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Case study: Converting data to enhance Six Nations coverage

Smart ball tracking, live graphics production and data-gathering technologies combine to add deeper insights and enhanced fan engagement to match broadcasts

Sage and Sportable recently combined to deliver enhanced viewing experiences for the Autumn Nations Series, Guinness Six Nations and TikTok Women’s Six Nations Championships. To bring the technology to the screen in live-game, AE Live pulled data gathered by the Gilbert smart ball, developed in partnership between Sportable and Gilbert. The chip-enabled smart balls tracking technology used contextual and predictive analytics powered by Sage, and incorporated the data into its comprehensive game experience. 

The unique broadcast integration provided a perfect example of the growing trend of sports data increasingly driving the editorial side of sports content creation, production, and delivery. 

“The fan experience is ever evolving, and through each of our sports partnerships, we’re bolstering it by explaining in-match situations and events via real-time data, statistics and insights,” says Sally Moore, global sponsorship lead at Sage.

Six Nations Rugby first used the Sportable smart ball technology during their Women’s Six Nations Championship in 2021 and the successful trial proved the value of adding data and match insights to enhance broadcast coverage.

The smart ball technology tracks a range of metrics including kick distance, territory gain, distance to goal line and pass distance and turns these “on-pitch events” into on-screen Sage-branded graphics in milliseconds.

“We’re able to deliver unprecedented access and insights to fans, making the sport more accessible to new audiences and making the action on the field more digestible for fans,” says James Lewis, head of broadcast at Sportable. “Our trial with the Women’s Six Nations proved this technology is capable of operating at a very high level of efficiency on some of the biggest stages in world sports today.”

A micro-tracking chip is embedded into the ball, activated by beacons placed around the venue. These beacons collect data gathered by the chip which is automatically shared with the AE Live platform to create on-screen graphics.

During the matches, two sets of software are used: one that stores information for graphics use; and another software set that accepts a real-time trigger from the Sportable chip and enables AE Live to get a graphic on screen within 0.5 seconds. 

“As soon as the trigger comes from the ball, we populate it on the screen alongside a reference to ‘Insights by Sage’, through what’s called a ‘Snap Stat’, a short, concise data piece for the viewer,” explains James Smith, project manager at AE Live. “The stats and graphics will be displayed in the viewer’s preferred language (English, French, or Italian) based on their location.”

The Sportable algorithm recognises common events that happen on the pitch, for example the flight characteristics of a clearance kick.  In an event such as this, where distance is the most important factor, the audience wants to know how long it is.  “Therefore, using a predetermined threshold of 50 metres, a kick that is longer than that immediately triggers the ‘Snap Stat’ graphic showing the kick distance, and this animates on screen,” adds Lewis.

To further inform broadcast storytelling, AE Live, Sportable, Sage and Six Nations Rugby Ltd  incorporated smart ball data onto the ‘Fruit Machine’, the live stats interface commentators and production use in-game, and between matches are providing comprehensive match preview packs.  “By providing detailed supporting information that’s easily accessible for production and commentators, key stats, themes and insights can be identified and shared during the broadcast, giving the viewer a greater understanding of what’s going on on the pitch,” says Lewis. 

Outside of the live broadcast, smart ball data is also being used to educate and engage fans.  For each match, social media graphics are automatically populated and shared with the help of the Sage, the Official Insights Partner of Six Nations Rugby, spanning each round of the Autumn Nations Series, Guinness Six Nations, and TikTok Women’s Six Nations. This has seen editorial articles produced using data and insights pulled from the smart ball. Smart ball technology is adding interesting and different touchpoints that viewers, fans and even teams might not have seen before.

The smart ball technology will be continually developed to include new opportunities for additional touch points. The technology can also be applied to other sports, bringing competitions closer to viewers than ever.  

“We provide our services across a range of other sports including football, tennis, and cricket, and what we really like from a graphics perspective is that we can deliver what fans expect to see as part of their viewing experience,” says Smith. “The main benefit of this convergence of data, graphics and sports production is that it becomes ingrained in the broadcast coverage, and that’s a trend that will only continue to grow.”