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The Supreme Court

Elisha Chauhan explores the opportunities for sports that are open to installing digital courts in their indoor venues, made famous by Nike’s House of Mamba this summer.

For the past decade, sportswear giant Nike has organised a summer-long tour of China that gives 30 young basketball players from across the country a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with NBA (National Basketball Association) legend Kobe Bryant.

This year, however, the showpiece finale of the campaign had something of a next generation feel to it when Nike partnered with digital innovation firm AKQA to install an interactive LED basketball court in a Shanghai-based venue dubbed the ‘House of Mamba’.

Integrating 1,680 individual LED units into a wooden base, which was then covered with a layer of plastic and 30 millimetre-thick glass, the court displayed various training drills based on Bryant’s workout, which the kids learned from. The floor tracked the players’ movements via infrared cameras placed in the ceiling and infrared devices worn by each of the participants.

This resulted in the floor graphics reflecting the players’ every move up and down the court as they tried to accomplish each training challenge – as well as other animations – all displayed to entertain the 1,200 spectators in attendance.

The wooden base was prefabricated in a factory and shipped to China, with the installation process taking four days. The surface was coated in an adhesive that made sure the floor had the grip of a traditional court.

“The idea was to create the most innovative experience around Kobe Bryant that young basketballers had ever seen,” Duan Evans, AKQA executive creative director – and House of Mamba creative lead – told SportBusiness International.

“We spent a few weeks thinking about how we could create a training session, and eventually came to the idea to use motion-tracking technology and an LED floor that mimics the way Kobe Bryant trains.”

Basketball 2.0

Beyond basketball training drills, an LED floor like the one in the House of Mamba could be used for an array of sports, both for performance development purposes and for gameday entertainment.

Sports such as indoor tennis, squash and netball, for example, could use the floor in between playing time to display content that would normally be presented on scoreboards, such as video replays, and during the game the floor can present the standard court lines that are normally stencilled or taped on.

Following the Shanghai event, Evans says that a lot of positive feedback came from spectators, some of whom said the floor should be used in All-Star games and even college gymnasiums. With the latter, the floor can be utilised to its full potential as the venue is used for both training and for competitive games in a number of indoor sports.

“With the amount of interest and the reaction we got from the House of Mamba, we feel that there’s more this innovation can do. I would be very surprised if we do not see this floor elsewhere in the near future. The potential is amazing,” Evans adds.

I'd be very
surprised if we
don't see this
floor elsewhere in
the near future

“We’ve always viewed the floor as equally improving training development and gameday entertainment. At the House of Mamba, during the day the floor was used by Kobe Bryant teaching the kids the drills and at night we knew it had to double-up as a backdrop to a consumer event. On the entertainment side, we can also stream live video, bespoke animations and audio-triggered images on the floor.”

AKQA is not the only manufacturer of LED sports courts, with Germany-based ASB GlassFloor having also secured high-profile clients for its sports floor products. ASB provided LED floors for the squash courts at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and has installed an LED studio floor at the headquarters of UK pay-TV broadcaster BT Sport that depicts a variety of sports pitches.

“The House of Mamba installation is very interesting, because Nike contacted us before they went with AKQA,” Christof Babinsky, acting managing director of ASB GlassFloor, told SportBusiness International.

“Unfortunately, Nike was very strict with its deadline so we were unable to commit to that installation. The problem with the floor it went with is that it’s not in any way flexible. What [AKQA] has basically done is taken a very hard LED screen and placed some plastic pieces on top of it. That doesn’t really compare to our floors.”

Floor Flexibility

Though ASB is yet to produce an interactive floor, its LED courts are made from two pieces of flexi-glass that are sealed together using laminate (PVB foil) for safety. The glass then sits on a flexible double-beam aluminium substructure, and within this substructure space are integrated LEDs that can display virtually any – and as many – sports’ perimeter markings that the client wants. This ensures that the floor has as much bounce as a traditional court.

The top of the glass receives two types of treatment: the matte glass is etched, then ceramic dots are burnt into the glass to provide grip. ASB can determine how flexible the glass is by adjusting the substructure and can determine the grip on the floor by changing the amount of dots that are burnt into the glass.

“We install a touchscreen on the wall of the venue so operators can change the lights on the floor to accommodate the field of play of pretty much any sport. On average, clients choose to have around 10 different set ups, but they can increase this at any point,” adds Babinsky.

The firm has made around 15 of these LED floors, mostly for university gymnasiums, but also for private clients. The courts are easy to dismantle and can be moved to other locations, including pop-up outdoor venues where they can be run off a generator.

The first installation ASB created was for a German school five years ago, and though the floor was not state funded, Babinsky says the 70-year or so durability of the floor means that governments are prepared to make the initial high cost investment over a cheaper and more traditional court.

“Generally speaking, the sports floor costs about €150 per square metre with the average school sports hall measuring around 480 square metres [equalling €72,000], but we have started installing 680-square-metre sports floors and smaller versions for private jobs.”

Standard Practice

Both AQKA and ASB believe this next-generation sports floor will be widely used in the near future, both for professional sports leagues and for public use, with leisure centres being a key client for ASB, according to Babinsky.

Their confidence in the uptake comes from the fact that the floors have a practical primary use – for training drills and for accommodating different sports in one venue – rather than just being used as added entertainment or a gimmick to lure more spectators.

The next step for these sports floors is to gain approval from international sports federations so that they can be used in multi-sport events such as the Olympic Games, which could potentially lower costs for a host city as most indoor sports can be catered for in one venue.

“I absolutely see the future of these sports floors in the event area and also in high-profile sports arenas,” says Babinsky.

“At the moment, we’re working with many sports federations to gain accreditation and endorsement, and we have already succeeded with some of these bodies. Our goal is to be approved by the major international sports federations, and I’m very confident that it is achievable as we exceed the performance criteria of floors available on the market.”

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