Changing the game: How data and technology are transforming sports
On October 21, TL Insider, Canadian Business, and TECHNATION brought together Amazon Web Services (AWS) and MLSE to explore how data and insights are transforming the athlete and fan experience of sports.
Guests gathered at Amazon’s downtown Toronto Tech Hub for a fireside chat between Julie Souza, Head of Sports and Global Professional Services at AWS, Humza Teherany, MLSE’s Chief Technology and Digital Officer, and Meaghan Mikkelson, broadcaster, and former member of the Canadian women’s national ice hockey team. Angela Mondou, TECHNATION’s CEO and President, moderated the discussion.
Eric Gales, Managing Director at AWS Canada, introduced the panel with remarks that touched on how the company’s partnership with MLSE, announced last year, is already bearing fruit, and enhancing the latter’s sports and entertainment products through the former’s data application and technology integration.
As MLSE’s official cloud provider, AWS provides artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and deep learning cloud services to build solutions that will support sports organizations’ players and fans alike.
In January 2023, AWS and MLSE Digital Labs launched SportsX – a research, applied sciences and product development incubator – to “transform how some of Canada’s best-known sports franchises –Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto Football Club (FC), and Toronto Argonauts – create and deliver extraordinary sports moments and enhanced fan engagement.”
And, AWS has introduced three Amazon Just Walk Out stores in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome, allowing fans to skip concession lineups by tapping a credit card to simply grab and go, getting charged for their purchases automatically and getting back to enjoying the game as quickly as possible.
“Sports is the great unifier bringing people together through communal experience and powerful storytelling,” said Souza. “AWS is asking: How do we use data and analytics to improve player health and safety while enhancing the game and telling a new story for the fans?”
Souza outlined the central focus for integrating technology and data with sports. At the team and athlete level, this includes using performance data and analytics for team development and strategy, rules development, or officiating analysis – in addition to using wearables like sensors to produce new kinds of performance data. For the fans, AWS is developing cloud-based virtual production technology, direct to consumer products like the Amazon Just Walk Out stores, using their data and analytics to gain a more holistic understanding of the fan experience funnel, including from viewing to betting to retail.
For Teherany, the Toronto Raptors 2019 Championship run demonstrated the power of sports not only to unify, but to include diverse groups of fans. He pointed to how the diversity of the crowds that gathered at Maple Leaf Square, nicknamed by fans as “Jurassic Park,” grew throughout the playoff run, as they stretched longer down Bremner Blvd. the further the Raptors went in the playoffs.
It was also a testament to the power of data to change the game, whether through improved coaching insights or identifying potential.
“[MLSE] Digital Labs is the largest tech team in professional sports and represents an investment in the future of Toronto sports by the MLSE ownership group through the use of data to help coaches and players be more competitive,” said Teherany. “With the AWS cloud-based platform, we’re able to consider ‘the art of the possible’ and work on the next big idea that will fundamentally transform how sports are experienced at every level.”
Meaghan Mikkelson provided experienced colour commentary throughout the discussion, describing how sports is often mirrored in ‘real life’ through stories of adversity, comebacks, and triumph.
“As a player, [data and analytics] sparked something in me and I became immersed in the different statistics that were starting to be tracked – not just the stats themselves, but what they mean,” said Mikkelson. “Leagues, coaches, players and even fans will have to strike a careful balance because all this new data, while incredibly useful, can sometimes make players overthink the game.”
“But there’s no doubt that as a player, data analytics are game-changers for performance improvement and injury prevention, and as a broadcaster, they add depth to my commentary which enriches the fans’ experiences – ultimately, the data helps tell a better story.”