There's a Wearables Arms Race in Professional Sports

Pro athletes are basically already machines, anyway.

Nov 17 2014, 7:00pm

Image: Catapult Sports/​YouTube

Every year, pro leagues see huge cash deals given to athletes who subsequently don't perform—just take a look at NFL and NBA failures like Jamarcus Russell and Greg Oden. But can teams make better picks by strapping high-end performance trackers onto young athletes?

Wearable technology companies are aiming to reduce or eliminate those types of mistakes by introducing another layer of actionable data into sports analysis. Increasingly, pro teams are looking at data from wearable devices—instead of just the old eyes of scouts—to figure out which talent is right to bet on.

Related: How Hockey Got Moneyballed

At the upper echelon of the wearable market, Australia's Catapult Sports is helping pro teams define the specific metrics it takes to be a pro athlete. 

Its technology doesn't come cheap, at a rumoured minimum spend of over $100 thousand per year. But as a senior sports scientist at Catapult, Gary McCoy, told Motherboard, "that type of investment into a hyper-detailed analysis, when you're about to invest tens of millions of dollars into a prospect, is a pretty good deal."

Number 20 Greg Oden is considered one of the biggest contract busts in NBA history. Image: Keith Allison/​Wikimedia Commons

One of the Catapult systems is a smartphone-sized device sewn onto the back of jerseys or pinnies. Players wear them in practices or games, while the system gleans information about how fast the player is moving and his position on the field. From there, coaches have access to objective data that analyses player performance using a software platform.

Catapult isn't the only wearable technology company making a play for the business of pro teams. 

The Australian company is being tested by the likes of Adidas, which recently launched a similar type of product. The Adidas device, the miCoach elite team system, helped propel the Germans to a World Cup victory in Brazil earlier this year. That success has also helped pave the way for a flood of new wearable devices from companies like Push and OMsignal. All of whom are vying to earn a lucrative spot in a teams tool box.

Considering future NBA hall of famer Kevin Durant was drafted directly after Greg Oden, it's not hard to understand why teams are desperate for good data to avoid costly mistakes. 

Catapult's system is widely adopted by professional teams across the world, from Italian soccer giants AC Milan to the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers. Few, however, are willing to talk about it. Several teams promptly turned down requests by Motherboard for comment about the advanced system, indicating that they'd prefer to keep the information within their organizations.

That kind of operational security brings to mind international espionage or trade secrets, but the stakes are clearly high, with millions on the line and team owners who want to win. Indeed, Catapult even bills itself as "the most used secret in sports."

The team has been strapping the wearables onto prospects, then comparing the data against current top players

At the recent WEST conference on athletics, it was disclosed that an unspecified NFL team had ordered extra Catapult systems for their scouts to take on the road with them. When asked why, the team revealed it's begun strapping the wearables onto prospects, then comparing the data they've extracted against the database of information they have on their current top players. The teams then direct the scouts to find players who meet or exceed those metrics. 

In other words, this kind of in-depth data gathering has suddenly given pro teams the ability to make unprecedented bets on the success of a player.

The investment into wearables is already beginning to pay dividends for teams in other ways, too. The Toronto Raptors' adoption of Catapult coincided with the hire of sports scientist Alex McKechnie, a man who legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson credited with being a massive part of his Los Angeles Lakers team's success. The relationship has resulted in the team climbing into first in the Eastern conference of the NBA.

A wearable Catapult system. Image: YouTube

Of course, these types of results are not being taken lightly around the top professional basketball league in the world. Despite the potential to reduce injuries tremendously by sharing information amongst each other, teams are remaining tight-lipped about their technologies, and engaging in a sort of wearable technology arms race.

"I get the sense that the NBA is trying to get ahead of the arms race and standardize the equipment so all teams are on equal footing and we are better able to protect our players," said Dallas Mavericks owner and Catapult investor Mark Cuban. "I think we will see players coming into the NBA today who will easily play into their 40s as new diet, exercise and monitoring and muscular and skeletal modifications will dramatically reduce orthopedic and ligament wear and tear."

The NBA arms race that Cuban mentioned is very real, and the stakes are enormous. So far, nine NBA teams have signed up to make use of the Catapult system, which gives the Aussie company a stranglehold on the league. Not to mention, two teams in the NHL and 12 in the NFL have signed up for its products, along with a laundry list of professional soccer teams in Europe.

At a basic level, pro athletes are like machines: they're expensive, you have to tune them up, and they face the possibility of breaking down. The process of bringing them into the pro ranks costs millions of dollars, and there's not one professional team that hasn't been burned by a bad contract or wasted draft pick. Wearables may make the difference in drafting a championship winning athlete rather than a money pit.