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The Long Read | How big are the commercial opportunities in athlete biometric data?

  • Squash, cycling, golf and the NFL are all exploring the commercial potential of athlete biometric data
  • Early progress being made in broadcast, fan engagement and sponsorship, with betting a longer-term option
  • Biometrics seen as adding value to other assets as much as creating a new category of their own

When the NFL and its Players Association union brokered their current collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the final text contained just one mention of biometric data – a two-sentence clause in the player protection section that required management to obtain consent before sharing any data collected for medical purposes.

“That is literally it,” says Casey Schwab, NFLPA vice-president for legal and business affairs. But he adds: “For the next agreement in 2021, there’s going to be much more language around data – in both its production and its commercialisation.”

That change in focus has been a very recent one. Even in the NBA’s more recent CBA – signed in 2017 – the data capture element was concerned primarily with prohibiting the use of biometric information in contract negotiations. But change is under way as more rights-holders and athletes’ representatives see commercial potential in human data.

Mark Gorski, chief executive of Sports Data Labs, one of the companies leading the development of biometric tracking technologies and business models around them, explains: “While the industry as a whole is still in its infancy stage, I think we are beginning to see rights-holders, commercial partners and fans have a better understanding of what this data means and why it’s important, which is driving new value creation.

“A few things have taken place in the last few years which have driven a lot of interest in our space: one, technology has improved; two, consumer adoption of wearables and other sensors has increased; and, three, with the increase in wearables use, people are becoming more familiar with what this data means as it relates to their own bodies. The consumer’s ability to now relate what they see in a live sporting event to what they see with sensors they utilise [themselves] creates a very unique and powerful connection to the event and the sport they are watching, and that has created value for the data.”

The other factor helping create this new opportunity around biometrics is the extent to which other forms of performance data have already been embraced by sports fans, broadcasters and partner brands, making the addition of this ‘human data’ feel aligned with the existing direction of travel.

Case studies: Early adopters

Cycling: Velon

Velon was set up in 2014 by 11 of the UCI World Tour’s cycling teams as a vehicle for making more revenue for its members and the wider sport, with innovative use of rider data at the heart of its commercial strategy.

Having begun collecting and broadcasting riders’ biometric data in real time at the Tour de Suisse in 2016, Velon now tracks five data points on its member teams’ bikes – speed, position, cadence, power and heart rate (the last three of which would be considered biometric outputs) – and monetises these measurements in two main ways: creating commercial partnerships around the collection and analysis processes themselves, and selling the packaged information streams to race organisers for them to use in support of their own broadcast and sponsorship rights.

Velon chief executive Graham Bartlett explains: “We are the only company in the world of sport which transmits live biometric data. We work with Flanders Classics, RCS [owner of the Giro d’Italia] and the London Classic, among others. All our race partners want live race data, which they can then use in their business model for the race, and at the same time we are building our own platform to showcase this and all the other video content we produce.”

The organisation has just announced a three-year deal that will see professional services firm EY become its Official Data and Innovation Partner, an agreement primarily about allowing the brand to build and demonstrate its data capability – something Bartlett sees as a key attraction of biometric data partnerships.

He says: “EY have been on board for the last couple of years investing in the system and building it with us and they want to do bigger and better things. They are not a badging sponsor, they are an investing sponsor and one of our marketing partners, so they will be providing skills and resources as well as revenue for us, and be promoting us around the world too.

“There are two or three other companies that have been very good for us in the development process who work on the basis that they don’t want marketing rights, they want to be part of the project and get technology development and B2B benefits from that. It’s a fascinating challenge for companies in the business of developing mobile networks and devices that transmit this type of data. We are a brilliant proving ground: if you can do it on a bike race that moves constantly for three weeks from Tel Aviv to Rome, then IoT-ing someone’s fridge is pretty simple by comparison.”

American Football: NFLPA

The NFL Players Association has exclusive control over the commercial use of its members’ data, biometric or otherwise. As with the name, image and biographical rights it already licenses for merchandise sale and video game use, active players have mandated the union to monetise this information on a collective basis, although any individual can opt out of the programme.

The NFLPA has been building partnerships around biometric data for two seasons now, after it established its OneTeam Collective start-up business accelerator to expand the range of companies it could engage.

Deals so far have focused on biometric data collection rather than utilisation, with the WHOOP Strap 2.0 designated as the “officially-licensed recovery wearable of the NFLPA” and the union also working with performance-monitoring clothing developer Strive Tech, athletic performance company EXOS and, most recently, smart bed manufacturer Sleep Number, which is also an Official Partner of the NFL itself.

The NFLPA took an equity stake in WHOOP rather than a share of licensing revenue, handling the distribution of the bands to players and giving WHOOP the required access to provide training in how to use them. The data produced – primarily heart-rate monitoring – is being used for a joint study on the effects of sleep, travel and scheduling on athletes’ recovery rates.

The union takes a similar view to Velon in seeing much of the early-stage partner value of biometrics being in proof-of-capability for brands already working in the space. Casey Schwab, the union’s vice-president, legal and business affairs, explains: “WHOOP is leveraging the NFLPA brand to enhance their brand and the consumer appeal of their products. If NFL players use it to help their performance and recovery, as a recreational athlete I can say: if it works for them, it must work for me. That’s probably the value right now.”

Schwab indicates that the union is taking a cautious approach in determining how it widens out the category, specifically to make sure it fulfils its principal remit of protecting its members. He says: “Our utmost priority is that we do it right before we start signing deals. Data collection in 2019 is much better than it was in 2017 but it is still not there yet in terms of being completely reliable and accurate. We want to make sure we do it right with the right partners. We are hyper-diligent because it is sensitive information we’re dealing with.

“For example, we have done a deal with Sleep Number, but our relationship with them is at a very early R&D collaboration stage, where the players are getting free beds that collect sleep information. We have a commercial deal in place, but you won’t see any use of that data in the short-term yet.”

Squash: PSA World Tour

The governing body of the professional squash circuit has introduced biometric player tracking for its 2018-19 season, collecting real-time heart-rate data during tournaments using basic wearables and software developed by partner Sports Data Labs. The Tour’s initial aim is to generate money to bolster its prize pool, enabling players to benefit directly from the commercial application of their data. For the first season, this is an additional £100,000 (€113,000/$130,000) sourced by Sports Data Labs to get the project up and running so the PSA has a proof of concept to take to other potential partners.

The PSA has not yet signed any commercial deals directly related to its biometric rights, but chief operating officer – and former world number one Lee Beachill – sees the initiative as a means of enhancing the Tour’s wider appeal to prospective partners by positioning it as an innovative and forward-thinking property, which he says has already advanced the pace of discussions with one key sponsor at least. He explains: “This is going to add to any proposal we make commercially. It’s not making a difference yet but it is putting us in markets we would not be able to get to otherwise. We are in the process of signing a deal with a significant digital player out there which will expose squash to an entirely new market, and the fact we can offer this opportunity is a significant part of that. Biometric data will be part of their output and it is a deal that will see squash become available on a huge platform.”

Commercial opportunities in human data

Broadcasting

Broadcast and multimedia output has widely been seen as the starting point for the commercial use of biometric data in sport, largely as a consequence of the sector’s existing direction of travel toward data-driven content: with player-tracking metrics from the likes of Opta and Hawk-Eye already well embedded in media coverage, adding a further layer of biometric information feels like a logical next step.

It may be significant that early forays into this territory have focused on individual rather than team sports: as well as squash and cycling, tennis has been another area of strong interest, with ATP Media trialling capture technology and broadcaster Eurosport having declared an interest both here and in athletics, while golf’s European Tour incorporated heart-rate data into the world feed from its 2018 Hero Challenge single-hole shoot-out event.

The one-on-one nature of the contest a) allows directly-comparable numbers to make the narrative more compelling than is possible in a match between two teams that pits attack against defence and makes like-for-like analysis more complicated, and b) gives amateur players a point of reference for their own game. It is no coincidence that several sources interviewed for this article used the same golfing example to highlight the potential opportunity, summarised by Velon’s Graham Bartlett: “Every fan would love to know what a golfer’s heart rate is when they’re facing a 12-foot putt for the Masters.”

The team sport equivalent is less compelling, believes Schwab, because of the number of sub-plots already running through any match. “If I think about Fox Sports airing a game,” he says, “if there is more accuracy about someone running a little slower in the end of the game, that from a fan-engagement standpoint is interesting but I don’t think it moves the needle in terms of rights deals and how much broadcasters will pay.

“I don’t think viewers are paying an extra $4.99 for this extra package of data. I’m just not a believer in that. I would love that to be the case because it’s more revenue for our players but I’m not convinced broadcasters will pay more because I don’t think viewers will pay more.”

The European Tour subscribes to the view of the addition of biometric information as being the natural next step in the data picture, having invested in recent years in gathering and visualising performance data on screen. The Tour employs 55 people at each of its European and Middle East events to capture shot-by-shot data in real time that enables a range of statistics to be added to the broadcast feed, such as heat maps of where balls have landed or the percentage chance of a putt being made based on where the ball is on the green.

Rufus Hack, chief content officer at the European Tour and Ryder Cup, describes this type of coverage as “gold dust” for fans because “it allows them to relate to the players and compare their performance versus their own game”.

He also describes the current output as “stage one effectively”, explaining: “Stage two will be moving to explore biometric data, things like heart rate, insulin levels, those more obvious indicators of the stresses players are putting on their bodies and means of showing how different people’s bodies react in different ways. It’s something that could be really interesting in golf given the wide range of challenges faced by our players and the importance of the mental aspects of the game.”

And he adds: “It’s definitely a massive thing for our broadcast partners. We’ve renewed 21 of our broadcast deals over the last 12 months or so and one of the key things we were discussing when talking about how we were evolving the product is how we put more data into it – primarily performance but also biometric. Biometric data is up there in the top rank of things rights-holders and broadcasters should be thinking about.”

Rufus Hack, chief content officer, European Tour and Ryder Cup

Fan engagement

Rights-holders are also looking to use biometric data across other platforms to strengthen connections with athletes, teams and events, primarily by adding context to elite performances that make them more compelling.

This is particularly true for niche sports, which see biometrics as a means of showcasing the physical abilities of their elite performers. Beachill says: “Content around matches and events is becoming very important to the sport of squash and biometric data will be a huge element of that, particularly in showing how good our athletes are. We believe our athletes are among the best in the world and the more data we have, the more we can prove that.”

That is an important driver for Velon too, although the cycling collective aims not just to highlight the riders’ capabilities but also the challenging conditions they are competing under. Bartlett says: “The teams and riders really want to see the sport engage with more people and want people to better understand how fantastic their performance is. In other sports it’s great to see how fast Roger Federer’s serve is, but you don’t need to know that to appreciate how brilliant a tennis player he is.

“Bike racing is a lot more difficult to understand. It’s like skiing, for example: you don’t always appreciate how steep a mountain is because there is not really the depth of perception and context in the pictures you are seeing to understand just how different the athlete’s physical performance is to that of a normal person.”

“Take Chris Froome’s ride on stage 19 of the Giro last year [when the British rider staged an epic escape to take victory]. We shared the data but we were only sharing numbers: 397 watts on the key parts of the stage. You would say ‘wow’ if you know the sport, but if you don’t, you need context. An F1 car doing 260 kph, for example, I know what that means. Because I drive a car, I can contextualise it. We need to make our own data more relevant so you can really see it.”

Sponsorship

With Tourism Ireland launching a global campaign in December 2018 that used the heart-rate data of a holidaying couple to choose the locations and experiences that featured in its commercial, it is clear that biometrics are already on the marketing industry’s radar. In sport, however, brands outside the data and technology sectors have been slower to explore the opportunity.

In the US, that is primarily a consequence of uncertainty surrounding what type of rights are likely to be available and how sponsors will be able to activate them. Alex Crimmens, senior consultant at rights-marketing agency The Sports Consultancy, says: “Awareness of biometric data is still relatively low as rights-holders and athletes continue to explore the governance around distribution and ownership. Across the major leagues in the US, biometric data remains contentious and divides opinion. In the NBA, for example, players have refused to agree to an official presence of wearables on-court and such legislation has been included in the 600-page collective bargaining agreement.”

If that hurdle can be overcome, though, rights-holders and agencies both see rich potential in partnerships that utilise biometric data, although in the short term at least the B2B opportunity already in play is likely to remain the easier pitch to make.

Hack sees sponsors’ growing interest in more innovative approaches dovetailing with what biometric data applications have to offer. “I think there is a significant sponsorship opportunity around this stuff,” he says. “It’s now easier to have a conversation with a potential sponsor about branding the microphone on in-round interviews than more traditional broadcast assets like branding the leaderboard. These are things that can offer deeper engagement than traditional broadcast or sponsorship assets and appeal to a wider set of sponsorship partners too.”

A detail of the Minnesota Timberwolves jersey featuring the Fitbit patch (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Betting

The opening up of sports betting in the US since the repeal of PASPA last May has made gambling one of the hottest topics in the North American market, with data and statistics already emerging as a key focus of product development, particularly as properties such as the NBA and NHL have pivoted from seeking royalties to striking intellectual property deals with sportsbooks that provide exclusive access to proprietary league data.

The consensus around the opportunity for biometric data is that it may be significant, but no-one knows precisely what it will look like and its exploitation is unlikely to be imminent.

Springtime American football league the Alliance of American Football, which begins this month, has already put biometrics at the heart of its business model: as part of a deal with gaming giant MGM, Alliance players will put on wearables to collect second-generation data that will be used to determine odds for in-game betting in real time.

Kristy Gale, chief executive of Hypergolic, an Arizona-based data rights management company, says: “My conversations with players in this space say there is potential, but it is still very early on, although things are moving quickly. Maybe two years ago, the conversations I was having with betting data providers were about trying to envision how this type of data could be utilised in wagers. It was a stretch to think of what future sports betting products that incorporate athlete biometrics and tracking data would look like but, with data that is predictive of outcomes and with mobile and the opportunity for in-game wagering, we now see they can offer a lot more products that will use athlete biometrics and tracking data. Within four years from now we will have some pretty robust betting products available.”

That sort of timescale reflects both the pace at which biometric data is likely to become widely available and the fact that sportsbooks are likely to begin by working their way through the possibilities of the large number of game-based data points that are already well-established, both in terms of their availability and in the betting public’s understanding of them.

There is also some uncertainty over the extent to which gamblers will take to betting on biometrics themselves, the most commonly-cited example of which is a player’s heart-rate before taking a key penalty, shot, putt or kick. The more immediate opportunity for biometrics may therefore be to play another supporting role, either in helping bettors make their selection choices or in creating engaging content around the main markets that attract more people to wagering.

The NFLPA’s Schwab describes betting as “the newest opportunity, the most robust opportunity and the one we need to be most cautious about”, but believes: “The opportunity is not in 2019 and likely not in 2020 either.”

When it does arrive, Schwab also believes it will be around shoulder content rather than a direct staking proposition. He says: “The nascent sports betting market needs to develop and so does data. But as they mature, you can see an opportunity for wider content around sports betting. The bettor who wants all the information could be willing to pay a premium subscription to ESPN or DraftKings to get more about the teams they’re betting on.

“If you were to ask me to place a wager on which opportunity will be more robust, I would go with that, but I have also spoken with sports betting operators who have shown interest in [using biometric data for] customer acquisition. That is an interesting spin that could get people more interested, with non-bettors dipping a toe in the water, but data is a small piece of a larger puzzle, whether it is overall content around betting or setting lines directly. It is one of a bunch of different inputs rather than simply saying we will bet on the kicker’s heart rate.”

Control the key to getting players onside

None of this can happen, of course, without the consent of the athletes providing the data, and there are plenty of reasons why they may be reluctant to share, on an identifiable basis at least. The Australian Football League has admitted its efforts to enable in-play betting on even the most basic measures (distance run, top speed etc) have been poorly received by players, who find that variations in performance quickly become another point of public and media comment they could happily live without.

It is significant that the early movers in the space are properties in which the athletes have a relatively strong voice, such as unions like the NFLPA and membership organisations such as the PSA, ATP and European Tour. Even so, acceptance has come only slowly, although a generational shift in attitudes towards performance monitoring could see the pace of adoption begin to lift.

Gale recalls: “Back in 2013 and 2014, when some athletes were asked what they thought about collecting data using wearable technology, just to help them perform better, they had some concerns and didn’t want to wear a wearable that could identify what they were doing – or what they weren’t doing – all day long, especially on a 24/7 basis.”

But she adds: “That is changing. I spoke to someone from one of the players unions here in the US recently and they said one of the distinctions they are finding is in age. A lot of the young athletes are used to being tracked through high school and university sports, but older athletes find it intrusive and need more information to be comfortable with it.

“The NFLPA is the first union to have developed a business model to realise the value in data so far and they have done a good job in educating their players – and it is an educational process; we need to give athletes the heads-up they need about what the data collected from them today means for them and their careers tomorrow.”

This same shift has also been seen by the union, with Schwab reporting that out of more than 100 collegiate players invited to participate in a biometric tracking experiment during practice for this year’s College All-Star Game, only two declined and neither of them over concerns about the collection, storage or use of their data. He says: “The younger generation especially are used to this kind of technology that collects data. They have grown up in an age of this type of technology. It’s the older players it takes a little more explaining to.

“I have spoken to a few big-name players and the decision is around how invasive is it: who is using it and how are they using it? But as long as the NFLPA controls that, I think our players are in control. The vision for us is that every active NFL player has a data profile of all the biometric data imaginable and only he has access to that. He then gets to decide what he’s comfortable sharing with us and also what he’s comfortable with us then sharing and monetising with third parties. As long as they are in control, our players are comfortable with it.”

More v better

Biometric/human data clearly has potential to generate new commercial income as a standalone asset class, and Sports Data Labs’ Gorski argues that, in instances where players are earning a direct revenue share of any property-wide partnership, the creation of a new category is “the cleanest way to distribute revenues”.

What currently appears to hold the most appeal to the industry, though, is using biometric data to add value to existing rights categories – particularly in media and sponsorship – and enhance (or protect) the rates they are able to command as a result.

Crimmens argues: “Although interesting on its own, the true value and intrigue of biometric data is uncovered when it is combined with a wider range of data points. As such, it is unlikely that biometric data will become a new rights category and it is more likely to supplement existing data partnerships in order to create a richer activation.”

Perhaps the most important balance rights-holders need to strike around biometric data, though, is how they move forward quickly enough to maximise the opportunity of first-mover advantage but slowly enough to make sure they have fully addressed the challenges of technology, security and relevance that could still trip them up. The European Tour expects to run more experiments this year to strengthen its proof of concept, which Hack describes as “still at a very nascent stage”, saying that the organisation will only move forward “once the players and other stakeholders are comfortable and we have got the technology right, because just beaming this data back from across an entire golf course is a material challenge.

“If you get it right it can be a potential differentiator,” he says, but warns: “The flip side is that we will probably get to a place in five years where if you don’t have this you will suffer and potentially see an impact on rights values as a result. In the medium- to long-term this will be expected as part of the package.”

At least the technology and contractual challenges of the biometric opportunity are relatively easily quantifiable. The more fundamental challenge is determining how best to use the data once all the necessary systems, checks and balances are in place. As the organisation furthest along the biometrics route, Velon is already concluding that users of human data face the same truth already encountered in all other areas of data-driven strategy: that quality is more important than quantity and capturing the right data is more important that capturing all data.

Velon has already dropped acceleration from its broadcast metrics, “because people couldn’t get their heads around what it was,” says Bartlett, and is now looking at adding some non-biometric measures that help put the human data in a context that makes it easier for the viewer to understand.

And he adds: “We have held back on some. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If we’re going to publish something, what is the reason for that and how does it fit with our objectives? If we want to educate the fan, does showing cadence do that? The jury is still out. The future might not be adding more data but using what we’ve got in better ways.”

Putting the ‘human’ in human data is likely to be the key to the successful use – and consequent monetisation – of biometrics, creating an individual or team narrative fans will buy into and follow. As Bartlett puts it: “Opta and Hawk-Eye are brilliant, but the ball doesn’t have a heartbeat.”

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