Understanding tech will shape the sports leaders of tomorrow

Professor David Atienza Alonso, the tech lead of AISTS’s Master of Advanced Studies course, explains why a focus on emerging trends such as smart wearables and deep learning has become a key part of the academy’s flagship programme.

The opportunities afforded by cutting-edge technology in sport have filtered into all aspects of the industry in recent years, from broadcasting to fan experience and athlete training.

Such a trend has been highlighted by AISTS’s decision to redesign its flagship Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Sport Management and Technology degree. The Lausanne-based academy has earmarked technology as one of two top-tier pillars of study, alongside management, following a comprehensive review of the MAS course over the last two years.

Spearheading the technological aspect of the syllabus is one of the world’s most highly regarded researchers in the disciplines of computer and electrical engineering. Professor David Atienza Alonso, the director of the Embedded Systems Laboratory at nearby École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), is a pioneer in some of the most exciting spheres of modern technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), smart wearables and embedded machine learning.

Atienza has been involved with AISTS since 2018 and has helped to reshape the MAS course over the past couple of years. Those guiding this project have understood that the increasingly prominent role of technology within sport had to be at the centre of the syllabus if the academy were to continue to produce the leaders that sport will require in the years to come.

“From a realistic perspective, if you look at the sports revolution in the last five years, knowledge of technology and its possibilities is unavoidable,” Atienza said. “Everything is about improving performance, enhanced experience and engagement with fans, and sustainability thanks to information technology (IT). Our sports leaders need to understand how we can use tech to solve problems.”

Willing to learn

The MAS programme runs for 15 months, starting in September and finishing the following December. The first eight months consist of in-school study and lectures led by the academy’s guest professors. From May to December, students are required to work for two months within an organisation either as an intern or employee or through an entrepreneurial undertaking. They must then submit a report based on their experience.

There is a focus on technology from the beginning with a series of introductory lessons delivered via the new e-learning platform. This ensures all students have a baseline understanding of technology before they embark upon more advanced learning in the classroom environment.

“All students must pass the online classes to proceed with the course. It is very important that they have a basic understanding of technology so that we can make good progress in class and devote our time to cover real case studies of how IT is used in the sport industry,” Atienza said. “The online platform is useful for classroom instructors to make sure all students have the minimum background, as otherwise some students would be at a great disadvantage to get the best from the technology module and subsequent team projects on tech applied to sport concepts.

“Of course, you don’t have to be a science geek to enrol on the MAS course. However, in this day and age we would say you have to be willing to learn.”

Depth of information

The technology module is separated into three distinct learning modules – infrastructure, materials, and information technology and services. Infrastructure looks at areas such as stadiums and organising large events, while the materials section relates to equipment and clothing. The IT section is the broadest and is divided into four separate blocks – wearables, machine learning, wireless communication, and broadcasting.

According to Atienza, the biggest difference in comparison with the previous syllabus is the greater depth of information now, giving students the opportunity to explore topics in more detail than ever before.

He added: “I think the area that will be most interesting for our students is the possibilities offered by wearables and deep learning. For example, we can monitor athletes in an indoor environment without any sensors, just by using radio frequencies. People think of wearables as gadgets, but that’s not necessarily the case and they will see how they can impact training.

“With deep learning we can use statistics and trends not just to improve sporting performance, but even create new sports. We can discover what people want to see in terms of duration of play, how points are scored and develop brand new games for the 2020s.”

There is also a project module during which students must use technology to solve a real-world problem identified by a federation or business. This was tested last year, but the approach has been amended slightly for the 2022 intake.

“We found that the organisations wanted a solution for today, but we want our students to be more forward looking,” said Atienza. “For the next year, we want an extra step, to find a result for today but also one for three years from now.”

Better decisions

AISTS is committed to ensuring that its flagship course will continue to produce the sports leaders of tomorrow.

As Atienza explains, the course will not create tech wizards necessarily, but will make sure that graduates are versed in how technology can help them to make better decisions. This could be advantageous in terms of better products being offered to customers or more financially savvy decisions being made.

“I think this technology focus is good for graduates and the sports ecosystem because they will benefit from a general understanding of trends in IT and other aspects,” Atienza said. “These graduates and future leaders will understand the tech and how it can be deployed. For example, if they get an offer from a service provider they can judge whether it makes sense and is necessary.

“It is skills such as these that federations and businesses said were important when we were redesigning the programme and asked them what they think their organisations will need in the future.

“This increased focus on technology and digital skills will benefit the participants. Be it in International Federations, which govern the sports and are embracing the opportunities brought by digital technologies, or in other areas of the sport industry such as rights holding and marketing agencies, sporting good companies retailers and service providers in sport, this knowledge will give our graduates a competitive advantage to shape the future of sport.”