MLSE looks to revolutionize sports experience with digital R&D lab

Digital solutions and data analytics are changing the world of sports entertainment at a rapid clip. From how players train, to how teams make strategic decisions during games, to how venues operate and fans engage, sports organizations are turning to software engineers and data scientists to help transform the sport experience.

In Toronto, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the largest sports entertainment organization in Canada and one of the largest in North America, is facing off with the future with a new digital solutions research and development program.

Created in conjunction with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and unveiled in January, SportsX is an incubator rooted in research, applied sciences, and product development charged with creating innovative digital solutions that give teams a winning edge, create extraordinary fan experiences, and create positive social and environmental impact.

“If we’re able to look into technologies that are going to impact the game, earlier, and we have people dedicated to those and not pulled away for other tasks that are more day-to-day, then we will stay ahead of the curve that’s about to impact us as an organization,” says Christian Magsisi, vice president of venue and digital technology at MLSE. “We want to continue to be at the forefront of the fan experience. And if we have a positive social and environmental impact on our community, then largely the first two things will also come to pass.”

Sports enters the analytics era

MLSE was founded by legendary hockey coach and businessman Conn Smythe in 1927 after he organized a group of investors to buy his hometown hockey franchise, the Toronto St. Patricks. The organization now owns the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL), Toronto Raptors (NBA), Toronto FC (MLS), Toronto Argonauts (CFL), and their minor league and farm teams. It also owns Scotiabank Arena (home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors) and OVO Athletic Centre, and has investments in a number of other sports facilities.

The organization may have 96 years of history behind it, but Magsisi says digital technologies and analytics have been changing the business of sports to an astonishing degree in just the past few years. Magsisi joined the organization five years ago, and it has changed considerably in that time. The organization now has data engineers, data scientists, and is investing in cutting-edge technologies like quantum computing.

“In the early years here, it felt like we were a startup within MLSE because we didn’t operate, look, act like the rest of the organization,” he says. “We didn’t have software engineers, we didn’t have developers here at MLSE prior to us creating MLSE Digital Labs. Now we have a full-scale R&D program. Those were never concepts or job descriptions that were getting posted from MLSE. In a lot of ways, we felt like outsiders within our own organization, but we knew that was going to be the case, that we could usher in this new culture and organization.”

In the past several years, the amount of real-time data available to the organization has increased tremendously. Soccer, football, and basketball are all making use of computer vision for player and ball tracking that can be used to enhance the fan experience and provide actionable insights to coaches and players in-game. The NHL has gone a step further, embedding sensors in players’ sweaters and the puck itself.

“Getting live, real-time data that is actionable, that can provide insight to how we’re trying to execute our game strategy for that day, for that game, is more readily available to us now,” Magsisi says. “With hockey, we finally have tracking of the puck and the player, the XYZ coordinates of the players and the pucks. With that, there’s an almost infinite possibility of calculations that you can do in hockey that wasn’t available less than 18 months ago.”

This analytics advantage in hockey has yet to be fully realized in MLSE’s other major sports, he adds. “In soccer, football, and basketball, it’s computer vision. Latency has gotten a lot better over time, but the data is still challenging to go through.”

That said, advances in the field of biomechanics related to computer vision have Magsisi excited. Computer vision can currently be used to track the position of players and the ball, but new advances will enable computer vision to track the position of players’ limbs. For example, Magsisi says, the organization could track the trajectory of a ball as it’s released from a basketball player’s hands.

Betting big on the future

The idea behind SportsX is to capture, analyze, and build out the best ideas from key MLSE stakeholders, whether coaches, fans, partners, or employees, and the organization has built a dedicated SportsX web portal to support the effort. The solutions will support how teams play, how players stay healthy, how fans connect with teams and each other, and how franchises operate internally.

One of the first concepts developed by the program while under pilot was the NHL Extended Reality Stats Overlay, which uses extended reality to deliver broadcast and video game capabilities to people watching games in-person. Another concept is the Immersive Basketball Experience, which uses optical data to provide fans with a life-size augmented reality experience.

SportsX is leveraging a portfolio of cloud services from AWS, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and deep learning cloud services.

All this has required MLSE to build one of the largest technology engineering teams in all of sports.

“That’s not by mistake or without intention,” Magsisi says. “We know that the most successful organizations in the world are investing billions of dollars in R&D. It’s no mistake that these are the same organizations that are constantly coming out with new features and products and stay on top of the revenue line.”

Magsisi says that part of the secret sauce for MLSE has been a commitment to staying forward-looking.

“In the early years [of MLSE Digital Labs], we took 30% of our budget and our resources and focused on projects that were not going to impact our business within that season,” Magsisi says. “That was a large move. That was a big change for the organization because we are a seasonal business and our opportunity to generate revenue is limited in a window. A lot of our focus is three-quarters of the year. For us to take resources that would have been responsible for delivering revenue within that three-quarters and dedicating it to the future is a big risk.”

But that risk has come with a commensurate reward. It’s become a statement by the organization about its priorities. The organization can’t ignore tactical improvements — investing in data availability, reporting, dashboards, and the like — but dedicating staff and resources to examining the business and thinking about where it could be in several years has paid dividends in agility.

“We still have to invest in today; we still have to deliver today,” Magsisi says. “But I think the shift to be able to invest in the future allows you to take a look at your business and ask, ‘Where can we help our organization,’ whether it’s our restaurants, food and beverage teams, or retail team.”

Over the past five years, Magsisi says the organization has launched well above 50 digital products. It’s gone from quarterly or even biannual releases to daily releases.

“Our software engineering development teams and analytic teams now have the ability to make a change and deploy it right into production, whether it’s for a coaching staff, for our players, or fans,” he says. “Those things were long processes in the past with a lot of levels of approval.”

Data Management, Digital Transformation, Media and Entertainment Industry