When the New York Knicks’ 40-year-old point guard, Jason Kidd, returned from injury this season, the team used a little digital helper to verify that he was up to par. Trainers attached to his jersey a matchbook-size GPS device loaded with sensors to track his acceleration, agility and force. With a benchmark reading set in the preseason, the team got the numbers it needed to clear him to play.
Motion-tracking cameras and super slo-mo video analysis have become standard tech toys in the pro sports trainer’s toolbag . Now comes the OptimEye, a wearable sensor out of Australia that’s being sold as a way to squeeze even more performance out of expensive athletes. It’s made by a privately held firm called Catapult Sports that already has contracts with 250 programs in Australian and European pro soccer, national rowing programs, rugby and Aussie-rules football (proving it can take a hit). Catapult has deals now with 5 NBA teams and 6 in the NFL, recently signing the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills, with another 12 expected to sign before football season starts in September. “I realized after spending a season in the NBA that there was no real analysis of what the players did in training, and I was quite shocked,” says Dave Hancock, former training coach for Chelsea FC, now with the Knicks. “GPS had been used in the Premier League for the last eight years.”
The OptimEye system works by fitting a small ‘bug’ sensor unit in a player’s jersey on their upper back around the T1 vertebra, which then tracks the athlete’s place in 3D space. Accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes not so different from what you’d find in an iPhone track gravitational load, distance and direction data. Unlike your phone though, Catapult then isolates the data using filters to pinpoint an athlete’s exact direction for each acceleration or step. For indoor tracking, Catapult deploys internal stadium antennas to pick up frequencies from athletes in real time, giving an indoor GPS-type solution for hockey and basketball teams without satellite help.
Catapult charges teams an average of $100,000 per year, which gets them regular upgrades and analytical software. The sensors had to be designed to keep track of multiple athletes moving at once and to work indoors. The seven-year-old firm has been profitable for three years and expects to gross an estimated $20 million this year. With its current global push CEO Shaun Holthouse expects sales to cross the $100 million mark in three to four years and go even higher if Catapult can start selling its data to broadcasters eager to divulge fun facts such as which linebackers hit the hardest or which NBA scorers have the quickest first step. Wearable sensors are still banned in the U.S. during official game play. The NFL says it’s in talks with Catapult but declined to comment further.
In the meantime, teams will continue to use them in practice and rehab drills and compare the results with biomedical data to get a complete picture of athletic performance. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars had their players answer questions about emotions and sleep habits and referenced the responses against OptimEye data to prove that players perform significantly better on more sleep–a warning to rookies not to hit the clubs at night.
Catapult’s competition will eventually include Adidas’ wearable devices, but the smaller firm is more immune from brand battles with teams getting paid to wear Nike. The company also faces some competition from the video technology offered by STATS SportVU, which is allowed to track regulation games. Catapult sees such systems as complementary: they provide some tactical information but have a harder time tracking motion that doesn’t result in visible movement, like the acceleration on a quick jab step, or the force exerted in a contact play.
Catapult cofounders Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt incubated their sensor idea with funds from Australia’s national sports science lab. The thin Aussie venture capital community showed little interest, so the founders bought the technology back and bootstrapped along with the help of a state grant. The production process is vertically integrated, with design and final assembly in Australia and some mid-stage manufacturing in Asia. Chairman Adir Shiffman has a software background and says the company manages all its analytics software in-house.
With NFL teams flocking to the technology, the company can set its sights on hockey, baseball and even high school sports in the future. (Catapult already lists the Detroit Tigers as an early adopter client.) To fuel that expansion, the company is currently going for an estimated $10 million investment round.
“This isn’t a normal job,” says Holthouse. “We want to feel we have fundamentally changed elite sport for the better.”