When the Phoenix Suns, anchored by stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul, went on their run for the NBA title this season -- reaching the finals for the first time since 1993 and coming within two games of clinching the championship -- they had a different sixth man backing them up: 5G wireless technology.
As the pandemic locked down NBA facilities around the country, the Suns spent $230 million to renovate the Footprint Center in Phoenix and build a new practice facility -- complete with super-fast 5G connectivity from Verizon, high-resolution cameras and over 100 sensors. The technology has helped the team improve player shooting skills and determine when players are getting too fatigued.
The new tools helped general manager James Jones and the rest of the coaching staff better evaluate player performance and adapt in real time. Ryan Resh, the Suns' head of data analytics, credits 5G with "pushing the NBA's boundaries" regarding how the coaches train and teach their athletes.
The Suns' use of 5G is an example of one of the many different applications of the wireless technology beyond higher speeds on your phone. The technology, rolling out across the globe, is expected to transform many industries, including sports. Professional and college teams are installing 5G in stadiums and arenas to improve the on-site experience, and apps are emerging that let fans view replays from different angles or feel like they're a part of the action. Teams are exploring ways to use 5G to improve the performance of the athletes themselves by quickly collecting huge amounts of data -- something that isn't possible with 4G or Wi-Fi.
"5G is allowing us to … take those movements and those analyses and make them so real-time that the process just becomes iterative and seamlessly flows into the working procedure of our coaches and our players," Resh said in an interview.
While sports teams have been using analytics to improve player performance nearly as long as sports have existed, 5G is emerging as a new way to make that analysis even more effective. The key is the technology's high speed and low latency. Cameras and sensors can collect data and provide insight in real time, letting coaches instruct their players on the fly or detect injuries before they become bigger problems. For the Suns, the intersection between 5G and athletics made its mark this NBA season.
"The 5G lab keeps the Suns on the cutting edge," Jones said in a statement. "That cohesion provides our staff with unparalleled opportunities to efficiently unlock each athlete's fullest potential."
The need for real-time data is becoming more and more important in sports. Prior to the rollout of 5G and installation of sensors and cameras in arenas, players were used to waiting until the next day to review film highlighting in-game mistakes. While players and coaches still review film after games, the 5G lab offers data within milliseconds -- something that once took several minutes to calculate.
"Coaching has been around for thousands of years, where coaches go out there and with their gut, they watch things," Brian Mecum, vice president of device technology for Verizon, said in an interview. "Well, how about if we trust data, and how about if we flip it and trust what science is telling us by what it can measure?"
Crunching the data
While Verizon is building 5G in more than 60 stadiums and arenas, its partnership with the Phoenix Suns is different. No other team working with Verizon uses 5G to help with real-time analytics.
5G helps the Suns coaching staff quickly gather and crunch data from three different tools. With a technology called Noah, the players are able to get real-time feedback, live and automated in-game data, and in-depth post-practice and game analytics. For instance, the practice center's hoop is equipped with sensors that allow Noah to track the arch consistency, the depth and the left and right trajectory of the ball. Coaches will be able to compare subpar performance against a player's peak, letting them know instantly what places or situations on a court have the best odds for sinking a shot.
"It gets down to centimeter accuracy, and it also has the ability to look at things in three dimensions [along] the X, the Y and the Z axis," Verizon's Mecum said. A player may not be able to tell in real time why their shots aren't going in without the in-depth arc and angle analysis Noah provides.
"This team took and learned that sometimes players were spending too much time shooting, for example, they were taking too many shots and that was affecting the effectiveness of their shots," Mecum said.
Adding Noah to the Sun's practice facility has shown real results for the team. One younger player had a tough time consistently sinking his shots. With Noah and the tracking sensors installed in the rafters above the hoop, the coaching staff was able to show the player where his jump shots typically landed and where his performance was the weakest.
"That was enlightening to him because it allowed him to accept that his mechanics may not be as consistent as he wants them to be, which is not something that you really feel, in real time," Resh said. "His work did eventually pay off in the playoffs, and he was our best three-point shooter."
Another analytics source used by the Suns is called ShotTracker. Players and coaches are able to use a sensor-based system that generates shooting analytics stats to teams -- and fans -- thanks to a sensor placed on the ball. Players must also wear a small tracking device, and there are sensors in the rafters above the rim to pinpoint the location of the shot. Specifically, more than 100 sensors communicate to the coaches in real time what players are doing (or not). This allows both players and coaches to go back and review how many shots were taken and exactly where they were shot.
The final piece of the Suns' technology expansion relates to lateral movement off the court. With the help of Simi's motion capture cameras, coaches are able to track players' abilities both before and after injuries. A returning player may feel they are back to normal, but coaches are able to see in real time if the player is healed or not by comparing the post-injury performance to the player's baseline. The Suns are using Simi in the weight room to track static movements -- but have hopes to one day use Simi to predict how players move on the court.
In the practice facilities, the Suns' are also using Bertec's 3D force plates in combination with Simi's cameras. The Bertec plates, which players stand on, are able to track a player's gait, jump and balance while Simi captures the movement in real time. Simi shows the coaches, the movement, while the Bertec plates provide data about pressure and other characteristics.
"While Wi-Fi can accomplish that, what 5G does is it makes it so fast [and] the latency is so low, that as soon as a player is done jumping, [the data is] there in front of them," Resh said
How 5G's lower latency changes the game
Latency is the response or lag time between sending a signal and receiving one back, and 5G's shorter latency is how it makes a difference in sports analytics.
"You want to reduce the delay as much as you can to give [people] real-time experiences," said Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell. "Every little bit helps."
3G networks had latencies in the hundreds of milliseconds, which is an appreciable fraction of a second. 4G networks, which enabled smartphones and all of the apps we use today, started with latencies of about 100 milliseconds and now are down to a range of about 30 milliseconds to 70 milliseconds. 5G aims to get to 1 millisecond, but it's currently at about 20 milliseconds to 30 milliseconds, which is faster than the human eye blinks, Verizon's Mecum said.
An essential piece of the Suns' practice facilities and arena is their use of millimeter wave 5G. MmWave is a band of radio airwaves that provides super-high speeds but can only travel short distances and gets blocked by objects like windows and trees. For sporting venues, though, those downsides aren't an issue. Teams can easily install towers where needed in stadiums and arenas. MmWave's ability to handle a huge number of devices on one network, at the same time, is ideal for fans during a game.
With the Suns' stadium app, fans are able to receive feedback similar to what the coaches see while watching the game. The app is available to users with or without 5G phones. Seven different camera angles let fans view replays and real-time stats on the players. The app is available both in the stadium and at home. "You can go back and look at replays, and you're in control instead of waiting for the jumbotron," Mecum said.
Suns' players and coaches are also able to get real-time feedback that lets them make live adjustments. The speeds needed to interpret this data captured during the Suns' practice is only available over 5G, the coaching staff says. Neither Wi-Fi nor 4G can produce the results as quickly.
For now, the Suns are only using real-time analysis over 5G in the team's practice facility. The NBA has strict guidelines surrounding what data collection is available in-game and doesn't allow the kind of analysis the Suns perform in the practice facility.
Data and sports
The Suns aren't the only ones interested in the numbers. Sports analytics bridges the gap between team stats and interpretation. When teams crunch data, the goal is almost always to figure out where performance fell short. After establishing areas in need of improvement, teams can optimize practice time using the data found from analytics. It's a big business -- the global sports analytics market size is expected to grow from $1.9 billion in 2019 to $5.2 billion by 2024, according to a report from MarketsandMarkets.
"When you are a professional athlete, standing on your feet just moving around a basketball court is actually considered work," Resh said. "When you don't have a ton of time to practice, you have to make your practices as efficient as possible."
As the intersection between sports and analytics continues to grow, there is a need for 5G and real-time data, said Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin. Many sporting venues are incorporating 5G and mmWave to receive feedback as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the best-known example of sports analytics was captured in the 2011 film Moneyball. The movie, based on the Oakland Athletics baseball team, explained how analysis and statistics alone could lead to victories.
Brad Pitt played then-A's general manager Billy Beane, who put together a winning team utilizing analytics and minimal funding. He studied sabermetrics, "the objective knowledge about baseball," to rebuild the team on a low budget. Through studying these analytics, he led his team to a 20-game winning streak, the longest one in franchise history.
While the Suns can use 5G to track performance in the practice arena, the coaches aren't able to do such analysis in the arena. Instead, Second Spectrum exclusively partners with the NBA, as well as soccer's Premier League and Major League Soccer, to provide in-game player tracking.
After an initial response, Second Spectrum didn't respond to requests for comment.
Players, coaches and fans can use Second Spectrum to access years of game history and find game playbacks within seconds. The company uses machine learning and computer vision to form a tracking system. It's able to collect 3D data live from cameras within the arenas and then generate reports showing player location, player stats and the type of play in progress.
Even though the Suns didn't come out on top this season, the conversation around what 5G has provided is just beginning.
"That real-time feedback is what we found to be the best method of teaching and learning for our players and for our coaches," Resh said.
CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.
Correction, 11:19 a.m. PT: This story initially misstated the Phoenix Suns' history with the NBA Finals. The team has made it three times, in 1976, 1993 and 2021, losing each time four games to two.