Jersey-Embedded GPS and the Tech-Centric Future of Football
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Strapping a satellite tracking device to help boost your favorite athlete’s plays is now possible.
Here’s how your favorite top athletes suit up these days. For pro football, of course, they’ve got their helmets, jerseys and pads. But for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, there’s also a live-tracking device that fits into his undershirt during practice to pick up how he switches directions or slows down — all important intel to help improve his future plays. Then there are Major League Soccer stars, like Michael Bradley, who use jersey-embedded GPS devices during matches to track how quickly they can deke someone out or monitor their “power output” when they strike a ball.
Sure, dressing the stars has always been a big business, but equipping sports studs with satellite technology is a relatively new concept. A decade ago, this corner of the sports-tech industry was tiny, with the entire market for “wearable computing systems” worth around $170 million in 2005, according to a study by the Venture Development Corporation. Gadgets for pro sports made up a slim portion of that, though they’re expected to become a significant portion of the wearables industry, which has since ballooned to $20 billion and is projected to reach $70 billion by 2025. All of this, of course, is to help sports teams gain an advantage — however small — over their opponents.
Many of these GPS devices rest between players’ shoulders in a sleeveless bib or pocket and transmit live data about their location and speed. Embedded inertial sensors, with gizmos like gyroscopes, track a player’s orientation, while magnetometers measure their direction. On top of this are heart-rate straps and accelerometers — all of which deliver sports scientists fancy bioanalytics to expose injury risks and pinpoint weaknesses in a specific play. For example, some sensors can show if a lineman blocks better to his right or whether a wide receiver should ease off before tearing a ligament. And while the who’s who of this burgeoning industry are all names you’d expect — Nike, Adidas, Google, etc. — the surprising leader of the pro wearables market is Catapult Sports, a small Australian company that, until recently, operated mostly anonymously.
How has a little Australian company managed to dominate the competition, with its sensors lining the uniforms of everyone from AC Milan soccer players to Spanish bullfighters?
There’s a reason tech companies are bullish while chasing pro wearables: Elite franchises are flush with cash. The average athletics expenses at the NCAA’s top schools spent almost $82 million in 2013, while NFL teams divvied up $6 billion in revenue and NBA squads saw $4.79 billion come in. Mo’ money, but also mo’ problems: There’s heavy pressure to win, and also increased scrutiny over brain injuries. Teams will pay for a leg up — or to avoid costly concussion lawsuits. “The dollars stack up,” says Queensland, Australia–based researcher Daniel James, who developed the science behind the U.S.-based Raybird fitness wristbands. “You’re not even going to be competitive unless you do what other teams are doing.”
So how has a little Australian company managed to dominate the competition, with its sensors lining the uniforms of everyone from AC Milan soccer players to Spanish bullfighters? Much of Catapult’s early gadgetry came from the Australian Institute of Sport, a federally funded program established after the sports-hungry Aussies embarrassingly left the 1976 Montreal Olympics without winning a single gold medal.
It was also a very different playing field just a decade ago, when Catapult was one of the only companies in the market and its early sensors were stuck in labs and with a humble client list — a few Australian footballers. As technology improved, particularly in tablets and smartphones, sensor technology became more feasible. That helped Catapult grow while building partnerships with rugby league players, international soccer clubs and Olympic national teams. European teams signed on early, but American customers eventually followed suit. The Aussie startup reeled in its biggest catch with billionaire Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, in May 2014.
That was 18 months ago. Now Catapult works with more than half of NFL and NBA teams, and over 50 Division I college squads. The company’s also opened a Chicago office and, given that pro sports franchises are willing to pay anywhere from $10,000 to hundreds of thousands per year to use Catapult’s sensors, investors are happy too — shares have roughly tripled from the company’s Australian initial public offering in December.
But major league sports, especially those in the U.S., haven’t yet fully embraced sensors. The NBA and NFL, for instance, have yet to sanction them for in-game use. And when it comes to designing wearables for pros, it’s still a smaller niche than the millions of amateur athletes worldwide, where “volume trumps all,” says James. (A company rep pointed us to its prospectus, which cites strategic opportunities for selling products to sports organizations and individuals at the “prosumer” level.)
For now, the future of this sector is far from locked down, and companies like Catapult will keep searching for that cool new invention that’ll be a hit on the field, or on the courts. After that, it’s anyone guess as to whether or not consumers on the streets will show interest. As John Feland, founder of market research company Argus Insights, says, “What gadget is going to become the next Air Jordans — the thing that all the kids want to have?”