It’s small, it measures more than 100 fields of data and it’s discretely worn under the jerseys of AFL footballers, the shoulder pads of NHL ice-hockey players and even the waistcoats of Spanish bullfighters.
GPS tracking devices for professional sportsmen and women are becoming increasingly important to sports scientists and coaches to measure player movement and fatigue during matches and training – everything from how quickly an athlete accelerates to how their heart changes – to improve game strategy and training programs.
And the world’s biggest provider, Catapult Sports, is operating out of small factory in South Melbourne.
“We’re on the way to being a billion-dollar company one day,” says Catapult chairman Adir Shiffman. From modest beginnings, with a few AFL players as clients, the company has sold its devices to the Dallas Cowboys in the US’s National Football League, Italian soccer giant AC Milan and recently picked up its first ice-hockey team, the Philadelphia Flyers.
But it was its first customer in US elite basketball, the Dallas Mavericks, that has proven to be the most important.
The team’s owner, Mark Cuban, a verbose and outgoing technology entrepreneur worth $US2.6 billion ($2.8 billion) according to Forbes, liked Catapult’s devices so much that last week he signed a deal to buy a stake in the business.
“Wearable analytics will be a critical advantage in pro sports and eventually as it shrinks in size, in business,” he told AFR Weekend via email.
“It won’t revolutionise [the sports industry], but it will make teams smarter and keep players on the court more. It also may save a career or even a life on the way.”
The investment is the first by Cuban, who stars on US television in the Shark Tank series and has more than 2 million Twitter followers, in an Australian firm, although he did invest in SwitchCam, a San Francisco-based start-up founded by two Australians, in 2012.
Although terms have not been disclosed, Cuban’s agreement is for a stake understood to be less than 5 per cent and worth only a few million dollars. Yet it comes ahead of Catapult possibly undertaking an initial public offering later this year, in Australia and perhaps the US.
The devices are worn in a harness under a player’s clothes and monitor over 100 parameters including distance, velocity, changes in direction, heart rate, acceleration and decelerations. The data is then relayed wirelessly to an iPhone, iPad or laptop in the coach’s hands on the sidelines.
Shaun Holthouse co-founded Catapult in 2006 with Igor van de Griendt after the pair had worked together in the late 1990s in the federal government’s Co-operative Research Centres program on micro-technology. One project was with the Australian Institute of Sport that led to a development of a wearable GPS device. After gaining a government grant, Catapult was established.
Catapult’s technology is being used in the AFL to interchange players more often, based on data that can show the risk of injury based on distance travelled during a game.
Though international companies like IBM and Adidas are trying to get a slice of the growing sports data market, Australian companies are typically seen as ahead of the curve.
“We’re right at the beginning, really,” said Dr Daniel James, a sports engineer at Griffith University which is developing sensors mounted to the arms of Australian cricketers to measure they throw the ball when fielding, “Australia’s a small country but we tend to innovate quite well; we’ve got a lot of technologies here that are almost more well-known overseas than they are here.”
The past 18 months has seen Catapult’s client list grow from 250 clients to 400.
GRAVITATIONAL CENTRE MOVING TOWARDS THE US
Shiffman says there are more than 4000 sports teams around the world with turnover of more than $1.5 million annually, as well as hundreds of college teams in the US, all of which are prospective clients.
“The gravitational centre of the company is rapidly moving towards America,” he says, adding that the firm needs to grow to keep up with demand from new customers.
Shiffman says Cuban would also help promote the business abroad. “Mark will act in a sort of advisory role and will help open doors for us to speak to new clients and investors as well.”
Catapult has established a US office in Dallas and the company is understood to be preparing for a sharemarket listing later this year, probably in Australia but potentially also with a dual-listing structure on the Nasdaq exchange in the US.
“We have been approached by many venture capitalists and investors in the US, so we say ‘watch this space’,” Shiffman says.