Wearable technology won’t just affect athletes’ performances but also their privacy, and that could change the business of sports forever, according to experts at a Toronto sector forum.
Just days before the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games hit the city, athletes, broadcasters and startups gathered at an event set up by the We Are Wearables industry group. The main focus was how wearable technology can help athletes boost their game.
Panelist Tristan Lehari kicked things off, explaining how his firm’s Triton sensor pack (attached to the back of a swimmer’s goggles) can track 12 key performance metrics for more than 30 swimmers at once. That data, sent to a coach’s tablet in real time, helps swimmers track and improve their race times and techniques.
“I think the value (wearables) can add is huge,” said Lehari, a former competitive swimmer who is now CEO of Kitchener, Ont.-based startup TritonWear.
The entire panel agreed that wearables can help athletes and coaches set performance goals, track progress, detect and prevent injuries, make data-based decisions and develop training that is personalized vs. just team-focused. The new biometrics is also faster, less invasive and more realistic than past performance monitoring technologies.
“As an athlete, I used to spend a lot of time hooked up to sensors in a lab, an environment I don’t actually compete in. (Wearables) allow for a lot more real-time, real-life analysis of the athlete. I can be on the water and actually getting some good data,” said panelist Greg Douglas, a two-time member of Canada’s Olympic sailing squad.
Just as wearables can enhance athletic performance, however, they also carry the potential to compromise privacy, the panel acknowledged. When biometrics technology meets the business side of sports, privacy issues may have an impact on athletes’ livelihoods. For example, could team owners (or sponsors) use biometric data about individual players to determine their pay, cut their contracts short or even fire them? Athletes and team owners could one day tap into the same biometrics data with very different goals in mind.
“It’s really scary, the whole privacy issue. It’s an athlete’s job to perform … and front office’s job to get that athlete at the lowest price possible,” said Brian Bulcke, a defensive lineman for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and head of business development at Ryerson Sport Innovation.
Another presenter, Alexander Mosa, took it a step further.
“Wearable technology is only going to consummate a process where athletes are commodified,” said Mosa, CEO of MagniWare, a Toronto startup that makes an adhesive biometric patch as thin as a second skin.
Even more than athletic performance, “the economics of the owners of sports teams are going to be impacted the most” by wearables, Mosa predicted. He said wearables could “turn athletes into stocks” to be acquired or fired based mainly on biometric stats.
According to Mosa, biometrics could pose an “ethical issue”: if predictive analytics can suggest when an athlete’s performance will start to decline, will team owners use that data to shorten players’ contracts or pay them less, even while they’re still at the top of their game?
Instead of each pro hockey player owning and controlling their individual biometrics information, data ownership and privacy will likely be addressed by players’ unions as part of the collective bargaining process with team owners, said panel member Dale Fallon, director of product management at Sportsnet and NHL Digital.
Despite concerns about how athlete data is used, the potential positives outweigh those issues and it’s early enough in the wearable tech game to sort them out, said Rami Nabel, CEO of Toronto startup PUSH.
“There are concerns around privacy. The biggest thing is we’re just at the cusp and there’s still a lot of room for us to learn how it’s going to be implemented,” said Nabel, whose firm makes biometric bands for strength and weight training.
Sports wearables are already big business. A study by BCC Research estimates the global market for sports and fitness wearables will double from $2.4 billion in 2014 to $5.1 billion in 2018.
Montreal’s OMSignal is one of the Canadian players in the sector. It makes a sensor-embedded shirt for Ralph Lauren that was tested by ball boys (there’s no version of the shirt for women yet) at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Another is Recon Instruments, which was acquired by Intel Corp. last month for an undisclosed sum. The Vancouver biometrics firm makes ski goggles as well as sunglasses for runners and cyclists.