The outbreak of coronavirus has seen the sporting world grind to a halt. Leagues and competitions around the globe have been postponed or suspended, leading to concerns within the wider sports industry about how the void can be filled.
As we’ve seen, broadcasters and sports organizations have looked to archived, virtual and esports content to maintain engagement levels and protect at least some revenue streams.
But as we lament the temporary loss of action, it shouldn’t be forgotten that sport is more than just an activity for spectators.
The livelihoods of athletes are at stake too. Salaries, wages and bursaries are at risk, while the suspension of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics means that ambitions of Olympic Gold are at best being put on hold. At worst, medal hopes could be extinguished entirely by the addition of another year to the cycle.
Social media is awash with athletes performing novelty dances, the toilet roll challenge, or educating their children following school closures. The time that would usually be spent in the gym or on the training pitch must now be spent at home or in the garden.
However, the coronavirus crisis has proved to be a watershed moment in the history of work. For years, employers have eschewed remote working practices because of concerns about productivity or the adequacy of technology. The fact that broadband and mobile networks have survived the additional strain and the popularity of communications platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom suggests businesses will be less skeptical in the future.
But can the same principles be applied to athletes at a time when restrictions are making training sessions almost impossible?
Proponents of remote coaching technology believe it can democratize access to elite coaching, giving more athletes around the world the chance to go professional. Train Effective, backed by former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, believes it can give amateur soccer players that opportunity.
Golf, with a relatively affluent playing base that thinks nothing about spending a few hundred dollars on a new driver, is another sport looking towards remote coaching technology. Eager players can get help from GPS tracking, Virtual Reality (VR) simulations, and AI-powered swing analysis technology if they want. On top of that, there are two-way video training applications that can improve a player’s game with professional tuition – regardless of location.
The coronavirus crisis could be the event that popularizes the concept of remote coaching and further entrenches technology in the sporting world.
Many multi-millionaire soccer stars have large gardens in which they can keep fit. But others have apartments in city centers and players lower down the leagues will have more modest homes and limited room to train. Indoor equipment will be essential if they are to stay fit, and many clubs have issued players with exercise bikes, training plans, and nutrition guides during the shutdown.
However, if players are unable to train with teammates, they may lose sharpness and teamwork skills. Some clubs are turning to Virtual Reality (VR) technology to minimize the negative effects of isolation.
Manchester startup Rezzil allows players to participate in VR training sessions on their television. Users place sensors in their living room and on their feet to execute training drills. It’s a bit like the training games on the FIFA 20 video game, however it requires actual skill – as witnessed by a demonstration I saw late last year.
Rezzil aims to replicate the entire stadium experience, crowd noise and all, and allows players to pit themselves against real-life adversaries. On top of that, the application offers haptic feedback so it feels like kicking a real ball. England’s biggest clubs are already customers more players are having the kit installed at their house during lockdown.
HomeCourt, a basketball training application, is another that hopes the Coronavirus will demonstrate the capabilities of its platform. It offers drills and measures performance to help players hone their skills – if they have access to court – and will also track attributes to help the NBA assess players. During the entire COVID-19 pandemic, HomeCourt will be free to use.
Smart exercise bike maker Peloton has seen sales increase dramatically during the crisis. It’s aspirationally-priced bikes work with a subscription-based application that allows owners to participate in live or recorded classes and measure their progress. It has extended the free trial of the application from 30 days to 90 for the time being, but it has had to suspend sales of its treadmill because there is no way to deliver the equipment while enforcing social distancing.
Away from an elite level, the general public is being encouraged to get involved. British fitness coach Joe Wicks has been holding P.E. lessons on YouTube and has attracted millions of viewers. Meanwhile, Olympic stars are offering masterclasses on the BBC Sport website.
The fitness revolution in living rooms has come a long way from Wii Fit and fitness DVDs presented by obscure reality TV stars.
The future of competition
Many of the technologies that people are communicating, working and entertaining themselves during the outbreak have been around for some time. But if people can meet up, go to the office, or head to the gym in person then there was little incentive to do it on a laptop or on a phone. Now those options have been eliminated, a digital social revolution is underway.
Sports technology is an area that stands to benefit – and not just in terms of training and fitness. Last week, Skateboard England hosted a ‘virtual’ national championships in which competitors would film themselves performing a trick and post it on Instagram using a hashtag.
Although Olympic qualification wasn’t at stake (Skateboarding is set to make its debut at the postponed Tokyo Olympics), it was one of the only real-life sporting events to take place this week.
Sports will return and people will never take it for granted ever again. But when it does come back, it might just be a little smarter.
An instructor is seen on the video display of a Peloton stationary bike at the fitness company’s studio on Manhattan’s 23rd Street on December 4, 2019 in New York City. Peloton and its model of on-demand video cycling classes has come under fire after the release of a new commercial that has been criticized by some as sexist and classist. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images) – GETTY IMAGES