasts.
A 5G connection could enable cameras to relay footage from the team bus (before and after the match), to provide more behind-the-scenes access, to relay content from the team hotel when playing away matches, or to provide additional viewing angles.
Cameras have been proliferating in the coverage of all elite sports for many years – be this multiple in-car cameras in Formula 1 or cameras embedded within cricket stumps – there is effectively no limit on the video feeds that could be added in to enhance the TV experience, and the value of televised coverage. In the 2018 Winter Olympics, 5G was used to relay images from 4K cameras integrated into the front of bobsleighs.ii
The very high speeds that 5G can offer should also ease the migration to 8K coverage of matches. 8K video is four times the file size of 4K, which itself is four times greater than HD. Branded 8K TV sets are already, as of 2020, available for under £2,500iii. The price points will continue to decline over the course of the decade, and sports will be one the most compelling forms of content filling those screens. 5G could be used to connect 8K TV camerasiv.
One aspect of 5G which was not available in prior generations of mobile technology is network slicing, which enables the partitioning of segments of the network for specific applications, with custom service level agreements. For live TV, reliability is paramount, and a mobile operator could offer a specific contract for a guaranteed uplink, with an agreed level of reliability. The ability to guarantee quality over a wireless connection could remove the need for a satellite truck for some broadcastsv.
Or, a ground could set up a private 5G network, with spectrum rights conceded to the team for its campus, and control which entities had access to that network. This means that a football team could have the rights to a specific tranche of spectrum (the radio waves which data is carried over) for its campusvi.
5G can be used for more than filming matches; it is likely to be increasingly important for training. Video capture is commonly used in training. Additional viewing angles provide new perspectives that can feed into new approaches. 5G can enable cameras to relay images to monitors on the other side of the field. Manchester City has been using drones to obtain aerial view of play as a real-time input into training sessionsvii. Drones can capture the entire pitch, or follow the movement of a specific player. Drones can send images over Wi-FI, but 5G connections should be more reliable and offer better range.viii
During a game, trackside cameras can also be placed to monitor individual player movement without players having to wear GPS trackers, which can be cumbersome, and which collect a limited set of movement related data. Cameras on the main pitch can also enable additional data to be collected, such as orientation of players during the course of a play, or throughout a sessionix.
Or, 5G could be used to collect data in real time from multiple sensors on a player, measuring an array of vital signsx. These data could be used to help inform when a player should be taken off, to prevent injuryxi. The cost of injured players to the Premier League was estimated at £221 million for the 2018/2019 season, during which time there were an estimated 764 injuriesxii.
5G also enables far more connections in a given area: up to a million connections per square kilometre, versus a maximum of 100,000 for 4G. This capability could be used to enhance multiple operational and strategic aspects of a football ground. Every seat in a ground to be connected, enabling purchasing of refreshments from each seat. But it’s not just static objects that could benefit.
Lawn mowing machines could be controlled remotely. The grass at a training ground could be cut to the same length as pitch for the next away matchxiii. This would enable players to get used to the movement of the ball on that pitch in terms of speed and bounce. A mower equipped with a camera could relay video of the pitch via a 5G connection to help assess the quality of the turf; Ajax currently uses sensors in mowers to monitor the state of the pitchxiv.
Sprinklers could also be controlled with greater precision, with each nozzle connected. The of water sprayed at half time could be varied, on a per nozzle basis, according to the home’s strategy for the second halfxv. A well-watered pitch tends to favour faster passing, and a higher-paced game; conversely a dryer pitch may be better for a defensive approachxvi.
Preventative maintenance of sprinklers and undersoil heating machinery could also be improved by connecting key components to a 5G network so as to provide early warning of elements needing repair or replacement. At a more prosaic level, grounds could use 5G to help with pest control, as happened at Uaiji, one of the sites of the Winter Olympics in 2018. Sensors were used to detect animals, and a combination of scents and pre-recorded voice and sounds were used to repel them .
Other operational aspects could also benefit from 5G, including what may feel like quite mundane processes such as processing credit card payments. Vendors of food or merchandise around the game, equipped with handheld 4G connected credit card machines, may not be able to connect when a stadium is busy, due to the aggregate demand on what is a shared network. But 5G can enable a slice of bandwidth to be dedicated to the singular process of card payment authorisation within secondsxviii. 5G trials in Bristol Harbour have already proven this to be an important commercial application of the new standard.
5G can also enhance the experience for fans. A popular benefit is likely to be the ability to send more photos and more video while watching the game. But more esoteric applications, such as augmented reality overlays may not be that useful when fans are focused on the players on the pitch in front of them.
The game of elite football spans multiple facets – from results on the pitch to annual revenue. Underlying each outcome are multiple processes, many of which could be improved through the application of 5G technologies. Football teams should study how entities across all vertical sectors are applying 5G and determine whether these deployments would also make sense in their environment. Preventative maintenance applications used to inspect pipelines may also be adapted to maintenance of pitch and stands. Usage of 5G in hospitals to relay ultrasound scans for remote analysis may also be applicable in understanding injuries to players, whilst still at the side of the pitchxix. 5G is a brand new technology whose benefits are still being unravelled, often serendipitously. But as 5G is likely to yield competitive advantage for elite teams, they should continue to monitor developments.
Click here for endnotes
i For example ‘pitch switch’ is a 5G enabled application which enables fans who are in their local stadium to hold up their phones and see a match from Wembley super-imposed on their local grounds. https://www.verdict.co.uk/ee-bt-5g-remote-content-wembley/
ii At the Winter Olympic Games in Korea in 2018, 4K cameras were fitted to the front of bobsleighs. This was used to relay footage over 5G connections that was cut into live feeds. According to the producers, the multiple real time links were “only possible with the low latency (almost zero delay”) of 5G. https://venturebeat.com/2018/01/31/pyeongchang-will-host-first-major-5g-video-demonstrations-for-olympics-viewers/
iii The value of 8K TV set sales is expected to grow from $2.9 billion in 2019 to $26.8 billion by 2024, equivalent to a CAGR of 55.5 percent. https://advanced-television.com/2019/04/02/8k-forecast-for-spectacular-growth/
iv 8K television coverage has been under trial for many years, but in recent years has been gaining traction. The Olympic Games are often used to trial out new standards and 8K recording has been happening, for selected events, since the 2012 Olympic Games in London. At the most recent Winter Olympic Games, over 90 hours of 8K content was captured. https://venturebeat.com/2018/01/31/pyeongchang-will-host-first-major-5g-video-demonstrations-for-olympics-viewers/
v According to BT’s Director of Mobile Strategy, network slicing would enable 5G relay of content, enabling centralised production. This would permit “massive operational cost savings”.
vi In the UK, the regulator Ofcom has designated specific spectrum bands for local licensing, that is a license specific to a localised geographic area such as a football ground. There are spectrum bands for 5G and also for 4G. A football club could install and manage its own 5G network in the same way that all grounds have deployed and manage access to Wi-Fi networks within their campus.
vii Drone footage enables a manager and coaching teams to observe movement, positioning and space within a game from a clearer angle than from the side of a pitch. This is analogous to the variation in perspective between a fan viewing on TV, with multiple angles available, and one watching within a stadium, with a fixed perspective. https://www.ertheo.com/blog/en/birds-eye-view-football-drone-coaching-david-powderly/
viii Manchester City regularly uses drones in training, and all training staff have taken courses in flying a drone. A few drones record every training session, for real time analysis, and subsequent review. https://barcainnovationhub.com/drones-as-a-data-capturing-technology/
ix Knowing the orientation of a player can help guide the next action: to direct the play, or pass it on. According to Barça Innovation Hub: “by knowing the orientation, you can determine which action is most appropriate between the attacker and the defense. If no-one is within your field of vision, in theory it’s better to move forward with the ball. Likewise, players can also lose the ball because they’re not as well oriented. We can improve these situations in the future by using customized reports that analyze these different player circumstances… we can also incorporate orientation in the pass probability model. The player who makes a pass can’t pass in all directions, and the player who receives it gets a pass to his foot if he’s facing the passer, and into the gap if his orientation is different. Right now, only passes to the foot are considered. With this new variable, we can see the likelihood of making different kinds of passes which are not considered today.” https://barcainnovationhub.com/player-orientation-a-key-aspect-of-predictive-models-in-football/
x Increasing types and volumes of data can be collected from players. Techniques for analysing the data sets created are constantly being iterated, such as better data visualisation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290627/
xi Currently GPS data is a core indicator used to predict likelihood of injury. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0201264
xiii A training ground pitch used by the England football team is cut to the same length as Wembley, to enable players to get used to the movement of the ball in terms of speed and bounce at Wembley, and choose boots accordingly. https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/jul/08/football-ground-staff-grass-euro-2016-premier-league
xiv The mowers at Ajax’s Johan Cruijff Arena are equipped with scanners to ascertain the number of blades of grass, measure growth and identify any damaged spots. This capability is especially useful to ascertain the state of the pitch subsequent to a non-footballing event, such as the use of a ground for a concert. The pitch at Ajax’s stadium incorporates 15 underground sensors, and this array of sensors may be incorporated into all stadia for teams in the Eredivisie in the Netherlands https://www.businesscloud.co.uk/news/the-tech-behind-incredible-ajax-smart-pitch
xv All pitches in the Premier League have pop-up sprinklers as well as undersoil heating. https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/jul/08/football-ground-staff-grass-euro-2016-premier-league
xviii The benefits of using 5G network slices to dedicated capacity for applications such as credit card authorisation have already been proven in 5G trials undertaken in the UK. https://dcmsblog.uk/2019/09/5g-at-the-bristol-harbour-festival/
xix As one example, a paramedic undertook an ultrasound scan on a patient under the remote guidamce of a physician who was able to interpret the images in real time. Instructions were related to the paramedic via a haptic glove which guided the placement of the ultrasound sensor. 5G enabled the reliable transmission of the ultrasound as well as an HD feed of the paramedic and the patient. https://www.uhb.nhs.uk/news/uks-first-remote-ultrasound-over-a-public-5G-network.htm
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