Silicon Valley Business Journal
Two days before a faceoff with the Seattle Sounders at Silicon Valley’s brand new Levi’s Stadium, San Jose Earthquakes star forward Chris Wondolowski is hard at work in a scrimmage, sprinting down the sideline looking for a pass he can score on.
The setup pass sails a few feet over his head, failing to yield a goal — but the miscue could still prove valuable for Silicon Valley’s pro soccer team.
Over on the sideline, the Quakes’ athletic training staff is monitoring an iPad that shows how players’ physical workloads are fluctuating in the dry, 85-degree heat at the team’s San Jose practice facility. Coaches wander over to peek at the data gleaned from a small Adidas sensor tucked into Wondolowski’s undershirt, conscious that they don’t want to overwork athletes before the match.
“We structure the length of our sessions around that data,” said Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson. “If it’s Wednesday and we want a bigger work day, now we can actually put a number on that.”
Consumer wearable technology and the “quantified self” craze launched by products like the Fitbit and the Nike FuelBand have changed personal fitness and created a new class of gadgets for electronics makers to sell. But Joe Blow’s daily step counting pales in comparison to the stakes for pro sports teams that are gathering biometric data on athletes who collect million-dollar salaries.
“It’s not a consumer product,” said Gary McCoy, senior applied sports scientist with Australia-based Catapult Sports, which competes with Adidas in the wearables industry. “That’s like saying a disposable camera is the same as one on the sidelines that costs $10,000.”
Most teams in the big five U.S. pro sports leagues — football, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer — have only experimented with wearable technology for a year or two. Major League Soccer is at the forefront, having teamed with sponsor Adidas in 2012 to offer wearables to every team.
Now the wearables field holds promise — and points of conflict — for teams, athletes, sports businesses and consumers. Teams can try to better quantify their return on investment for athletes’ salaries, which raises concerns for players’ unions. Athletes and coaches can slice and dice data to improve conditioning and, hopefully, prevent injuries. Sports broadcasters and fantasy sports businesses are champing at the bit to translate data from wearables, scouting software and other sources into entertainment.
“Team data, individual data, passing accuracy, almost every sort of quantifiable thing that you can pull out — it has really changed the game,” Watson said. “It’s changed the way we go about our business.”
From his spot on the sidelines next to an inconspicuous black box topped with a tall, skinny satellite receiver, Earthquakes Assistant Trainer Derek Lawrance tracks how long players exercise with elevated heart rates as they run intense drills. When there’s a break in play, he watches the iPad to make sure each player’s heart rate gets down to a target rest zone.
After practice or at the end of the season, coaches may probe the data for trends, like whether sprint times waned over the season. Performance declines could suggest that an athlete needs a new conditioning regime, Watson said.
The endgame is using data from wearable technology to improve weaknesses in a player’s game. In the process, injury prevention and quicker recoveries are put within reach.
There are companies like Australian biotech startup dorsaVi dabbling in sensors that monitor specific muscles and joints for injuries, but the primary application at the moment is informing trainers when players may be getting overworked.
While more precise injury monitoring could draw attention to sensitive subjects like brain injuries and other physical trauma, there is also a financial incentive for teams to invest in players’ health.
McCoy recalls one recent conversation with a National Basketball Association vice president who estimated that a serious injury to a top player like Kobe Bryant can cost the league up to $100 million a year.
The idea is that data can help prevent those losses and possibly extend the career of valuable all-star players. For Catapult, which counts upward of 400 clients in European soccer, the NFL, MLB and other sports, that means tracking 100-plus data points through a combination of accelerometers, GPS and 3-D gyroscopes. McCoy is also currently in talks to pilot the technology with the Golden State Warriors, San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants.
Moving forward, he expects professional-grade wearables to get smaller and lighter, maybe even to the point several years down the road when athletes are being tracked 24/7 to monitor how they recover from training and games.
“If we can keep him on the field five more years, we’re doing our job.” McCoy said.
Still, Big Data tools like wearable sensors come with complications for professional teams and athletes.
First and foremost are issues of athletes’ data privacy and league labor standards, especially since teams and leagues currently retain ownership of biometric player data.
Bob Foose, executive director of the MLS Players Union, has reservations about teams moving forward with collection of data like heart rates, which he says should be considered “protected medical information.” He is also “very, very skeptical” of biometric data being used as a negotiating tool for player salaries, since athletic performance is a nuanced concept that can’t be fully encapsulated by totaling how many miles a player ran in a season.
Those concerns reflect the inherent difficulty in making sense of massive amounts of data. For instance, McCoy said Catapult’s product generates 1,000 data points per second.
“Tracking players’ heart rates is totally useless and meaningless if you just put up a list of where everyone’s heart rates are,” Foose said. “To be useful, heart rate has to be used in the context of that athlete’s individual history.”
His concern about a ham-fisted approach to data analytics is exacerbated by a lack of standards in how teams are measuring and analyzing data. The Earthquakes have made it mandatory for players to wear the Adidas wearable devices, but other teams aren’t using them regularly, Foose said. Some have hired data scientists, while others try to train existing staff.
As Foose prepares to renegotiate U.S. pro soccer’s collective bargaining agreement at the end of 2014, he expects wearables to be a major source of debate when it comes to salaries and privacy. Still, he is intrigued by possible health applications for the information.
“There’s certainly not a blanket dislike of them,” Foose said. “In terms of fitness and injury prevention, I think our overall feeling is there is real value there.”
The new sports game
Though wearable tech remains in its infancy, McCoy is fond of imagining the technology’s entertainment potential.
He sets a scene where a wide receiver is flying down the sideline toward the end zone. If television broadcasters could display the player’s running speed in real time, they could also show the speed of the cornerback breaking into the frame to chase him down.
“Think about the amount of additional emotional tension that adds,” he says excitedly.
Teams also have reason to get excited about the convergence of sports, technology and entertainment. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that North American sports revenue will hit $67 billion by 2017, up from an estimated $60 billion this year, thanks largely to an anticipated $3 billion per year increase in the value of media rights agreements.
Bay Area sports broadcasters aren’t yet integrating data from wearable devices, in large part because leagues haven’t granted them access, said Comcast SportsNet Bay Area Senior Executive Producer David Koppett. Still, he’s optimistic.
“All of these technologies, this is sort of how they go,” he said. “They start out as utilities for the teams and leagues, and then they work their way to us.”
There are also more exotic possibilities, like “4-D” sports viewing. Comcast SportsNet is about to embark on a partnership with the San Jose Sharks and Ohio-based Guitammer Co., which makes a product called “The ButtKicker.” Right now, the system transmits signals from arena sensors to in-stadium seats or at-home adapters that vibrate fan seats — but the potential exists to enhance that capability with wearable tech.
“When a big hit happens and a guy smashes into the boards, you will feel it,” Koppett said. “Imagine each player wearing a chip in the shoulder pads.”
Data from wearable sensors may also provide broadcasters and other third parties, like fantasy sports companies, analytics that could be offered for free or sold to sports fans.
Mike Musuris, founder of San Jose predictive analytics startup SpinBall Enterprises Inc., sells analytics packages to help die-hard daily fantasy sports players pick their lineups. His company, like Koppett’s, currently can’t access wearable data collected by teams.
Still, he’s intrigued by sci-fi-tinged applications for wearable technology, like quarterback brain-imaging sensors that could help them detect defensive shifts and inform play-calling accordingly.
“The really futuristic aspect as fantasy sports evolve is to predict player performance within a game — you might be making picks right before the play,” he said. “That would be some crazy fun stuff for sports fans.”