Video assisted refereeing, not used in Russia’s 5-0 opening game defeat of hapless Saudi Arabia, will not be the only novelty at the soccer World Cup, which got under way on Thursday. The five-week tournament will be a smorgasbord of sports tech innovation, as much as it is a feast of football. And a taste of the future.
World Cup organizer, FIFA, sees its showcase competition as intrinsically involved in the sports tech business. “The FIFA World Cup acts as a hub of sporting innovation with a responsibility to push new boundaries in terms of sports-related technology and engagement,” the organization intoned earlier this week as it awarded the 2026 edition to the “United” bid group of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Indeed, sport tech readiness may have been a deciding factor.
“The United 2026 bid has a clear lead in this area, with all major infrastructure in place, allowing FIFA to focus on a number of exciting initiatives relating to sports science, fan engagement, multimedia interaction and other new forms of digitization.”
In addition to assistance from the supplementary referees and their video access, the on-field refs in Russia have been offered specially devised watched, devised by tournament sponsor Hublot to more accurately calculate stoppage periods and extra time. However, they reportedly cost some $5,000 apiece, delegates at the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai were told hours before Thursday’s tournament kick-off.
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Other innovations on display over the next five weeks of footy include microchips in the balls, and ever camerawork available in 4K and 8K. Both will allow precision tracking and even more of the detailed statistics that fans love. (FIFA also resells real data to Entertainment Arts, for incorporation into EA’s soccer-based video games.)
Stats, fan engagement and the active participation of sponsors were watchwords in the CES discussion that featured sports tech experts Cristina Alvarez of Singapore consultancy Octagon, Norihisa Wada of Japanese e-sports firm Kayac, and four-time Olympic ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero, who is now CEO of Sports Innovation Lab.
“Sponsors are expected to be engaged, not just in the background,” said Alvarez. She said that Chinese consumer goods manufacturer Hisense, which will be highly visible at the matches, has acquired OTT rights to World Cup matches in order to screen them in high definition on its smart TV sets.
Ruggiero noted that overall sponsorship revenues are down by 11% this time compared with the 2014 World Cup, but said that tech industry sponsors are increasingly replacing consumer goods companies.
The revenue drop is understood to be caused by the unwillingness of some Western brands to be associated with Russia. The country currently has a strongly negative image in Europe and North America, due to the invasion of Crimea, the 2016 shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, hacking allegations and claims of interference in U.S. and European elections. (Many Western political leaders also stayed away from the opening ceremony.)
Chinese brands, however, have stepped in. Ruggiero said that they account for 39% of sponsorship revenue this time. China’s property to entertainment giant Dalian Wanda is committed as a top-level sponsor until 2030, when it hopes that China will be the World Cup host nation.
North America seems likely to have smarter stadiums than those in Russia, where a recent study showed that 25% of wifi connections in the 11 host cities are unsecured. “Sports need to pay more attention to risk and cybersecurity,” said Ruggiero.
The recent Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was a successful showcase for 5G cellular technology, which will not be introduced commercially until 2020. But the Pyeongchang games also suffered a cyber-attack during the opening ceremony, disabling servers for 12 hours.
“Smart stadia are testbeds for smart cities,” said Ruggiero. She defined smart stadia as joined up thinking on technology that reduces concession lines, delivers reliable wifi, and good transport links.
This and future World Cups are expected to see technology bringing physical sports and eSports closer together.
“The (Japanese soccer championship) J League is now creating a J-eSports league,” said Wada. This increases fan engagement, it allows time shifting, opens up new audiences and extends the playing season.” 5G connections and better data will help such immersive technologies. “Esports allows people to continue playing when they are too old for the real game, and even to incorporate players from a different era (in virtual form),” he said.