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Sports + tech = $$$

Sportvision brought TV sports the strike box and the yellow first-down line. On deck: bringing fans inside real-time pro games.

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor
Last Updated: October 17, 2008: 5:29 AM ET

hank_adams.03.jpg
Sportvision CEO Hank Adams (standing) and CTO Marv White
301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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(Fortune Magazine) -- With $25 million in revenue, not much of a web presence, and headquarters in Chicago, Sportvision is not what you'd call a high-profile tech darling. But if you've watched a televised sporting event in the past decade, you know the company's products.

It has developed a number of football broadcast enhancements, including the Emmy Award-winning yellow first-and-ten line, virtual jumbotrons, and player, pass, and kick tracking. It graphically enhances telecasts of golf, NASCAR, basketball, several other sports, and the Olympics, giving viewers a perspective and a level of information once possible only in a videogame.

And as you're watching the World Series, you'll see some of the fruit of the company's most ambitious project yet, PITCHf/x.

Using three high-speed cameras, PITCHf/x measures the release, velocity, spin, and movement of every pitch at 60 points on the way to home plate. It also categorizes the pitches, be they fastballs, cutters, curves, sliders, or change-ups, and makes all the data publicly available.

The system was immediately embraced by fantasy leaguers and baseball bloggers for revealing a new stratum of detail about the game inside the game. It has also been put to use by the teams themselves, swaying personnel decisions in the $6 billion business of pro baseball.

Interesting aside: One of baseball's most dominant pitchers, CC Sabathia, began the 2008 season horribly with the Cleveland Indians. After four starts, he had no wins and a 13.50 earned run average.

"He was just really off his game," says Sportvision CEO Hank Adams. Confounded, the Indians reviewed the PITCHf/x data and had a revelation. "They were looking at his release point and the break on his pitches, and they started making adjustments."

The team won't comment on what it found, other than to say the technology provides a "competitive advantage." But the blogosphere realized that Sabathia was throwing fewer sliders than usual, thus fooling fewer batters and giving up more hits.

In short order, Sabathia began mixing his pitches and returned to form. He won five games in the next six weeks, and then the Milwaukee Brewers called about acquiring the star to help a playoff drive. Come late September, Sabathia was 9-1 in his new league, carried the Brewers on his back, and pitched a masterly complete game on the last day of the season to keep the New York Mets out of the playoffs.

PITCHf/x is also affecting the big business around professional baseball. For starters, broadcasters no longer have to guess about pitch type or movement because that information is now apparent to them and to viewers. Sportvision likewise transfers pitch information to the GameDay application at MLB.com, allowing visitors to watch online in pitch-by-pitch detail. That's a pretty cool time-sink for cubicle dwellers.

But the company's next step is mind-bending. If you think televised sports look like videogames now, hold onto your Wiimote, because things are about to get weird.

Have you ever daydreamed about stepping into the batter's box and trying to hit a Mariano Rivera cutter? Or maybe NASCAR's your thing - you'd kill to drive bumper-to-bumper against Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Daytona 500? The daydream is not far from reality.

"Hank Adams and his team are like the Willy Wonka of sports technology and innovation," says Paul Brooks, president of the media group for NASCAR, which has its own version of PITCHf/x, called RACEf/x. "Where this technology is going, it's possible to insert you as a phantom driver into a real NASCAR race."

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