Data in motion
The back of a digital football card of the future could list advanced information such as sprint speed, acceleration burst and individual workout habits alongside more traditional facts like name, team and position.
Such is the active contemplation of the NFL Players Association and Boston-based wearable technology and biometrics company Whoop, which struck a large-scale, forward-looking partnership with the union early last year.
Beyond outfitting NFL players with Whoop arm and wrist bands to internally monitor their performance data, sleep and physical recoveries, the alliance also allows the union to monetize their biometric data through agreements with various third parties in media, video games, health and wellness and the collectibles industries that likely will be among the first to exploit such information. Whoop founder and Chief Executive Will Ahmed calls it a move that allows players “to finally become both healthier and wealthier” by gathering and selling player health and performance data.
“We want to build a whole part of our group licensing program around this kind of information,” said Sean Sansiveri, NFLPA vice president of business and legal affairs. “This is a really unique area because it is taking a player’s data and trying to commercialize it. We see big opportunity in a number of different areas including the digital trading cards, video games and so forth.”
Neither Whoop nor the NFLPA, however, are alone in seeking to build beyond coaching and analysis uses and to commercialize data from the emerging realms of wearable devices and next-generation statistics collection. Many other hardware and software companies, sports properties, unions and other player advocates and investors also are actively forging business partnerships and beginning to exploit this new frontier (see listings).
A broad-based partnership in which the Boston-based biometrics and wearable technology company provides participating NFL players with wearable bands. In addition to performance and recovery monitoring, the NFLPA retains the ability to monetize the Whoop data through third parties and is exploring the use of it in several different products.
Partnering with several entities including Champion Data, Telstra and MKTG, the AFL is showing real-time player data in venues and through various digital extensions. Australia has long been at the forefront of wearable sports technology, and the National Rugby League there has also been active in this area.
The pro squash governing body recently signed a deal with global technology provider Sports Data Labs to commercialize its in-game physiological data assets. The data will be woven into game broadcasts, as well as marketed to various third parties, including sports betting outfits and health and wellness companies. Revenue will be shared between PSA and the players. The data is expected to further illuminate squash as one of the most physically demanding sports, marked by rapid heart rates, lots of sprinting and hundreds of bursts of acceleration and lunges players typically endure during a match.
That biometric data licensing activity, while still nascent, is taking a variety of forms:
• Distributing the advanced data to media and content partners.
• Developing consumer products similar to what the NFLPA is doing.
• Using pro player data to serve as modeling for lower levels of competition.
The concept of commercializing player data also is developing overseas as the Australian Football League, through several partners, is distributing real-time player tracking data, as is the England-based Professional Squash Association.
Back in the United States, the arrival of more broadly legalized gambling earlier this year also potentially opens up another, larger new realm of data licensing from wearable technology.
“This is a really interesting time because it’s a topic that everyone in this space is circling around now, and there’s a lot of emerging activity,” said Brian Kopp, former president of North America for Catapult Sports, a prominent wearable technology company, and now a consultant in the space.
Kopp also noted the additional possibilities that could come from legalized gambling.
The commercial proliferation of advanced player data, however, still requires an extended series of business approvals and safeguards to ensure compliance with federal health regulations, collective-bargaining agreements between leagues and players unions, and existing data licensing deals.
“Data ownership and data in general is still something of a wild, Wild West, and a lot of this is still being figured out,” said Justin Goltz, MLB channel manager for Blast Motion, an approved bat sensor provider to MLB that works with 19 of 30 major league clubs. “There is a real premium to having a real close relationship with your clients and partners.”
Concern & opportunity
The early deals in this space, such as the NFLPA-Whoop partnership, have been broadly described as planting an early flag. To that end, there remain several key impediments toward entirely unfettered licensing activity.
NFL players may opt in to the data collection agreement between the NFLPA and Whoop. Those who do not want to wear the sensors are under no obligation to do so. And for those players participating, Whoop offers 27 different levels of privacy for who gets to see what data. Many other pacts work along similar lines, in turn requiring the players to be much more active participants in this process than they are for many other licensing categories. That is not surprising given the sensitivity of the data in question, and the notion that most players unions consider the player biometric data to be absolutely their property.
Some leagues have gone even further, for now formally outlawing in their collective-bargaining agreements the commercial use of player biometric data generated through wearables. MLB and the MLB Players Association have just such a provision, though it is widely expected there will be further movement around this issue long before the current deal expires in 2021 given how fast the space is maturing.
The NBA similarly does not allow player data to be used against players in contract negotiations. The league’s labor deal with the National Basketball Players Association also formally calls for a “good faith” discussion on the commercialization of data from wearables, and that dialogue is ongoing.
Many of the properties also have begun to make specific legal carve-outs between wearable player technology and data collected through what is considered noninvasive means, such as optical tracking.
Within those various fenceposts, those same organizations that do not want advanced player data to be wrongly used also see big commercial opportunities for greater storytelling through that information — to a point.
“There is general agreement that there is a huge opportunity out there. But what’s going to be seen publicly is really going to be only positive and aspirational in tone,” Kopp said. “You’re not going to see players agreeing to things with third parties that cast them in a negative light.”
Bet the house
Prop bets are already a hugely popular notion in gambling culture, offering the ability to wager on all sorts of game occurrences not related to the final score, such as the number of yards a particular player amasses or the first player to score in a game.
The deluge of new player data generated through wearables, optical tracking and other technologies fits squarely in that notion and presents one of the foremost emerging data licensing opportunities. Even those among the most conservative in this space, and often guarded around the validity of certain advanced player measures, have taken notice.
“Lots of people are talking about” gambling around player biometric data, said Tim Slavin, MLBPA chief of business affairs and licensing senior counsel. “I think I can safely say we expect a push by others for the use of biometric data to maximize the value [to the casino] and excitement [to the fan] of gaming events activity. For our part, we are certainly open to discussions.”
But while the U.S. sports gambling market is beginning to develop in various states beyond Nevada, others see an even bigger licensing opportunity from other more established industries such as fantasy sports that are just as thirsty for advanced data.
“The kinds of things we can now do around receiver separation, time to throw, time to sack and so forth, we think could be a real boon around fantasy football,” said John Pollard, vice president of Zebra Sports, which for the last several seasons has installed radio-frequency identification chips in NFL player shoulder pads, and is now distributing that data to various clients, primarily NFL game rights holders.
Sportradar, the NFL’s exclusive distributor for real-time scores and statistics, made much of its original entry into the U.S. market through fantasy sports, and key data clients of theirs such as DraftKings and FanDuel have extensive interests in both fantasy and legal gambling.
Sportradar, too, sees big opportunity in both fantasy and gambling through the advent and delivery of more advanced biometric data. The company is now exploring potential opportunities in this space, though it would be strictly as a commercial agent, and not as a data collector or hardware provider.
“We’re always going to be interested in unique content, and this is something that would fit that bill,” said Steve Byrd, Sportradar chief commercial officer. “As the next wave of deeper player content becomes available, we’re going to be there.”