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Sports tech disconnect: Why technology isn't living up to its potential for pro athletes

July 19,2016 11:13

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said last year that there may not be another industry being so fundamentally transformed by data and digital technology like sports. Judging by the discussion at our inaugural Sports Tech Summit last week in Seattle, this ...and more »


Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, right, and former US Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors, center, join ROOT Sports’ Jen Mueller at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit. (Photos by Kevin Lisota / GeekWire)Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said last year that there may not be another industry being so fundamentally transformed by data and digital technology like sports. Judging by the discussion at our inaugural Sports Tech Summit last week in Seattle, this certainly appears to be the case.
But while that transformation is happening to the games we love to watch and play, there seems to be a disconnect between the technology changes and people at the core of sports: the athletes themselves.
Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO who now owns the Los Angeles Clippers, offered a wealth of insight into the intersection of sports and tech during a fireside chat at the Sports Tech Summit. He touched on this disconnect with the athletes, noting that “I don’t think technology is playing a very big role right now.”
“I don’t think anybody has come up with technology that athletes particularly think will help,” he said. “It’s not like there aren’t some uses of technology — don’t get me wrong. On the other hand, if you said, ‘what is it that the athletes believe in that they must do?’ You’re not going to find much.”
Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer speaks at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit last week.For the athlete, there are a number of innovative tools that have arrived in recent years which aim to offer an edge in competition. They range from wearable devices or cameras that track thousands of movements; algorithms that predict what a player might do in a certain scenarios; techniques like cryotherapy that speed up recovery; and much more.
But how useful are these technologies, and the data gleaned from them? That’s up for debate, and it depends on who you ask.
GeekWire spent a few hours at Safeco Field earlier this month before a Seattle Mariners game, speaking with players about how technology and data analytics are changing baseball.
While some said they utilize growing amounts of data to get feedback from their on-field performance, the players seem to still prefer relying on gut instincts versus what a computer might recommend.
“When you pitch, you don’t have to think about it,” said Felix Hernandez, Seattle’s ace pitcher and 2010 Cy Young winner. “When I am out there, I just go with what I feel, what is working for me, and what the batter is looking for.”
Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez chats about sports tech.Hernandez did say that analyzing video of his pitching motion has helped him make beneficial adjustments throughout his career. But there’s a balance.
“When you’re watching too much video, it’s too much information in your head,” he said.
Catcher Chris Iannetta said “you have to pick and choose what works for you.”
“There is a time and place for it, but if you get caught up too much, there’s no point in even playing the game,” he said. “A lot of people put so much emphasis on it that you might as well watch a video game simulation.”

Mariners third base coach Manny Acta, a former Major Leaguer who managed the Indians and Nationals before arriving in Seattle this season, said that he likes using the data to provide hard evidence when advising players.
“We encourage them to ask why, and it gives us an opportunity to prove to them why we want them to stand here on defense, or why we think they should swing at pitches in the strike zone,” he said.
Doug Baldwin, a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks who led the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns last season, also spoke at the Sports Tech Summit last week and noted how he and his teammates wear GPS systems practice that collects data on his “workload.”
Baldwin noted that coaches and trainers analyze the data, and can adjust a player’s training regime depending on how hard he worked the previous day or week.
“The positive side of the technology is that we are getting this feedback,” Baldwin said.
Doug Baldwin.But having the feedback isn’t 100 percent beneficial — at least not from some players’ perspective. Baldwin said the potential downside of data collection is that a lot of players are worried the organization is using it to chart whether a player is declining earlier than coaches are able to see “with their eyes on the field.” Players are worried they could be cut due to this type of analysis.
“Some guys are really anxious and really excited about getting their feedback about their workload about what they did that day or that week,” Baldwin said. “Other guys are like, ‘Don’t put it on me, I’m not gonna wear it.’ For the most part a lot of guys are buying into it slowly.”
The fact that players are more worried about these types of ramifications than how the technology might help them improve their on-field performance echos what Ballmer said about the lack of legitimately useful innovation for athletes.
The pushback to increased data collection is also a point of contention in Major League Soccer, too. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who spoke at the Sports Tech Summit, said that he’d like to show viewers the heart rate of players during games. The players, though, aren’t as excited.
“I can assure you, our players and their union want nothing of that,” Garber said. “So that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.”
Don Garber speaks at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit.Former U.S. Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors joined Baldwin on stage at the Sports Tech Summit and touched on the balance between relying on data and technology with something that’s been around in sports for centuries: gut instincts.
“I know without talking to my tech guru that my stroke is off, because I can feel it,” Kukors said. “I think that’s what makes great athletes and I know the feeling when I haven’t been in touch with my gut. So I think there is going to be a nice balance between, we have all this incredible information, we should use it to our advantage to get better, but at the end of the day there’s a reason why we’re made up the way we are and we have instincts about ourselves and our sport.”
Similar to what Hernandez said about thinking about analytics or using technology during games, Baldwin said that no amount of data or virtual reality or anything other innovation will change the fact that he has to make the decisions on the football field.
“Maybe it’ll help me in terms of repetition, but when I’m on the field, I’m not thinking about that,” Baldwin said. “It has to be second nature.”
Added Baldwin: “Yes, the data and information is useful, and give it all to me. But at the end of the day, the user has to use it the right way.”

Seattle Sounders FC owner Adrian Hanauer also spoke at the Sports Tech Summit and touched on the balance between using data to drive decision-making with other variables. The Sounders are one of the more forward-thinking sports franchises when it comes to using data and technology to improve performance.
“It’s an imperfect science,” he said. “And it really is more art than science.”
Hanauer noted that “everybody interprets data a little bit differently.”
“All we can do is collect as much data as possible, give as good of information to the different layers of the organization, and then the people making the decisions need to make their recommendations or ultimately live with their interpretation of that data,” he explained.
Jeff Mallett, a former Yahoo COO who is now owns part of teams like the San Francisco Giants, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Derby County F.C., joined Hanauer on stage at the Sports Tech Summit and added that teams can’t rely on data as the end-all, be-all answer for decision-making. He offered up an example of a soccer player who flew into a game late because his wife had a baby — based on his pre-game metrics, the data said that he shouldn’t play.
But he told his coach that “I need to play,” and he ended up having a “brilliant game,” Mallett noted.
“Context is king,” Mallett said. “You better have the right people and the right data, that when the data gets rolled up and you get layers on it, that people are able to put that in context and act upon the data.”
Henry Nguyen, Jeff Mallett and Adrian Hanauer speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech SummitFor entrepreneurs and techies who hope to develop the next game-changing software or hardware that really makes an impact, Ballmer offered some advice. The Clippers owner said that you should go through every role in the sports world and “ask the problem not of what tech can do for them, but what do they want, and where does tech fit in?”
“What does the coach want out of ticket sales? What does the sales manager want out of ticket sales?” Ballmer explained. “What does the fan want out of the broadcast experience? What does the person in the video room still need? What does the person in the analytics department still need? What does the ‘capologist’ need?”
Ballmer added that having cool technology with no effective use cases was something he experienced at Microsoft and in the tech world more broadly.
“Technology comes out, which isn’t bad, but after the first wave of ‘tech out,’ then it has to go ‘customer scenario in,'” he said. “I don’t think people are asking themselves enough, how do you use this impressive tech innovation to help the trainer, the athlete, the video guy, the analytics guy, the coach between games, the coach during the game. If people just walk through each of those, that’s how you wind up with solutions that really make a difference in sports.”

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