Australia: Wearable technology in sport

Last Updated: 13 August 2019
Article by Sam Adams

During the recently concluded 2019 State of Origin rugby league series, fans were given a glimpse into how biometric tracking data can increase fan engagement and enhance the appeal of sport.

Throughout the game, fans received information about the fastest players on the field and which players were operating with the highest intensity, thanks to a metric that measured the distances travelled by each player per minute of game time.

A recent example of tracking biometric data for fans was during Game 2 of the 2017 State of Origin series. This example may also prove to be a pivotal moment in teaching sport stars about the commercialisation possibilities of biometric data – and how they can use this data to build revenue streams that continue after the conclusion of their playing careers.

Game 1 of the 2017 series was won convincingly (28 points to 4) by New South Wales. In Game 2, New South Wales lead 16 points to 6 at half time. Victory in Game 2 would secure the series win to New South Wales. Queensland scored a second half try to bring the score to 16 points to 12. In the final minutes of play, Queensland winger Dane Gagai scored near the sideline to level the scores. Queensland champion Jonathan Thurston had the task of kicking the sideline conversion to win the game and level the series at one all.

During the game, Thurston was wearing a biometric tracking device, which gave the fans at home the chance to see his heart rate. His heart rate during the game peaked at 195 beats per minute. In the seconds before he took his shot at victory, Thurston managed to reduce his heart rate by 5% (from 170 beats per minute to 161 beats per minute) – notwithstanding the enormous pressure of the situation.

For most people about to undertake a stressful experience (public speaking), you would expect their heart rate to increase as the critical moment approaches. Reflecting on the critical moment afterwards, Thurston said that he managed to control his anxiety through a combination of deep breathing techniques and by sticking to his trusted goal kicking routine.

As history would show, Thurston made the conversion to secure a Queensland victory (18 points to 16) with Queensland then going on to win the third game of the series.

Thurston's example, and the increased availability of biometric data, is interesting for a number of important reasons:

  1. What data is collected now, and what data might become available in the future?
  2. Who owns the data?
  3. How can the data be used?
  4. How can players combine their biometric data and knowledge of physical and mental training to provide income at the end of their sporting career?

What is biometric data?

Biometric data refers to data generated by an individual that relates to their physical, physiological and behavioural characteristics. The information has the capability to provide a unique identification tool and to reveal significant insights about an individual's health and biological functions.

In the sports industry, biometric data attained from athletes includes:

  • heart rate
  • global positioning data (e.g. distances covered or speeds reached by an athlete on a field)
  • accelerometry data (e.g. in order to assess the energy expenditure of an athlete in training)
  • blood oxygen levels
  • sleep data
  • body temperature.

Biometric information has become a highly valuable commodity because of its ability to assist athletes and coaching staff to assess athlete physical exertion, monitor health and injury risks, and tailor training programs to meet individual needs.

The potential application of the biometric data of elite athletes is much broader and could dominate the health and fitness consumer market for the next decade.

How is biometric data being collected?

Athlete biometric data is collected through wearable technology devices.

Key technology providers in this space include Australian company Catapult Sports, which produces products such as the Catapult GPS tracking unit that is used by athletes in the NRL, AFL and Cricket to measure global positioning information.

Catapult's GPS tracking unit is a sensorised device that sits in the back pocket of a player's jersey. It can measure an athlete's on-field statistics such as distance covered, speed and acceleration.

Another key provider in this space is an arm band manufactured by US wearable technology company WHOOP, which contains sensors that measure a range of data relevant to assessing an individual's strain, recovery and sleep performance. This device has been officially adopted for off-field recovery monitoring in the NFL and is also reported to be used by athletes such as Michael Phelps. WHOOP is privately owned and supported by third party funding arrangements.

Formula 1 racing introduced a new race glove for the 2018 season. The biometric glove includes a flexible 3 mm sensor that is stitched into the palm area of the glove and is used to monitor a driver's heart rate as well as blood oxygen levels. The glove has been introduced as an important tool to assist medical personnel that provide support to injured drivers.

Who owns the data?

The question of who owns the biometric data is an interesting and complex legal question – particularly in the context of the professional sports industry where the collection and distribution of athlete biometric data may be of significant commercial value.

There are a number of key stakeholders who might assert ownership claims over athlete biometric data:

  • the athletes themselves (given the data is taken from their person)
  • the clubs and leagues (who may have commissioned and funded the introduction of the technology to capture the data).

Wearable technology companies and third-party data analytics companies that synthesise data generated by the technology into something meaningful and valuable to consumers may also seek to assert ownership or ongoing use rights. Specific ownership claims will ultimately be determined through contracts, competition rules and licence agreements – and will reflect the outcomes of enterprise negotiations between sporting administrators and player associations.

However, many of the collective bargaining agreements that exist among the world's leading sporting codes do not take account of the substantial value that the collection of this data may hold.

Under the AFL's current collective bargaining agreement, players are required to wear Catapult GPS units in matches if requested by their club. This data may be distributed by the AFL to its authorised broadcast partners (showing the top five players from both teams for distance covered, average speed and maximum speed) and to clubs for coaching and analytics purposes. The overall effect of the relevant provisions of the collective bargaining agreement is to leave control over this data in the hands of the administration, while preserving the potential for further commercialisation of the data moving forward. Players have the right to request a copy of their 'Player Information'.

The CBA arrangements under the NBA and NFL are not definitive.

Ultimately, ownership of biometric data will become a critical component of future enterprise bargaining negotiations. This trend will be supported by the greater capabilities of fitness trackers and smart watches, and the demand from consumers for wearable technology that helps them to achieve their health and fitness goals.

As sports administrators and player associations engage in collective bargaining negotiations and revenue distribution models, they will need to determine the inputs that should be included and entrusted to sporting administrators to commercialise for the betterment of all aspects of the game – including the players – and define which attributes should be carved out for players to separately commercialise.

Keeping on top of technological change, and the way that it can radically alter the relative values of different subsets of a deal during the term of an agreement, is one of the most important challenges facing sporting administrators, player associations and media companies. This is particularly relevant where the technology transforms the ways in which consumers can access and engage with entertainment.

What are some of the ways in which the data can be used by sports administrators and other interested parties?

For sporting fans, performance statistics are already an important part of the game. For example, batting averages, strike rates, tackles, disposals, distance gained, first downs, and percentage of shots made. Adding biometric markers to these statistics will provide some unique insights that help fans feel closer to their heroes.

Biometric data has the potential to become extremely valuable property that could be commercialised by:

  • sporting administrators to improve fan engagement and to seek quantitative analysis around player performance and injury management
  • media companies as a way of delivering a better fan experience
  • punters and wagering companies using predictive analysis to detect trends that are important in jurisdictions that allow live in-play betting
  • sports integrity operators looking to identify potential flags for corrupt activities.

Sports administrators are best placed to manage many of these relationships, particularly with broadcast partners and as a way of enhancing fan engagement.

From an injury management and player performance perspective, player associations may have concerns about how widely the information is shared.

In terms of predictive analysis opportunities, The Economist recently published a video on the use of data analytics in the NBA to improve performance. The video featured the Houston Rockets and describes how the team has adapted its recruitment style to reflect the trends being identified through the data analysis.

The video from The Economist can be found here.

How can the players commercialise the data and their experience in performing in high pressure environments?

For sports stars, the combination of biometric data and unprecedented consumer demand for wearable technology to deliver health and fitness goals provides athletes with a unique new source of revenue. Critically, this opportunity is something that could provide a lucrative revenue stream both during and after the conclusion of a playing career.

This is an area that players, athletes and player associations should consider carving out of future collective bargaining arrangements.

The example of Thurston showed how the application of extensive physical and mental training techniques allowed him to excel in one of the defining moments of his career. Elite athletes also have access to the world's best mind coaches that help them to build this mental fortitude to perform at the highest level.

Most people will never have the opportunity to receive this type of expert tuition. But most of us, in our lives, will deal with high pressure situations on a regular basis.

Athletes can use biometric data to show their fans (or people wanting to learn how to become high performers) what was happening inside their bodies in moments of immense pressure. At the same time, they can commentate about the mental exercises they undertook in order to regulate their biometric rhythm.

Through the massive reach of social media, athletes can speak with authenticity and build an audience that commercialises their unique knowledge in a way that sustains them after the conclusion of their sporting careers.

Training programs could be developed by elite sportspeople around their performance:

  1. physically: this is how I train, here is what my biometric data shows and here is what you should look for in your own biometric data
  2. mentally: here is how I have learned to manage stressful, high pressure situations, this is what my biometric data shows in those moments, and here is how you can learn to perform in high pressure situations.

Equally, elite performers could also teach us how they deal with other situations impacting on society, including managing trolls on social media and the mental models they used to overcome any feelings of negativity or anxiety.

What technological changes might this drive?

The methods of collecting the data from players at the professional level is probably not as fashionable as consumers would expect:

Perhaps the next evolution for the mass consumer market will be the development of a bigger watch – think old school sweat band of 1980s tennis players – with a watch screen as big (or slightly bigger), and with a flip screen. This would have the dual purposes of being a camera and also a display screen, which could show all of your important biometric data alongside a peer set (and your heroes).

Forward thinking player associations or sporting administrators could partner with a technology company to produce a wearable device according to their own specifications.

Wrapping up

It is still very early days in the presentation of biometric data to fans and consumers. The information and learnings that can be applied from the data is profound – and not only to fans that love the sport. – It also gives the rest of society the chance to learn, through quantitative data and timely insights from the world's highest performers, about how we too can perform at higher levels in our own fields of pursuit.

We look forward to the world's best technology companies combining with the world's best athletes and data scientists to collect and analyse this data and present it in a way that is ready for consumption by those with the means to receive and the desire to learn from it.

From a legal perspective, sporting administrators and players associations should have regard to these factors as they negotiate future enterprise bargaining agreements.

© Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers

Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.

This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please contact Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers.

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