Tucked away in a hangar in Sacramento sits something never seen before in a sport once considered America’s most popular: an incubator.
“Right now, millennials turn boxing on and they’re like, ‘Who’s winning? I don’t get this,'” said Anthony Bailey, the chief technology officer of NBC’s Premier Boxing Champions series. He was watching a pair of fighters spar—each wearing sensor-equipped boxing gloves—ahead of this weekend’s primetime fight. “These guys are real athletes. It’s not just two guys going out in the ring trying to beat the crap out of each other. It’s two guys that actually have strategy. They’re actually thinking.”
In a makeshift television studio here last month, Bailey, a team of engineers, and some of boxing’s heaviest hitters were working to make that thinking a little more visible—in HD, with video-game-like graphics and Matrix-like camera angles. It’s one part of an ambitious multimillion-dollar effort by NBC and some of boxing’s biggest names to gain an edge against popular competitors like mixed martial arts, and to draw in younger, more casual audiences who may never have thought about watching before.
“The technology will help them understand exactly what’s going on from moment to moment,” Bailey said of the audiences he hoped to attract to NBC’s upcoming bouts. A broadcast technology pioneer and veteran of ESPN, Bailey spent three months working with NBC Sports and a team of engineers to bring sensors, chips, and innovative cameras into the ring, in time for their public debut on Saturday night. It will be the first time in 30 years that boxing has appeared in the network’s primetime slot.
Harkening back to boxing’s glory days, legends Marv Albert and Sugar Ray Leonard will helm NBC’s Saturday night broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on March 7, in fights that pit Keith Thurman against Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner against John Molina, Jr. NBC’s producers have recruited Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer to do the theme music.
For decades, boxing has mostly lived on cable and pay-per-view channels, which can charge $70 to watch a fight. Championship bouts on HBO and Showtime averaged 1.2 million and 734,000 viewers last year; Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts series, has a strong presence on FOX’s cable network, where its biggest broadcast last year drew 3.8 million viewers. Putting boxing back on network primetime will bring the sport to new audiences.
The broadcasts are the product of an unusual arrangement. Unlike HBO and Showtime, which pay millions for their top fights, NBC will not pay a rights fee to air the fights. Instead, Haymon Boxing, a management company backed by big investment firms, has purchased the time on the networks for a reported $20 million a year, with millions more being spent on marketing and promotion. Haymon will be responsible for bringing in advertisers and will pocket the resulting revenue. The bouts’ headline fighters will also likely earn seven-figure purses—more than what they had earned on Showtime and HBO.
And in the background, countless sensors and cameras and servers will digitize boxing like never before. The results will be seen partly on live television, and in a more full-fledged version on the NBC Sports Live Extra app and streaming service. It may be known as the sweet science, but boxing hasn’t been modernized, well, maybe ever.
By introducing sensors to the gloves and shorts, along with algorithms and custom hardware, New Mexico-based Welltec is able to measure fighters’ performance as well as the details of their punches—including angle, velocity, and impact—in mere milliseconds. The data supplied by the chips is available instantly, and can be used to inform broadcasters and design graphic overlays in near real time, or to help coaches refine their training.
The camera tech, initially funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and born out of a collaboration between Duke University, the University of Arizona, among others, is meant to provide added insight during a match and in instant replays. It’s a “three-pronged attack,” said its creator, David Brady, whose company Aqueti makes high-resolution cameras and 360-degree above-the-ring video rigs that are meant to capture every moment from every angle. There’s also a camera customized to fit within a referee’s headband that provides a live feed of the official’s point of view.
Leonard, the five-time world champion and Olympic gold medal winner, said he was “so impressed” with the new technology. “The fan experience is everything in boxing, and I think it’s something that has been missing over the years,” he told Fast Company. “The naked eye can only tell you so much, but this technology will show us much more.”
While Bailey said there are currently no plans to use any of the technology to augment scoring and judgement, boxing’s been warned. Technology is pushing one of the world’s most archaic sports into the future and capitalizing on, if not furthering, its controversial reputation.
Each glove in the fight will carry a sensor with two accelerometers and a magnetometer, broadcasting data at a rate of 800Hz (800 samples per second)—enough to provide potentially hundreds of thousands of data points per fight. And the data don’t stand alone. Every department is working together to tie the information to real-time on-screen visuals, allowing for a more comprehensive breakdown of fights than ever seen before.
To start, Welltec determined that the most important data was what type of punch is being thrown at any given time, as well as the speed of that punch.
If you’re an announcer watching ringside or a fan watching online, “you can look at all the different velocities of the punches, the force of the punches, click on it, instantly see the playback of that punch or punch combination immediately,” explains Geoff Mather of Welltec. “Right now it’s very subjective, someone looking at it asking, you know, did that land or did it miss? And the guy? Did he take the punch? The idea is to make boxing more engaging and more data-driven.”
Eventually the sensor at the base of the fighters’ backs will track biomedical data in real time during the fight. A system like that could help better understand the dangers that dehydration poses to fighters, who tend to abstain from swallowing water between rounds and simply rinse instead.
“When I was in the ring, we thought drinking water between rounds would cause cramps,” said Leonard. But the science just doesn’t back that up. Bailey estimates that a mere 1% loss in water through sweat during a fight can diminish a fighter’s performance by up to 10%.
Before it can deploy more sophisticated sensors, the Welltec team now relies on an advanced scale to measure a fighter’s weight, BMI, and water content, both before and after a match, in an attempt to better understand the toll dehydration takes in the course of a fight. “The opportunity is to show that by staying hydrated, your performance improves,” said Mather.
Additionally, Welltec hopes to examine the hardest punches thrown versus the hardest punches taken, to better understand fighters’ behavior. After all, some people are tough as nails, and some jaws are made of glass.
“We think that’ll be an interesting kind of stat to follow: how hard they punch and, on the other side, how hard ingoing they hit the other guy,” Mather said. “Like, he was unaffected by an 800-pound punch?!”
Welltec isn’t alone in its pursuit: HBO has developed a similar sensor system called PunchForce that it says it has tested on hundreds of fights but has yet to use during a broadcast.
Still, the sensors and camera technology will need to overcome reluctance from purists and skeptics who can point to a long line of failed sports tech, including CBS’s much-hyped “EyeVision” technology in 2001 and ESPN’s puck-tracking system for its NHL on ABC coverage in the early 2000s.
More recently, in 2013, NBC experimented with technology called FreeD at Yankee Stadium and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to provide a similar “bullet time” effect using a series of ultra-high-definition cameras placed around the field. And during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, NBC Sports quietly outfitted a referee with a pair of Google Glass, but the experiment was short-lived and never aired.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that it’s going to create a bigger feel and make it a better viewing experience at home,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. “That’s what we do at NBC, telling the story the right way, and we need the right people to do that, and the technology is an enhancement to that.”
New audiences and new technology could also help address some of the controversies that already surround the sport, from its scorecards to split decisions–like Timothy Bradley’s “win” over Manny Pacquiao in 2012. As in any other business, analytics can help parse through perception and lend credence to reality.
While no plans have yet been made to allow the technology to supplement officials and judges, that doesn’t mean the ball hasn’t already started rolling. Consider instant replay: It started off as a way to engage fans further and keep people interested between plays in other sports. But in the last decade, every major American sport has embraced replay as a way of aiding referees within the field of play.
“I think the experiment really is, look, as other sports have innovated and iterated, some of these things have come to be part of the sport, like, ‘I guess it wasn’t that controversial in the first place,’” said Bailey.
For the past two decades, Durham, North Carolina-based Aqueti has been developing advanced camera equipment for clients like DARPA and the Department of Defense. And while its technology is impressive, its most recent foray into the world of sports is what might really put the company on the map.
For a system NBC calls “Round-A-Bout,” Aqueti is rigging 36 cameras above the ring—one every 10 degrees—to create a 360-degree camera experience that can be manipulated by a technician in real time. Instead of seeing only what the cameraperson sees, the camera array system will let viewers see every angle of every moment of the fight, creating an effect not unlike the “bullet time” sequences of The Matrix.
“Putting this interactive image online, that’s literally a keystroke for the person running the camera,” said Aqueti CEO David Brady. “They just say, ‘Give me that punch,’ it gets posted online, and then somebody during the round ultimately will be able to spin [the camera’s angle] around with their phone or whatever.”
The technology won’t be visible on television broadcasts for now due to cable’s single-feed limitations, but Brady anticipates as many as 10 customized feeds being available online, in real time, by year’s end. In the meantime, he intends to provide the technology to broadcasters so they can explore critical moments between rounds and after the fight, while also providing the same opportunity to fans on their phones.
The most unique aspect of the technology is that the video is available instantly. Previous efforts at such technology—like ESPN Axis—take a great deal of time to generate and are often only available long after a play has taken place. In contrast, Aqueti’s 360-degree technology allows users to switch from camera to camera immediately after capture, without skipping a beat, Brady said.
“So you get the big punch, and freeze—spin around!” he said, swiping across his tablet screen. “We have software and servers that can generate that content immediately. We save all the data from our cameras onto our servers. Storage getting so cheap, you might as well, ’cause otherwise, you might miss something, right?”
Aqueti is also bringing its ultra-high-definition qG cameras ringside. To make them, Aqueti has came up with a neat trick: Link a number of digital camera processors together to take advantage of their collective power. Much like when the Air Force daisy-chained 1,760 Playstation 3 consoles to build a supercomputer, Aqueti’s engineers have applied a similar principle to consumer camera technology, devising a 250-megapixel camera out of 32 14-megapixel “microcameras.” “If we paper the whole stadium with ten-dollar cameras, we get a better image than with one hundred-thousand-dollar camera,” said Brady.
In doing so, Aqueti creates images from video that can zoom in up to 10 times what the human eye can process on its own.
“Traditionally, television is a map from what a cameraman sees to what’s on the screen, and what we want to do is instead make it so the cameras capture the virtual environment, capture everything, and the viewers ultimately can look anywhere they want, see anything they want,” Brady said.
Perhaps the coolest new angle is the viewpoint of the referee as he keeps a close watch on the action. Aqueti developed a tiny camera mounted on a headband worn by the referee to provide footage never before available. After a knockdown, it is the official’s responsibility to ensure that the downed fighter can hold himself upright and his eyes and gloves steady, an up-close and personal part of the job. With the mounted camera, viewers will actually be able to watch a boxer’s eyes roll back in his head if and when he has a screw loose.
When Ryan Caldwell, chief operations officer of Premier Boxing Champions, looked at his sport’s dwindling market, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do. As an executive at Haymon Boxing, the management company founded by Al Haymon that manages or advises more than 150 fighters, Caldwell just knew that what the sport was doing wasn’t working. Mixed martial arts (MMA) dominates boxing’s target age group of 18 to 34, and, particularly with non-minorities, the sport just isn’t resonating. When Haymon conducted a poll recently, it found that as many as 35% of all sports fans consider themselves fans of boxing, but only 2% of them actually watch it.
Left to its own devices, boxing—both in terms of infrastructure and revenue—has been shrinking for decades. In Caldwell’s estimation, Floyd Mayweather accounts for 90% of all revenue generated by the sport of boxing. But the phenomenon of “Money,” as they call the champ, is unlikely to happen again soon, he said. “He’s sucking up 90% of the profits, and so you look at that and go, that’s a tough model.” (Mayweather will not appear in the Champions series, as he is under an exclusive contract with Showtime.)
Still, Caldwell, like many others in the business, considers live sports to be the last bastion of reliable advertising revenue in television. Rates tend to hold well since the programming can’t be time-shifted, and, unlike most other television, the vast majority of sports content is and always will be consumed live. But that got Caldwell wondering if boxing wasn’t being limited by its own distribution system: pay-per-view and premium cable, a legacy that started with fights on HBO in the 1970s.
“We were whacking, whacking our key demographic with a lot of fees on premium cable and pay-per-view. Broader distribution is key. When you look across other sports, there’s a reason they aren’t pay-per-view distributed,” said Caldwell. So Haymon decided to take a run at prime time.
For ideas, Caldwell looked elsewhere, including at the innovative strategies employed by competing nonsport professional wrestling. While the product offered by World Wrestling Entertainment differs substantially from the in-ring entertainment supplied by boxing, Haymon found inspiration in WWE’s willingness to cannibalize its own pay-per-view business. But WWE owns its entire catalog dating back decades. It’s content rich. Boxing still relies almost entirely on live events to make money.
So when NBC offered to bring boxing back to prime time, Haymon jumped at the chance. Now, NBC and its affiliate NBCSN are slated to feature 22 dates in 2015, with another eight on CBS and 10 more on Spike TV. Estimates approach 40 broadcasts in years to follow.
“You can widen distribution. You can modernize,” he said. “But what if nobody cares? There’s all these norms inside of the business and the industry, but when you look with a fresh set of eyes, you’d never, ever operate the way the industry operates. It just doesn’t make any sense. So, the thought process going into it was that you drop a nuclear bomb on it and start it over and see what happens.”
The sensor technology isn’t just for spiffing up the sport on-screen: It can also be used for training, helping boxers experiment with mechanics and improve their strength-training, so they can punch faster and harder. Much like a pitcher in baseball, a boxer’s mechanics are critical to performance. While these data sets are not yet available to coaches during a fight, every bit of data can be at their disposal during training.
Traditionally, a boxer’s training method is simple: GO GO GO. But the advent of technology across sport is giving those within the boxing community reason for concern. Every coach has his or her own method, to be sure, but Welltec has taken up the charge of providing the data necessary to inform coaching decisions and bring the sport into the 21st century.
Citing the NFL as inspiration, Bailey explained that he and his team are embracing the idea of limited contact and attempting to determine the appropriate threshold for not only efficient training, but safety as well. In sparring and training, an additional sensor will be used to track what Mather calls “headgear activity”—what you might call getting your bell rung.
“For health and safety reasons, we can monitor training,” said Bailey. “You want to do short, intense training intervals, but also spread that out with more endurance-type activity so you can set thresholds of how much work you do per day, and periodize that over a certain amount of time, and you start to balance your training so you don’t get overuse injuries.”
There are still basic technological limits to be overcome: Bailey cites battery life as one obstacle that will keep Welltec’s biomedical sensors from being used during an actual fight, at least until later this year. In the meantime, Welltec is using its data to improve understanding of boxers’ resting heart rate during pauses in their practice fights.
“We noticed between rounds that, here’s a guy who never got down to his resting rate,” Bailey said. “Our engineers, who are also medical guys, told us it’ll never get down for the rest of the fight. His heart will never get back to its resting spot. So that means he’s gassed and he’s ready to be taken down.”
At the moment, Aqueti and Welltec are working together to tie the analytics and video together with NBC to enhance fans’ experience, but they’re planning for much bigger innovations. Companies like Twitch and Valve are already streaming interactive games, and the NBA is experimenting with Samsung and Oculus to provide a courtside experience anywhere in the world. An immersive, virtual boxing experience may be closer to reality than ever—assuming, of course, that the first forays into high-tech boxing can woo fans, studio execs, promoters, and the boxers themselves.
“We think in the next couple years we could have somebody stream an interactive broadcast from the [satellite] truck,” said Brady of his company’s future video feeds. “We could have like even 10 people sitting at an event, creating their own broadcast, and then it’s really just a question of moving that out. But it’s not really a technical challenge. It’s a hundred percent a market challenge to figure out. In 10, 15 years, we’ll end up with like real-time interactive television. But the path to get there is gonna be kind of interesting.”
Caldwell, the CTO of the boxing series, said it’s not yet clear if and how the new technology will appeal to fans, or lead to deeper changes in the ring, for instance, by aiding referees and settling disputed calls.
“I think the answer is right now we don’t know, but when we clear it up and add the technology enhancements, add camera views, we’ll see. It may turn out to be not all that controversial, but at least you have clarity, which would be interesting for the sport—or it may turn out to make it more controversial.”
And if it does, he hopes, that could also translate to higher ratings.