Wearable technologies and big-data analytics are enabling coaches, trainers and general managers to analyze previously unquantifiable aspects of athletic performance in fine detail. But as more technology gets strapped on to professional athletes, some are beginning to express concern over how such devices could be used to track their diet, sleep patterns and life off the field.
“The pros have to be careful,” said Brian Bulcke, a defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League. “They’re working in a very small cluster of highly competitive people, they’re highly monitored and highly scrutinized.”
As technology continues to penetrate arenas, training facilities and even the daily lives of athletes, Bulcke anticipates a continued debate over the role of such innovations in sports moving forward.
“I feel like a guinea pig sometimes when we talk about athletes and technology, and I stress that we’re people too,” he said. “We’re professionals, so I think the respect line on privacy, security and all that kind of stuff needs to be maintained in athleticism, despite being entertainment.”
While many franchises are introducing new technologies to their athletes, Bulcke has a more intimate knowledge of the changes coming to his sport. During the off-season he serves as business development lead for the sport innovation program at Ryerson University in Toronto, providing mentorship to 10 early-stage sports technology companies operating out of the university’s Digital Media Zone incubator program.
In this position Bulcke says he is able to pursue his passion for engineering and begin planning for his life after football, while also ensuring that athletes don’t become “guinea pigs” in the experiments of the technology industry. “I guess I’m a walking contradiction,” he jokes, adding that it’s important for athletes to play a role in the inevitable proliferation of technology in sports.
New innovations are poised to forever change the sports landscape, and while technology has the potential to improve performance and training, reduce injuries and enhance the fan experience, concerns abound over security, privacy, and how a galaxy of new information will affect athletes on a personal level.
There’s big money in wearable technology. Global revenues for sports, fitness and activity monitors are expected to grow from $1.9bn in 2013 to $2.8 bn in 2019, according to technology industry analysis firm IHS Technology.
“It’s the athletes and the people on the frontlines that will help define the industry. We’re the early adopters but we’re also a megaphone for the rest of the athletes in the market,” adds Bulcke. “Over the years we’ll see more and more athletes permeate into the wearables space.”
Bulcke says that conversations in the locker room regarding this influx of new technologies are mixed. Both athletes and coaches want players to remain at the top of their game and reduce injuries, however players remain concerned over the blurring line between their personal and professional lives.
“I do think there’s a line there, and we focus purely on when you’re at the workplace, and the workplace for athletes is when you’re practicing or playing games or doing rehab and assessments,” said Brian Kopp, president of the North American division of Catapult, an Australian company whose wearable devices are used widely among professional athletes and major league teams in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and college-level sports programs. “When you go home and you’re doing whatever on your own time, you’re not wearing our device, but certainly there are other devices that could track those [personal] things, and I tend to agree that there is a line, and to me I would draw the line at the workplace.”
What’s more concerning to Bulcke and other athletes, however, is that as more metrics are tracked and run through big-data algorithms, technology will not only detect minute changes in player ability, but could even predict future declines in performance. For example, an athlete at the top of their game could see a pay decrease during salary negotiations not based on their performance, but on macro patterns related to age, injury history and previously undetectable biometric data.
While sports are often reduced to numbers, Bulcke stresses that the most inspiring moments are unquantifiable. “There’s an element of art that needs to be preserved, and general managers and coaches need to respect that,” he said.
Kopp, however, suggests that there has been an ongoing trend in major league sports toward using hard data to inform coaches and general managers, and technology is simply providing new metrics to enable better decision-making. He explains that the trend began in Major League Baseball following the publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball in 2003, and quickly extended into nearly every other major sport.
“All teams are looking for ways to maximize how they make their decisions,” said Kopp. “If you take wearables out of the mix, the decisions will still be made, it’s just a lot more guesswork.”
Many also consider the often-extreme salaries enjoyed by professional athletes as justification for tightly monitoring their performance during competition, especially if it can enhance the fan experience. Sports are a form of entertainment, and providing new insights to spectators can increase their engagement with the game.
“The insights that come from the data that evolve and advance the story and make the game potentially more interesting for fans – that’s where I see one of the big opportunity areas, and we’re already starting to see that,” said Stacey Burr, vice-president and general manager of Adidas’s digital sports business unit.
Burr’s department has helped develop products ranging from heart rate-monitoring sports bras and T-shirts to soccer balls that track speed, distance, trajectory and rotation. “We can see the power metrics of cyclists, we can see the heart rate data of car racers when they’re in dangerous situations – all of that lets the fan see and feel what it’s like for the athlete in that situation.”
Burr explains that technology and sportswear companies are enabling access to new insights and data points for coaches, trainers, athletes and general managers to draw from, but it is not their place to weigh in on how that data will affect salaries and contract negotiations.
“I don’t know how that whole world works, to be honest with you; we’re just providing facts and figures, and I think there’s somebody else that has a set of mental models that they use in terms of what the future opportunities are for individual players,” she said.