IN the late 1960s, David Attenborough, the legendary British documentarian, was working as a studio controller for the BBC when he led the charge for the BBC to broadcast Wimbledon in colour the first time ever.
Broadcasting tennis in colour brought the matches to life, but it made tracking the ball on screen difficult, especially when it fell near the white court-lines.
So, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) undertook a study that found that yellow tennis balls were easier for home viewers to see on their screens.
For nearly a century, tennis balls were white or black until permanently changing to yellow/luminous. In a similar way, hurling followed the same path.
For much of the last century, the colour of a sliotar was brown, or tan, before being changed to white to suit a TV audience.
Earlier this year, the GAA was expected to take that next step again and change the colour of the sliotar to yellow/luminous. The new ‘digital’ sliotar was expected to be approved at a Central Council meeting in late January, which would have then seen it used in the 2020 hurling championship.
However, it was taken off the agenda at that Central Council meeting because some sliotar suppliers declared their unease about possible exclusion, while they also feared that the cost would put them out of business.
With the GAA looking for a more standardised core for all sliotars, some suppliers also feared that their unique brand would be lost in that mass production line. Establishing the veracity of the ball has long been the GAA’s primary concern because there was no regulation in the market.
When Tomás Mullins and Rory Williams of Greenfields Digital Sports Technologies (GDST) first made a presentation to the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) in Croke Park in 2011, they outlined their vision for what could be done to standardise the core of the sliotar.
Mullins and Williams’ ultimate goal was that only approved sliotars could be used at inter-county level.
So, the first big step was to develop a chip embedded within the sliotar that was durable and could command a sustainable relationship with a mobile reading device.
Referees would then be able to verify the provenance of any sliotar by using a smartphone app.
Information needed to be stored on the chip so once they developed a chip that could survive in a high impact environment, the range of data that could potentially be gathered was enormous.
Along with in-game data being available for display in stadiums, a menu of options will be available for use in TV coverage.
Coaches will also be able to download the data. The chip can also do goal-line technology. It’s effectively a ball talking from the inside out.
The possibilities are endless but it’s still unknown if the GAA would want to go that far. The main challenge for now though, is getting all the other sliotar suppliers on board.
Currently, all sliotars are produced in Pakistan, before being shipped here.
GDST produce the core and the technology in Ireland before shipping the product out to their stitching facility in Asia to stitch on the cover. The stitching is too expensive to mass produce in Ireland.
What the GAA want is for suppliers to switch the supply from Pakistan to approved manufacturers in Ireland, who in turn can make the ball, and then brand it for the suppliers.
The approved suppliers supplier would have to pay a certain price for the ball’s digitalisation and regulation, but it would streamline the market.
That would cost approximately €1 or €1.25 more per sliotar than what suppliers are normally paying.
However, that is a significant amount of money in terms of bulk buying, especially when some local suppliers just want to supply to local clubs, and who have no interest in having their ball used at inter-county level.
More importantly, they also don’t want their sliotar to lose their identity with their unique brand.
The key issue though, is that the GAA are intent on standardising sliotars and they want to try and bring every supplier into the same tent.
GSDT are happy to work on large volumes and small margins. And large volumes are the only way to get the retail price point at an accepted level of between €5-6.
Suppliers can determine their own selling price, thus having the ability to maintain their current margins if so desired.
The big question though, is whether clubs will want to pay that higher cost?
And costs will be an even greater factor again for clubs when the current crisis abates.
GSDT are continuing to produce the core of the new digital ball here but they recently purchased 17,000 square metres of leather covering in Japan at a significant cost.
That product was supposed to be sent to their stitching company, but the current coronavirus crisis has delayed everything.
The next step of the digital sliotar is unknown but changing to a luminous colour certainly has its merits, especially when the Irish sky is broadly similar to the colour of a white sliotar, which makes it harder again to track.
The new digital sliotar certainly won’t be used in the 2020 championship but nobody knows if there even will be a championship this season.
It may be used in 2021 but a lot of hard talking will have to be done before hurling will become a whole new ball game.