Before Fox Sports broadcast the All-Star National Hockey League game in the US in 1996, they pitched it to their audience as “the greatest technological breakthrough in the history of sports”.
Rolling on the hyperbole like a rich sauce was nothing new for Fox but their pitch was based around the concept of the ‘FoxTrax puck’. In more basic terms, the puck (a three-inch rubber disc) was made to glow in blue while Fox would instantly track the shot with a red laser beam once it left the shooter’s stick.
It was a different time. HD TVs didn’t exist. The ‘FoxTrax’ puck may have been a natural progression of broadcasting but the new concept was also, unknowingly, changing the culture towards watching ice hockey.
In the early 1990s, the NHL was invariably defined by violence on the ice. That may have been attractive for many supporters but it was never an easy sell to a wider TV audience. With six expansion teams created in the southern US market in the early 1990s, a totally new audience was introduced to the game.
Given the speed of ice hockey, following the puck was often difficult for even the most seasoned fans. The ‘FoxTrax’ puck would primarily allow people unfamiliar with the game to understand it better. So the designers devised a system which would modify a puck to emit an infra-red signal that would sync to the shutter speed of the camera. Data from the cameras was then transmitted back to the ‘puck truck’, essentially an on-site production trailer that contained high powered computers, which could calculate the coordinates and speed of the puck to make the appropriate graphics. The patented red streak would show on TV anytime the puck travelled above a certain speed.
The reviews on the concept were mixed but it was an innovation that brought change — and attracted new supporters — to ice hockey.
Innovation is the key word surrounding the recent news that a yellow ‘smart ball’ is set to be used in the 2020 hurling championship once it is approved at Central Council next month.
The luminous colour of the sliotar will help in score detection, particularly at venues where the HawkEye system is not available. The change in colour is also sure to benefit players and match officials, not just under lights, but in the summer, especially when the Irish sky is broadly similar to the colour of a white sliotar.
Hurling has been here before. For much of the last century, the colour of a sliotar was brown, or tan, before being changed to white to make it more visible for supporters.
That process was similar to the path followed by tennis. For nearly a century, tennis balls were white or black until David Attenborough, the legendary British documentarian, played a pivotal role in how we see the tennis ball today. In the late 1960s, Attenborough was working as a studio controller for the BBC when he led the charge for the BBC to broadcast Wimbledon in colour for the first time ever.
Broadcasting tennis in colour brought the matches to life, but it made tracking the ball on screen difficult, especially when it fell near the white court-lines. So the International Tennis Federation (ITF) undertook a study that found that yellow tennis balls were easier for home viewers to see on their screens.
Given the increasing speed of the game, Tomás Mullins and Rory Williams of Greenfields Digital Sports Technologies (GDST) commissioned a research report in 2013 on why there should be a luminous sliotar for hurling. In the report, Chris Beck, brand manager of Srixon, which specialises in golf and tennis, looked into the visibility of the ‘green/yellow’ golf ball and found that, in comparison to the ordinary white ball, ‘it was twice as easy to see at 210 yards and three times easier to spot at 250 yards.’ Those findings are in line with a number of studies going back over the last five decades which found the best overall visibility was achieved when a fluorescent yellow colour was adapted.
Dónal Óg Cusack has always believed as much. When the Super 11s concept — which Cusack was largely behind — was first trialled in Notre Dame in 2013, a luminous sliotar was used for the first time. On two occasions on live TV last year, Cusack made an argument for changing the colour of the ball.
Mullins and Williams arrived at the same conclusion during a decade long journey of research. After initially running into difficulty with the GAA over a campaign selling sliotars in Aldi, Mullins and Williams made a presentation to the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) in Croke Park in 2011, outlining their vision for what could be done to standardise the core of the sliotar.
Establishing the veracity of the ball was the GAA’s primary concern at the time because there was no regulation in a saturated market. Mullins and Williams’ ultimate goal was that only approved sliotars could be used at inter-county level. Their first big step was to develop a chip embedded within the sliotar that was durable and could command a sustainable relationship with a mobile reading device. Referees would then be able to verify the provenance of any sliotar by using a smart phone app.
Information needed to be stored on the chip so Mullins and Williams went into partnership with Dr Siobhán Matthews, who is now the company’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO).
Once they developed a chip that could survive in a high impact environment, the range of data that could potentially be gathered was enormous. In-game data is available for display in stadiums; every time a penalty was struck in last month’s Super 11s tournament, the speed of the shot flashed up on the big screens in the New York Mets stadium. A menu of options will be available for use in TV coverage. Coaches will also be able to download the data. The chip can also do goal-line technology. It’s effectively a ball talking from the inside out.
The possibilities are endless but it’s still unknown if the GAA want to go that far. The technology GDST have developed is obviously transferrable to other sports and they are chasing the cricket and baseball markets. GDST have had exploratory meetings with the English Cricket Board (ECB). Cricket balls carrying their chip have already been tested by Glamorgan cricket club and at Loughborough University.
Sliotar suppliers around the country won’t be frozen out by the new ‘smart ball’; those sliotars just won’t be used at inter-county level if they don’t have the chip. The ‘smart ball’ could open up a whole new world in time but, it all still comes back to the core, which has to be GDST’s main focus. When the Super 11s were played in Fenway Park in 2018, some of the players found the luminous sliotars too hard. During the Limerick-Wexford game, the bos of goalkeeper Mark Fanning’s hurley split after he stopped a shot.
On the other hand, the weather was extremely cold that day, while the sliotars were stored in a room under the stand with no heating, which was bound to make the sliotars harder. When stored properly ahead of last month’s competition, the players had no issue with the new sliotars.
The digital sliotar was used in the Celtic Challenge and the World Games in the summer. The next step has to be taken yet but, once it is, such a quantum leap will make hurling a whole new ball game.