It is one thing to talk about wearables and their potential, it’s another to actually see the technology implemented in a game or a match and follow, albeit from a distance, in actual game play.
On Saturday at Red Bull Arena, while so many colleagues were hearing from experts about the future at the trio of mega-sports business events; SxSW Sports, MIT Sloan Sports in Boston and the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, I got to stand pitch side for the Avia Premiership match between London Irish and table leading Saracens FC, and see how Catapult Sports’ tracking technology is not just played with in practice, as teams in the NBA and the NFL are starting to do, but how it can be used for a competitive advantage in games.
Based in Australia, Catapult, founded in 2006, provides sports teams with GPS trackers to be worn on the shirts or jerseys of professional athletes, which collect thousands of points of data which are then used to measure player movement and fatigue and prevent injuries. Right now 10 out of 12 of the Aviva Premiership clubs, including Saracens, Harlequin FC, Wasps FC, Gloucester, Exeter Chiefs, Newcastle Falcons, and London Irish have the ability to use the technology as much as they like, with Saracens having the trackers on and their staff using the information during the actual match play, which the defending champions won 26-16 before a crowd of close to 15,000 in the first-ever regular season Premiership match played in the United States.
The devices are harness-like and go around the chest, tracking every possible bit of data; breathing, heart rate, run speed and location, all transmitted back on a secure connection to a laptop located right next to the team bench. Players have trackers under their jersey with the transmitter on their back, and not one seemed uncomfortable with the device. The data comes in almost in real time and is set according to a customized algorithm for performance coaches to monitor as the game goes on and provide updates to the team during key periods of activity. While the coaches were not constantly scurrying over, during breaks data was transferred and updated and could easily help with player positioning, and more importantly substitutions depending on score and fitness. The rest of the data is then downloaded and studied post-game to match with the ebb and flow of action and see where substitutions could and couldn’t have been adjusted to best help with the result. Whether the data did helped directly did come into play late in the match, as Saracens Nick Tompkins was able to break through and block a kick and then return the kick for a game clinching tie in a sprint down the sideline. Watching his charts move and flow indicated all through the second half that he was in peak performance and in great position not just to make the play, but to outrun the London Irish players to the score after he was able to break through with the block.
The other key areas where Catapult has assisted is with injury analysis. Although there were no major injuries during the match, it was clear that marrying motion, speed, heart rate and other variables to a time when injury occurs can be key to prevention going forward, and it was noted that especially during practice, the system works well in showing how much each athlete can and would be pushed to achieve optimal performance.
Where all this goes in terms of in-game usage and analysis in the United States is up for some debate. The Premiership has yet to require all teams to monitor, and on Saturday Saracens used the system during the match, while London Irish did not have their system set up. Does that cause an unfair advantage? There is also the question of data security and connectivity in stadia. If the connectivity is failing, as we saw with tablets during the AFC Championship game, can that also be seen as an unfair advantage? Then there is a question of security, and one team hacking into another’s feed, which always remains a possibility, or even worse, the possibility of the live feed being corrupted during a live match. While outside the States, the haves and have nots in terms of spending can provide a club with an in-game advantage, the five major sports leagues in North America would probably not let one club access in-game data if the other club could not afford to sue the same information. In practice, clubs like the Dallas Cowboys and Golden State Warriors have already started to work with catapult to look at data, but in-game that usage is still far away.
There is also the question that will arise in the States as to who owns the data, the athlete or the club, and how can that data be used in things like contract negotiations going forward. Even more significant is the issue of athlete health and well-being, and what data can be made public under HIPAA laws in the United States regarding privacy.
Also, as the Premiership folks admitted, is the issue of what is too much data and how does it actually impact game results? Sport is played by emotional humans who can sometimes overcome great issues of weakness to succeed, and having all the data available to make assumptions on play in games may sometimes deter or alter decisions on coaching for the worse, not the better. The Premiership staff also admitted that even clubs using Catapult and other wearable devices have gotten pushback from select players in in game usage; they either feel self-conscious about the system or they do not want data to come onto their mindset when making decisions on the field, so acceptance is still far from universal.
Even with all those issues, watching the implementation of a wearable during a live match, albeit from a distance, and seeing how it can impact strategy was a great glimpse into the future of competitive athletics. How that does get implemented between leagues, players associations, media partners, lawyers, agents, brands, tech companies and even fans down the line in the States is up for debate, but the fact that the system worked in a U.S. stadium in a live professional match was both interesting and noteworthy, and certainly worth watching going forward. U.S. sport can certainly learn a bit from their UK brethren on this one.