CHICAGO – In celebration of the World Cup – the most-watched sporting tournament on the globe – we spoke with Sportvision COO and CFO Mike Jakob in Chicago.
Jakob is responsible for the company P&L, product and business unit management, media production, finance and accounting, human resources and PR and marketing. He works closely with the firm’s CEO, its board and the rest of the executive management team to define the organization’s future direction.
Prior to joining Sportvision, Jakob was COO for Ignite Sports. Before joining Ignite, he was director of Sears Online for Sears Roebuck & Co.
In this position, Jakob had responsibility for management of all e-commerce initiatives for Sears.com. Before joining Sears, he worked as a management consultant for both A.T. Kearney and Peterson Consulting. Jakob earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a B.B.A. in finance from University of Notre Dame.
In part one of a three-part series, Jakob sat down with international expert Michael Muth to discuss various enhancement technologies across a wide range of sports.
Michael Muth: What technological advancements have you created for international sports networks?
Mike Jakob: Our primary focus is currently on the U.S. market. We got our start with the glowing hockey puck with Fox Sports 10 years ago. This was our first virtual sports enhancement. Since then, we’ve moved into the first and 10 line used in football as well as the “K-Zone” in baseball.
We’ve done work for U.S. clients overseas such as with the Olympics for NBC. We’ve been to the last four Olympiads. We’ve done Wimbledon and the British Open a couple times. We’re actively working with a group in Asia specifically on baseball in Japan as well as Formula 1 and A1 in Europe.
MM: What have you done for the Olympics?
MJ: In Torino at the Winter Olympics, we did skater tracking in long form track speed skating. We could track and measure them down to 0.001 of a second. We put graphics on the screen in real time so viewers could tell who was ahead by how much in each heat and versus the leader in other heats. We also virtually inserted the country flag and name of each skater on the ice (as a derivative of the first and 10 line).
We did it so well that NBC was getting flooded with calls asking how they were painting the flags so fast. We did a similar thing for ski jumping so you could see lines on the ski hill so you knew how far each skier flew. We have an agreement with Dartfish in Switzerland to license their StroMotion and SimulCam so you can lay two video images on top of one another.
You can tape a slalom run with the current racer. It shows you at each point on the hill where one skier was relative to another. One great execution of the technology was used in the telecast of the men’s downhill. The French skier was in the lead. There was one jump where the Austrian didn’t get into his tuck quick enough. The Austrian flew higher off the jump and lost ground while the French skier stayed low and won.
They could show the exact spot on the course where he won. Dartfish’s primary market is training and they primarily sell to coaches. It also makes great broadcast enhancement. For snowboarding half-pipe, we used their StroMotion product. You can freeze different images in time. We used StroMotion and SimulCam at platform diving and gymnastic events in Athens.
MM commentary: The Olympics has the resources to enhance many of the events in both the summer and the winter. They’re a great place to start.
MM: What have you enhanced at Wimbledon?
MJ: That was four or five years ago. We came up with a tennis tracker that tracked exactly how far players ran each set and match. You realize how physically demanding it is to sprint six to seven miles. It was modestly successful.
When we think about new effects, there are three main criteria: it has to be hard to see, it needs to happen a lot and it & has to be important to the outcome. The distance tennis players ran wasn’t a key element of the sport. Yes, it’s interesting, but it’s not key to the sport. The first and 10 line is vitally important to a football game. We don’t get the ideas right 100 percent of the time. You have a few hits and misses.
MM commentary: There are enhancements for other sports that might apply in tennis as well.
MM: What have you added at the British Open?
MJ: While that also was an interesting element, it wasn’t a killer effect. It was tee velocity using a radar-based system to measure the swing speed and ball speed off the club and combining that with an algorithm to form a smash factor.
How fast the club and ball moved was a good measure of how much energy was transferred from the club to the ball. Just because you hit it hard didn’t mean it was a great predictor of success in that event. You can see Tiger Woods has incredibly fast club speed. There are others who hit the ball well, but just because you can hit the ball far, that doesn’t mean you’ll win an event.
MM commentary: A glowing ball – like the glowing hockey puck – would be a big help especially in the rough at St. Andrews.
MM: Where else in the world is the glowing hockey puck used?
MJ: It’s not right now. It was the effect that launched this company 10 years ago. We embedded the puck with infrared sensors that are tracked with sensor cameras and then that location information was used to put a glow on the puck in the video. We put a trail on it after a shot so you could follow it. Hockey ratings went up.
Here are the questions we ask to determine the success of our products: Does it attract more sponsor dollars? Do the ratings go up? Does we develop other applications through the Internet or wireless subscription-based revenue streams? There was a firestorm in the media. The hockey writers thought it was blasphemy. They thought: “What are they doing to our sport?”
David Letterman did a skit where they put a glowing disk on his head so you could see where his head was at all times. That’s how groundbreaking this was. Though the purists hated it, all the other people and casual fans were drawn in. After Fox lost the NHL deal after three years, ESPN decided it was too closely associated with Fox and they didn’t renew it. CBC never used it on hockey night in Canada.
They’re the home of the real purists. That sparked another thought. You go back 10 years and look at the broadcasts. For a long time you’d see video games emulate what we were doing. Madden NFL Football put the yellow first and 10 line into its game and baseball games now have a “K-Zone” virtual strike zone. Now the reverse is happening.
Life is imitating art. We are looking to the current versions of the games and trying to figure out how we can put their effects in the video. In the NHL hockey game, there is a glowing disk under the player with the puck. We’re looking at how we can extend the glowing disk and insert it into hockey games.
MM commentary: I would bet the Canadians who can’t see so well appreciated it.
MM: Have you been able to make money from the use of your inventions in video games?
MJ: We do have 30 or so issued and pending patents. It’s very difficult to trademark a yellow line in a broadcast. While we’ve been flattered by the use of those products in video games, we haven’t been able to monetize them.
MM commentary: I’m surprised a lawyer hasn’t been able to lock this up for them.
MM: Should we expect to see a glowing ball in the coverage of Canada’s official sport (lacrosse)?
MJ: That’s definitely possible. We’d use a different technology. We have a few main core competencies: deep expertise in virtual imaging (putting a yellow line on a football field, virtual ads behind home plate, etc.) as well as deep expertise in remote sensing (as in hockey via infrared and GPS receivers in NASCAR).
There are a number of issues with signal noise and strength. GPS is still the most reliable in NASCAR. We’ve looked to extend RF-based tracking to horseracing.
What we use in NASCAR is 25 pounds in a car. We came up with something for under a pound for a jockey to wear in their vest with a GPS receiver. RF may work better in horseracing given the size. In hockey, part of the problem is the number of receivers you’d need to have doesn’t make that technology conducive to work as well as infrared.
We also do object tracking as in baseball with our pitch tracking and virtual strike zone. That technology uses image-based tracking based on geometry. To extend hockey to lacrosse, what we could do is use optical tracking to track the ball, use virtual imaging for key defensive zones and play charts for tracking.
MM commentary: That’s right. It’s a little-known fact that lacrosse is Canada’s official sport as opposed to hockey.