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Hawk-Eye's vision extends to soccer and beyond

Assistant Referee Lee Probert holds a watch linked to the Hawkeye system before the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool an
Assistant Referee Lee Probert holds a watch linked to the Hawkeye system before the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool an

By Keith Weir

BASINGSTOKE, England (Reuters) - Blatant foul or theatrical dive? Penalty kick or yellow card?

The company that came up with the Hawk-Eye system to settle line calls in tennis is involved in a trial of video refereeing that could end many of the disputes that give soccer a bad name, its founder says.

A two-year trial being carried out with little fanfare in the top Dutch division is the latest project to involve Hawk-Eye, a company based in southern England whose ball-tracking tools have become a familiar visual aid to umpires and fans in tennis and cricket over the past decade.

The technology is designed to address an issue faced by many televised sports, where instant replays and social media allow armchair fans to spot errors seconds after they have been made by officials with only their own instant judgment and perhaps an impaired view to rely on.

The work of Hawk-Eye, bought by Japanese electronics giant Sony in 2011, and rivals such as Germany's GoalControl enables sports to get more of those decisions right, creating a business opportunity and fuelling a debate about whether review technology slows down the game too much.

Paul Hawkins, who developed and gave his name to a system to complement television coverage of cricket in the 1990s and remains a director of the company, wants to end that debate.

"Sport at the top level is about fine margins," he said.

"You can't have something that only gets rid of the howler (blatant error) and doesn't help with the close calls."

PREMIER LEAGUE DEBUT

Hawk-Eye is now helping to resolve goal line disputes in English soccer after the Premier League, the world's richest, became the first major domestic competition to bring in such technology.

FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has gone down a similar path after match officials failed to spot a goal by England's Frank Lampard in his country's defeat to Germany during the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA used a GoalControl system during the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June, leaving the Germans well placed to win the contract for next year's World Cup.

Hawk-Eye is now working with Dutch soccer authorities to take technology in soccer a step further with a full-blown trial of video refereeing.

The concept has been used for several years in sports such as rugby union and American football; Hawk-Eye aims to reduce the reliance on TV broadcast output to come up with quicker and clearer answers.

Its Officiating Replay System allows an extra referee to quickly monitor multiple TV feeds from the broadcaster before they are aired, to review contentious calls to, say, award a penalty kick or disallow a goal for offside.

The system fulfils the wish of many an armchair fan by offering the video referee a parallel feed running two seconds behind the live feed, effectively allowing for an instant review of a contentious incident that was only half-glimpsed.

For now, the Dutch trial is being used only to test the speed and reliability of the system, not to intervene in matches.

Hawkins said the trial aimed to answer a specific question: "On how many decisions could a video referee assist the on-field referee without slowing the game down?"

ARGUMENTS RAGE ON

Hawk-Eye, which makes core profit of 4.5 million pounds ($7.23 million) on annual revenues of between 15 and 20 million, sees Major League Baseball (MLB) as one potential new market.

Baseball already uses instant replays to judge whether home runs have been scored, and is now looking at extending the system to judge whether runners make it safely to base or not.

Hawk-Eye, which employs 70 people at its base in the southern English town of Basingstoke, plans to set up an office in Boston as part of a push into American markets.

Despite the advances of technology, arguments over close calls are unlikely to disappear -- which may be good news for fans who like an argument, and the media who feed that appetite.

The cricket test series between England and Australia this summer, the oldest rivalry in the sport, was marked by arguments over the reliability of a system designed to make it easier for umpires to decide whether a batsman had hit the ball.

BBG, the Australian company that developed the Hotspot technology, eventually had to call for protective coatings to be taken off bats to make the system work better.

($1 = 0.6221 British pounds)

(Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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