The robolution will be televised

Last week Singapore was alive with one of its most hotly debated topics in recent times. Water cooler conversations were tinged with controversy, emotions overflowed in kopitiams, and family loyalties were called into question. No, there wasn’t a new white paper that you didn’t hear about… the English Premier League voted for goal-line technology next season!

The football-mad amongst us either celebrated that their team would no longer be the victims of unfair referee decisions or protested the fact that sport can’t be refereed by a robot.

Surprisingly, not everyone is happy about the introduction of technology.

I for one will be happy when players aren’t surrounding the ref every 10 minutes and managers stop moaning about how they were robbed of a goal.

As hilarious as some ‘goals’ are (for the record these are my five favourites: Gabon v Portugal, England v Germany, Watford v Reading, Spurs v Man U and Duisburg v Frankfurt) I think technology in sport is a good thing and the debate got me thinking about all the various benefits it brings.

  1. It makes people’s jobs easier

I think top-class sports officials are a lot like politicians – nobody ever says anything good about them and it’s only when they aren’t being talked about that you can be sure they are doing their job well.

Unfortunately for referees, unlike politicians, their decisions are always made on the spot, in front of a live audience, and are almost always immediately booed. I almost feel sorry for them – so they deserve any help they can get!

Football isn’t the first sport to introduce technology and the evidence from other disciplines clearly shows it helps referees make the right decisions.

When it comes to small margins, like in cricket, tennis, or athletics, the human eye can’t be expected to tell if the ball grazed the bat or hit the line, or if the sprinter took off a fraction of a second too quickly. It might not seem like a lot, but in professional sport, millimetres and milliseconds make all the difference!

Whether it’s motion sensors, instant replays, or just having an audio connection to other officials, technology helps.

In the Master golf tournament last week, the very fact that it was on TV even helped the officials – Tiger Woods was penalised and almost disqualified when a viewer called in to say he had broken the rules!

At the top level most officials are professional. If they make a mistake they can be demoted or even lose their jobs all together. The way the media and spectators react has a direct effect on the way governing bodies are forced into action.

Technology ultimately makes them much better at and more secure in their jobs.

  1. It makes sport more entertaining

Having good officials makes for better and more entertaining sport, but technology also makes it more engaging for the audience in other ways.

The most obvious is in how it is broadcast. In general, television technology has made sport more accessible, but in recent years there have been several major advances, particularly in sports such as rugby.

Referees and linesmen wear microphones and both the audience in the stadium and at home can listen to them discuss decisions and talk to players. It has undoubtedly helped a new wave of supporters understand the thousand-and-one bizarre rules of rugby.

Increased broadcasting has also led to rule changes and modifications in many sports. Purists argue that their sport is ‘selling-out’ in search of more money, but Formula 1 is a great example of how rule changes have reinvigorated the sport and increased viewership figures.

It might seem back-to-front but broadcast technology is allowing more people to see the games we love and, more importantly, making them more entertaining.

The other subtle way in which technology increases entertainment is how equipment is manufactured. Footballers can do ridiculous things because the ball is lighter and their boots better. In racket and club sports, players can hit the ball farther and faster due to improved equipment. Not all sports bodies are in favour (golf associations are currently disputing a new style of putter, while swimming officials illegalised full body suits) but it does make things fun to watch!

  1. It creates new jobs

None of the above can be done without people behind the machines. More technology in sport means more jobs – whether it’s in equipment manufacturers, broadcast personnel, or even just an additional official to control the replays and computer calls.

But there have also been lots of other jobs created in sport due to adoption of technology.

The health and conditioning of players is much more advanced that even 10 years ago and teams now have a slew of physicians, nutritionists, conditioners, and specialists who all use technology to track well-being at all points.

Ever since Billy Bean and Moneyball, data analysts have become common in top sport and there are companies dedicated to the in-depth analysis of players’ performance.

In my opinion, anything which creates more highly-skilled jobs is a good thing.

It is true that technology has transformed sport and will continue to do so. People play and watch sport because they are passionate about it – it’s an emotional connection and the human essence always has to be there.

But technology and machines are just about assisting human actions. There’s a reason there weren’t millions of people watching Robot Wars.

As long as sport is contested, officiated, and run by humans who have their own strengths and weaknesses I’m all for goal-line technology and any other advances we can get!

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