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February 26, 2015

Four sports innovation topics that matter

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Given the extent of coverage we’re currently experiencing in this context, it comes as little surprise to many that Innovation Enterprise is about to run the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in Melbourne.

I’ll be attending both days and there are four trends/topics of discussion I’m most interested in. These are:

1. The decreasing evasiveness and increasing ubiquity of wearables

2. The ‘next wave’ of data usage in elite sport

3. Data privacy

4. Athlete data enhancing the fan experience

All four topics deserve a novel, so I’ll do my best to examine these succinctly for the purpose of the upcoming event. I will however predict that my commentary will raise many more questions that it will possibly answer.

Before diving in, I also think it’s worth noting that each of the four topics above is directly linked to each of the others. I’ll ensure that some of these correlations are drawn throughout the article.

Let’s begin.

1. The decreasing evasiveness and increasing ubiquity of wearables

The last I heard, the average ‘wrist’ life of a wearable device was about 42 days. This isn’t overly surprising as for the most part the first few iterations of many popular wearables such as Fitbit and Jawbone haven’t been able to deliver that much value to their users.

There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is that outside of basic activity, heart rate and sleep tracking, there isn’t a great deal of genuine insight delivered to users. Contextual correlations aren’t being drawn, predictive advice isn’t being offered and ultimately the initial ‘wow factor’ tends to wear off pretty quickly.

Because of the above, I’m ashamed to say I actually lasted less than 42 days with my first ever wearable. Three days in fact.

However, my prediction is that this will change somewhat drastically as wearables become embedded.

By embedded I don’t necessarily mean implanted under the skin (although this will most certainly be the case). What I mean more literally is that the devices become completely non-evasive. We will not notice that we are wearing them or that they are capturing anything from us.

Examples of this that are somewhat of the way are Athos, MoovCityzen Sciences and Hexoskin. These devices are far less evasive, although we will, for the most part, still be conscious of their presence.

These devices, and many others, have the capability to more effectively and with greater granularity, capture some very interesting data sets.

An example of a wearable that goes almost all the way there is Electrozyme. This device measures the biomarkers of a wearers sweat and captures some really interesting data such as real-time lactate levels.

The point of all this is that non-evasive or ‘embedded’ wearables will be completely ubiquitous. Everything will be connected.

Athos: An example of a discrete, wearable device that does not disrupt body movement. Image: www.brit.co/athos/

Athos: An example of a discrete, wearable device that does not disrupt body movement.
Image: www.brit.co/athos

This of course presents huge opportunities, both for elite sport and within the consumer health and fitness industry to gain far more granular insight, to use data to find and solve high-value problems and to build the commercial and personal value of the wearable ecosystem quite significantly.

One of these opportunities that extends far beyond elite sport participation is highlighted well here.

It’s also important to note that everything isn’t fine and dandy; there are many risks that surround security and privacy.

Peter Blanch from Swimming Australia commented pre-event saying, “At some stage there might be a bit of a kickback from the player unions especially around the invasive monitoring of stuff outside the 9-5 workday.”

I only disagree with this slightly as I believe there are many ways in which privacy can be up-held as we progress forward.

I am hoping that this topic is something that can be discussed in some depth during the Innovation Summit.

2. The ‘next wave’ of data usage in elite sport

There’s a lot of talk currently about the huge success of locally founded Catapult Sports and their leadership within the elite sports market. There’s also a lot of supporting data on their effectiveness to reduce injury.

Catapult of course isn’t the only player in this general space; Adidas, STATS, Opta, InfoStrada and many others have captured relatively large portions of their respective markets, often taking a sport-by-sport, rather than sport agnostic approach to capturing the market.

Each of these products or services serves a purpose for a team, organisation or athlete at the current time.

However, these devices tend to be somewhat bulky, and also tend to only be used for a couple of hours each day. What happens the rest of the day? Does an athlete’s environment, or the broader context of their life affect their performance? If yes, how do we know and is there a way to use broader data sets to draw currently unknown correlations? Will these correlations and the diversity of data sets create a more ‘whole’ picture, enabling us to more accurately predict outcomes?

Some of the devices, such as Electrozyme mentioned above, have the potential to be worn for longer periods of time. If you combine the emergence of these types of devices with the capability to capture broader, potentially dispirit data sets, then perhaps the capability to draw new and unique insights will be presented.

When you think of the potential IoT stack that a team or athlete could eventually use, even the likes of Nest come into play. This again raises the issue of privacy, security, and ethically how far we are willing to go with data to gain competitive advantage or achieve any given objective.

What will the professional athlete version of quantified self look like in five, ten or fifty years?

What effect will technologies like VR and AR have? Perhaps High Fidelity will have a say in this.

This is not likely going to play out simply, but again, should be a topic of discussion for some, if not all of the leaders attending the Innovation Summit.

3. Data privacy

This is perhaps the most interesting topic for me given the work I’m currently doing and of course extends far beyond sports.

Privacy is and always has been contextual. Many are optimistic about the notion of privacy in the era of context, but others are extremely skeptical. Both points of view can have merit.

I’ve argued that big data and privacy can be friends, but this of course comes with a caveat; big data and privacy can only be friends if a mechanism that promotes trust, control, choice and user empowerment exists.

This is absolutely relevant within and outside of elite sports and the comment Peter made above is and will continue to be the common response until the structures and mechanisms exists to embed privacy as a core principal in data sciences and other related technologies or practices.

Many organisations have strongly debated the challenges and potential solutions for quite some time. This, as you’d imagine, is a work in progress.

I just hope it becomes a discussion point during the Innovation Summit.

4. Athlete data enhancing the fan experience

Organisations like ESPN, MLBAM and of course Opta are amongst those leading the charge when it comes to utilising athlete data to enhance the fan experience. Personally I believe there are many use cases for athlete data outside of performance and injury monitoring, however the fan experience is amongst the most vital if the sporting economy is to continue to strengthen.

"The fan experience is amongst the most vital if the sporting economy is to continue to strengthen." Photo Credit: Paul Marcolin at Spike Creative

“The fan experience is amongst the most vital if the sporting economy is to continue to strengthen.”
Photo Credit: Paul Marcolin at Spike Creative

Much of the data that’s being captured on an athlete isn’t necessarily proprietary or sensitive (of course, a lot of it also is!) and some of this is already being shared with fans. This is cool in many ways as the notion of tracking your favourite players every move, whether you’re courtside, in transit (not driving…) or at home on the couch certainly incentivises a hardcore fan to remain engaged for extended periods of time.

The result of this engagement will likely add commercial value to all involved.

“With the rollout of wi-fi in stadiums there is a clear and present opportunity to rollout this data direct to fans and deliver insightful contexts into how their favourite players are performing and why,” said Valerio Veo, Head of Product at ESPN.

This is another great point. With wi-fi becoming available in stadiums, teams can more effectively utilise their greatest assets (their players) to deliver engaging insights to game attendees.

I would argue that this is merely a starting point and that the potential uses of athlete data extend far beyond this, however these ‘potential’ opportunities are yet to be seen.

Having said that, the Innovation Summit is yet again the perfect forum to discuss current and future possibilities in this very context.

In many ways, I likely haven’t done these hugely important topics a great deal of justice by briefing through them, however I’m imagining this is the start of a much more interesting conversation.

I would encourage that you tweet any comments, questions or insights to me during the event. I’ll ensure they don’t go unanswered.

Also, if you’ve got anything to add right now, let’s begin a discussion in the comments section.

Sport is experiencing unprecedented change at present and this will only accelerate. Let’s ensure we’re having the meaningful discussions that will help target the biggest challenges, unmet needs and opportunities within sport today.


One Comment


  1. THardham

    Nathan,

    You talk about athlete data enhancing fan experience…whilst I agree that the potential to engage fans on a wider and deeper basis exists, do you not think that a constant “interface checking” will take fans away from why they’re at the event? I go to sports events to watch, feel apart of the action and enjoy time away from home and with friends…..I don’t want to sit on my phone the entire time whilst at a game looking at interesting data about my favorite player…..thoughts on this?
    I know the younger generation interacts very differently with their tech 🙂



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