Whether sports or business,
the action is on ‘technology’

Mar 6, 2007 5:14 AM

For a guy who started out with the invention of the abacus, as I did, the Great Leap Forward to computers was a huge and scary undertaking, like vaulting a crevasse on a glacier.

I made it however, and along the way sired a son who wound up in the lofty climes of Microsoft, and then committed the most obscene of atrocities. He retired, while his old father was, and still is, working his butt off.

I thought about this last week while paging through Financial Times, looking at the pretty pictures. I stumbled across a page showing a San Antonio Spur, a Formula One car, and an article on a soccer stadium in Madrid, Spain, all nestled under a headline reading Digital Business, Technology in Action.

The basketball article, it turned out, was about StratTix, a Web service provided by Strathridge, out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It seems obvious it was something tossed together by a couple of guys from Harvard, also based there, who probably sold it for two zillion and now spend their time fishing in the Caribbean. It is only two years old, but the NBA and 26 of its 30 teams now use the service, which collects data from the stadia ticket agents and sends it back as a view of the seating chart, updated to identify things like contiguous seating useful for block specials, planning affinity packages, organizing discounts and managing promotional initiatives. It is not available to the public, but you can bet it will be before long.

The article also talked about something called StubHub.com, which it describes as an online clearing house for buyers and sellers of tickets of all kinds of entertainment, including sports. It says StubHub is like Ebay on a good day, greatly beneficial to the secondary ticket market.

Getting to the Spurs, it turns out digital video provides Mike Budenholzer, a Spurs assistant coach, with a valuable coaching tool. The gimmick takes a broadcast camera feed, turns it into compressed digital format, and enables the team’s video coach to work with a laptop courtside. Later, with streaming video, he can view sequences of play and of individual players, using the digital image as a coaching and teaching tool.

The NBA itself now is into 3D HD, a project with Hollywood producer James Cameron and cinematographer Vincent Pace. The NBA, it turns out, has more international viewers than North American ones on its Web site.

Speaking of international technology, Financial Times talked about Real Madrid, one of the world’s best known soccer clubs. It plays in an historic stadium, Bernabeu, venerated and with 80,000 seats, but 60 years old. Since Real Madrid recently sold its television rights for the next six years for $1.3 billion, it had a few bucks left for improvements and technology, and spent 100 million of them modernizing the stadium and almost three million for a state-of-the-art computerized communication system.

Based on Cisco hardware, it connects 1,100 access points in the stadium — every phone, every PC, every security camera, every one of the advertising signs on the scoreboard, all of the skyboxes, even the stadium’s 32 escalators — for immediate interconnectivity.

This is not tech gimmicry. It provides Bernabeu with the ultimate in communication control for safety and security. When a bomb scare forced evacuation with nearly 70,000 on hand in December three years ago, technicians reprogrammed all 256 turnstiles to open automatically in under 11 seconds. No one was hurt and the stadium was emptied in seven minutes.

Perhaps most fascinating is what’s happening with Formula One car racing. Decision making is not limited to the car or the pits. Poor decisions, the article said, "on the part of either driver or pit crew, is punished immediately and irrevocably." So the strategists of McLaren teams operate not from pitside, but from London, where their SmithHayes software makes split second decisions for McLaren drivers. The system is credited with a McLaren victory in the 2005 Grand Prix a Monte Carlo, won by driver Kimi Raikkonen with assistance from computerized decision-making originating in London, hundreds of miles distant.

Writer Alan Cane, telling how this can apply to business, wrote about an aerospace manufacturer planning a new engine that will have to last for 30 years, with four options of how to proceed. For a 5% premium it can use the new SmithHayes software to help make the right decision.

This is the world of today, in sports and business. It is a long way from my old abacus.