IEEE PULSE presents

The Rise of Biometrics in Sports

Feature May/June 2020
Author: Mary Bates
Biometric data have the potential to keep athletes safer and healthier, maximize athletic training, augment the fan experience, and provide insights that could win or lose games

Athletes—and the cadre of professionals who surround them—are always looking for an edge over their opponents. Advances in technology have now made a whole new class of information readily available to athletes, coaches, trainers, and even fans. It’s called biometrics, the science of measuring and analyzing data collected from the body, such as heart rate or hormone levels.

A clearer understanding of what’s happening within one’s body can help athletes in a number of ways, says Mark Gorski (Figure 1), co-founder and chief executive of Sports Data Labs, a biometrics technology provider. “It can help you train more efficiently or change the way you do things in a match. From a consumer standpoint, it can allow fans to engage more and provide them with new storylines,” he says.

As the technical tools to track human performance become more sophisticated and widespread, biometric data have the potential to change the way we play and enjoy sports. But how can biometrics optimize player performance? And where might the unintended consequences lead?

Figure 1. Mark Gorski. (Photo courtesy of Mark Gorski.)

Keeping athletes healthy

One area impacted by biometric data is athlete safety. For instance, biometric gloves [6] have been obligatory race wear for F1 drivers since 2019. The gloves are equipped with a pulse oximetry sensor to measure heart rate and blood oxygen during races. The data are transmitted directly from the cars to nearby medical teams, allowing them to monitor drivers’ vitals remotely during the race and access life-saving information in the event of an accident.

Other biometric devices are designed to prevent injuries and maximize training. In 2016, the Playing Rules Committee for Major League Baseball [2] approved two biometric devices for these purposes: The Motus Baseball Sleeve measures stress on pitchers’ elbows, while the Zephyr Bioharness monitors heart and breathing rates. The hope is that these technologies will help detect habits that could lead to injuries. The Motus Sleeve, for example, might help pitchers avoid Tommy John surgery or recover faster from the operation by monitoring torque stress on the elbow.

Individual athletes are also exploring biometrics to inform their training. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Mark Melacon [1] is one of hundreds of professional and elite athletes to work with the blood analytics company InsideTracker. The Cambridge, MA-based company uses blood testing to screen for 30 different biomarkers, including vitamins, hormones, and other metabolic markers, and creates personalized reports on users’ biochemistry. Levels of biomarkers such as cortisol and creatine can indicate stress levels, inflammation, and muscle damage. High levels of these markers may signal an athlete that it’s time to take a break and rest.

Figure 2. Leslie Saxon. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Saxon.)

As the executive director for the USC Center for Body Computing, Leslie Saxon studies human performance at its extremes, in elite athletes as well as military populations (Figure 2). She says the goal of the work is to help high performers function better, longer, and without injuries.

“We’re not just trying to preserve an individual in the short term,” she says. “We want methods that will preserve that individual into their postelite athlete life. One has to think about what is going to ultimately affect the health of that individual—including their nutritional, emotional, and cognitive needs—over the long term.”

Monetization of human data

While most of the biometric systems and sensors working with teams today are aimed at practice and training, Gorski’s Sports Data Labs has a different goal. They’re focused on monetizing in-game data on behalf of athletes.

Gorski started Sports Data Labs in 2015 with a belief that understanding what’s happening in the human body will lead to greater insights into why any given outcome occurs—and allow people to better predict outcomes. This aspect of biometrics could appeal to the huge global sports betting market, worth as much as US$40 billion annually [4]. As biometric data become more available to the public, it’s possible that bettors could wager on heart rate or testosterone levels or use those data to inform their other bets. Sports Data Labs provides a software platform focused on communicating directly with medical-grade sensors that can be worn be athletes during matches. “We set out to tackle a number of issues related to sensors, transmission, software—anything that was a necessity to get in-game data off the body and out to an endpoint,” says Gorski.

In 2018, Sports Data Labs partnered with the Professional Squash Association (PSA), the first such partnership for in-game real-time human data [3]. The heart-based data are incorporated into official broadcasts of matches to enhance the viewing experience, while simultaneously being made available to commercial partners such as sports betting companies (Figure 3). In addition, players receive access to the data to help them with game analysis and training. Earnings from these commercial opportunities are split between the PSA, Sports Data Labs, and the athletes using a first-of-its-kind revenue share model. These data have highlighted the physical demands of squash, the fitness of its players, and raised the profile of the sport.

Figure 3. Biometric data taken during professional squash matches are displayed onscreen. (Photo Courtesy of the PSA World Tour.)

Emerging concerns

As biometric data collection becomes more common in sports, questions about who owns these very personal data and how they should be used have arisen.

Barbara Osborne, professor in sport law at the University of North Carolina, says that, right now, biometric technology in sports is like the Wild West (Figure 4). She coauthored a recent article that found professional sports teams vary in the degree to which they collect biometric data and the purposes to which such data are put [5].

One concern is privacy. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects personally identifiable health information. But Osborne notes that if a person consents, then HIPAA does not apply. “It’s like buying a Fitbit and clicking ‘I Agree’ without reading any of the information,” she says. “Now you’ve consented to the company having access to all the personal health information gathered by the device.”

Osborne adds that HIPAA regulations also have an exception for employers that need the personal health information of their employees in order for the employees to perform their jobs. Professional athletes fall into this employee exception. And while many leagues have provisions meant to reduce the chances that they will accidentally violate HIPAA and leak sensitive medical information about their athletes, the potential for accidental disclosures remains high.

Figure 4. Barbara Osborne. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Osborne.)

Another concern is that the boom in new apps and wearable technology has resulted in many unproven and untested products. There is an assumption that the devices will provide information directly related to athlete performance, but more data do not always translate to more useful information. Trainers and coaches need to know how to interpret the data and what actions to take based on it.

Athletes may also be worried that their personal data could be considered by team owners or management before trades or contract renewals. Osborne says that players’ representatives need to pay more attention to biotechnology issues in new collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). While she says Major League Baseball is ahead of the curve, other leagues have yet to incorporate biometric data collection and use into their CBAs.

“The CBA could be a great tool to protect professional athletes, but so far, it hasn’t really panned out,” says Osborne. “Players’ associations have not shown a lot of technological savvy in their negotiations to accomplish things that would be beneficial and protect their privacy.”

Biometric future

Experts predict that interest in and adoption of biometrics will continue to increase as the technology advances. Costs will go down and more options will become available to athletes and leagues.

According to Osborne, leaders in sports, such as athletic trainers and conditioning coaches, will have to become better educated about these products and what they can do. “At this point the technology is new and exciting and it seems like any technology is adding something of value,” she says. “Instead of just saying, ‘Wow, this technology is cool and will give us tons of information,’ they will have to look at the value of the information measured and how it will make the athlete or the team better.”

Saxon agrees that for biometric data to be useful, it has to go beyond just data collection. “We can’t just tell elite athletes they are elite. They know that,” she says. “They are looking for an edge. We have to be able to deliver something that they, or their coaches, did not already know.”

Biometric data have the potential to keep athletes safer and healthier, maximize athletic training, augment the fan experience, and provide insights that could win or lose games. And with prospective benefits like those, the rush to collect and analyze biometric data will only increase. The technology is here to stay and improving rapidly. Humans—coaches, trainers, athletes, bettors—will have to become savvier to navigate this new data landscape.

References

  1. A. Aronson, “Blood doesn’t lie: Mark Melancon leads pro athletes in growing usage of blood analytics,” Fox Sports, Feb. 18, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/mlb-boston-red-sox-pittsburgh-pirates-mark-melancon-insidetracker-nutrition-021816
  2. Associated Press, “Baseball biometrics: Wearable tech approved for major league use,” Guardian, Apr. 5, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/05/major-league-baseball-wearable-technology
  3. C. Harvey, “Professional Squash Association sign partnership with global technology provider sports data labs,” Eurosport, Aug. 8, 2018.
  4. B. James, “Biometrics: Currency, conundrum in sports betting future,” Gambling.com, Nov. 30, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.gambling.com/news/biometrics-currency-conundrum-in-sports-betting-future-1693000
  5. B. Osborne and J. L. Cunningham, “Legal and ethical implications of athletes’ biometric data collection in professional sport,” Marquette Sports Law Rev., vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 37–84, 2017. [Online]. Available: http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/sportslaw/vol28/iss1/3
  6. “Safety in their hands,” FIA.com, Federation Internationale de L’automobile, Jan. 2, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.fia.com/news/safety-their-hands
  7. J. Venook, “The upcoming privacy battle over wearables in the NBA,” Theatlantic.com, The Atlantic, Apr. 10, 2017.

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