Op-Ed: Innovation for television – what racing can learn from sailing

Golf, cricket and sailing… these are the three sports that struggled to ignite one degree of interest in me as a television spectator in my youth. When they came on TV, I would turn to a book until Dad flicked the channel over to watch the next race at Forbury Park. 

Like many sports, golf, cricket and sailing have technical concepts requiring a degree of specialist knowledge for the viewer to remain interested. This makes it difficult for a novice to start watching without irritating a fellow viewer with questions.

In the ’90s, expert television commentators were heavily relied on as the only mechanism to deliver technical insight. They explained the camber of a putting green, the wind direction at a tee, and where the ball landed if the viewer’s eye couldn’t track it. Cricket commentators discussed whether an LBW was justified, or argued their opinion if the ball did in fact connect with the bat, complimented only by replays.

Sailing was a whole different level of poor television for the novice viewer. When Australia won the America’s Cup in 1983, a television viewer had as much idea who was leading throughout the race as a person listening on the radio. Between tacking, wind analysis, penalties and course navigation, the yacht that appeared to be leading, could in fact, be far behind.

However, the television viewer experience for golf, cricket and sailing fans was soon to be completely revolutionised.

An animated visual experience

For the 1994 America’s Cup, a company called Virtual Eye (launched out of a tiny office in Dunedin, New Zealand) began broadcasting 3D graphics, which depicted and explained the event in a way that had not been possible beforehand.

The Virtual Eye sailing system gave people with or without an understanding of sailing an opportunity to experience every moment of a race. It would show an entire race course, including marks, lay-lines, advantage lines and distances between the boats, with displayed timing information from starts, mark rounding and finishes.

Gallery: The Virtual Eye sailing system

Virtual Eye’s approach was based on the idea that technology should be used to enhance viewer comprehension of a sport, and to deliver viewpoints that television cameras cannot. If you have watched sport on television in the last 20 years, you will be familiar with their work.

Virtual Eye are responsible for creating beautiful visual representations that simplify complex sporting concepts, from assessing golf course undulations, to querying umpiring decisions, to projecting the influence of wind speed on ball trajectory or yacht tack. The beautiful graphics ensure these sports are incredibly engaging to watch, while teaching the viewer challenging sporting concepts.

In 2014, the America’s Cup Official App won an Emmy for ‘Outstanding New Approaches in Sports Event Coverage’ at the 35th Sports Emmy Awards in New York. It’s worth downloading the app to have a play around on – but be careful, it might get you hooked on sailing!

Video: the Emmy Award-winning America’s Cup app

Why not horse racing?

If cricket can have wagon wheels, pitch maps, wicket view, beehives, deviation of seam/spin, field placement, six distances and 3D flyovers into cities and stadia to radically enhance television viewer comprehension, why can’t horse racing show heat maps to ascertain favourable parts of a track, animate sectional speed charts, track the lines horses ran, reveal true distances covered, display dynamic speed maps and broadcast live jockey cams?

Horse racing is a sport that is made for television with short bursts of action and ample time for lead-in and analysis. However, the current level of graphical sophistication is runner numbers appearing (sometimes in the wrong direction, depending on the track) at the bottom of a split screen.

Typically a meeting has ten races. By race three, patterns are being identified by the seasoned punter or industry professional on how the track is running – whether the rail is off, if there is a leader bias, what part of the track is ideal, if punters should be looking for a back-marker, and which jockey is riding the track particularly well.

To the novice viewer, these are complex concepts that cannot be easily picked up without a trained eye or informing commentary. While sitting in a pub with mates with the commentary inaudible, a casual punter will struggle to gain any depth of insight.

These insights could not only be easily and beautifully depicted in visual form, but also quantified to a degree of accuracy and transparency that will give punters an enormous boost of confidence.

Visually showcasing accurate data

While our raceday commentators are skilled at identifying patterns and delivering their personal interpretations, the accuracy of data utilised to make animated graphical representations far exceeds any human capability. It would become a valuable tool to assist commentators in explaining concepts or trends in a simple and engaging form.

Imagine the insights revealed if a race protest could be explained using graphics to complement words and replays. Birds-eye running lines could be used to show the paths taken, with a momentum gauge to reveal the extent of motion and rhythm a horse lost when checked.

Gallery: cricket and golf use graphics to educate viewers

These graphics do not take long to show; a wagon wheel of sixes and fours in cricket takes around 10 seconds to display. The content could fill in the time when horses are milling behind the gates, or replace one of the 15 times an odds board pops up on screen.

Or perhaps it could be showcased via an app that compliments the television or live raceday viewing experience.

Innovations like Punter’s Intel are a step in the right direction and shows data can be collected, but that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of engaging animation and stunning computer graphics utilised by broadcasters for golf, cricket and sailing in 2019.

If Virtual Eye could produce 3D modelling for the America’s Cup broadcast in 1994, imagine the level of technological sophistication that is available to us today. There is enormous potential to engage our once a year Everest or Melbourne Cup viewers into a greater depth of racing experience, so they too can learn the complex concepts that makes horse racing so fascinating.

Who knows, they might just become hooked.

Op-Ed: Innovation for television – what racing can learn from sailing