You’re immersed in a football, rugby or boxing match, and suddenly performance metrics appear on the screen in front of you – the force of a tackle or punch, the athlete’s heart rate and even their fatigue index. But you’re not playing a video game... you’re watching the real thing.
Broadcasting data to viewers at home or in the stands isn’t a new idea. Possession share in football, the number of caps in rugby, even a cyclist’s pedal cadence in the Tour de France has been shared to amplify the sense of anticipation, achievement... even jeopardy. But wearables in sport can tell us so much more.
In the third part of our Tech in Sport series, our number nerds look at how real time broadcasting of detailed player biometrics could revolutionise the viewing experience, and its potential effect on both the player and the sport.
Athlete data before your eyes
A live feed of in-play athlete biometric and performance information is an attractive prospect for sports fans. Whether they see this information on TV, computer or mobile screens, accurate, real time data is set to become big business.
Hykso’s new high-tech performance-tracking wrist sensors have the potential to give audiences of combat-fighting sports accurate information about punch speed, intensity and punch count. Prior to this technology, two people would tally the punch count manually and feed it into a computer display system. Hykso’s new sensors have already been trialled by pro boxers Javier Fortuna and Omar Figueroa.
While FIFA’s still deciding what its wearable tech standard will be, the National Football League (NFL) already uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in players’ shoulder pads to track data points for viewer’s enjoyment. The technology tests speed, distance travelled, acceleration, and deceleration, in real time.
The effect on players and the game
While a wealth of athlete-data will undoubtedly enhance the spectator experience, there’s a question over whether this greater surveillance will actually make athletes perform better, or hinder them psychologically. While some athletes claim it makes them work harder, knowing their performance is being analysed in real time, others feel even more pressure to perform, perhaps to their detriment.
We heard from Ben Lyttleton, in our article on The secrets of penalty shoot-out success, that a goalkeeper, who appeared in the Euros this year, admitted to diving for goals even when he knew the odds of saving them were increased if he remained in a central goal position. He claimed to do this because, by not attempting a save, it may appear that he isn’t trying. Could player data that doesn’t show a conventional level of exertion or fatigue be interpreted as laziness?
We also heard in the first article in this series that, sometimes, lower levels of exertion can mean a player is moving in a smarter, more tactical way, rather than exerting themselves unnecessarily to simply show willing. An athlete who feels under pressure to show they are performing could decide to make inefficient moves, putting their overall performance at risk.
Since individual player information would be available not only to spectators but to other clubs, stakeholders and scouts looking for a potential signing or a return on their investment, team athletes may feel an added layer of pressure on their careers. This is because their data could, in theory, be used to judge contract length and even salary – particularly when sophisticated algorithms may eventually predict a future decline in performance.
What stands in the way of wearables?
Ticket sales, TV audience figures and youth engagement could all benefit from the uptake of wearables in sport – whether that’s through monitoring players to make sure they appear in front of spectators in as many matches as possible, or through the provision of data entertainment services.
However, while wearables are already widely used for entertainment purposes in some sports, others are taking a little longer to catch on. Bob Howden, Head of British Cycling, Britain’s largest cycling organisation and the national governing body for cycle sport, tells us that to achieve a more interactive experience that might include on-screen sharing of physiological data, “there needs to be an accord amongst teams and event rights holders to open up data to public scrutiny.” He also informs us that investment in this area depends on the media profile of the sport.
“The difficulty at the moment lies in the standing of cycling as TV media. It cannot yet command the sort of rights fees associated with sports like football or the screening innovation seen in cricket, which might be needed to take it to another level.”
While funding and bureaucracy certainly play a part in the lack of wearable data available to viewers across some sports, there are broadcasters out there eager to incorporate wearable data into their entertainment packagesi - whether that’s supplied freely, or sold to fans.
The expert spectator
When athlete data across all sports and disciplines hits our screens in a big way, a whole new experience opens up to fans, and not just through the ability to judge whether an athlete is working to the best of their ability.
With a network of individual player or athlete data at their disposal, spectators and fans can better understand the effectiveness of certain movements or plays in sport. They can even go as far as predicting what will happen in a match, working through their own strategies like a coach.
If you’d like to know more about how wearable tech is changing the world of sport, you can read the previous articles in this series, How wearable tech is transforming team sports and The role of wearables in perfecting performance technique in sport.