⭐Upside analysis: Reflecting on Wearable Trends in Pro Sports in the Past Decade
A decade ago, in 2012, we started introducing the first wearables devices to pro teams. Back then it was a novelty. There was a lot of interest and curiosity from teams towards wearables. Now 10 years later we thought it was important to reflect on the industry, and the adoption of wearables in pro sports. How far have we come? Have wearables become omnipresent among pro teams? Are teams using wearables daily? Where is the wearable sports industry heading? In this analysis we will try to address those questions.
Some argue that many pro teams don’t use wearable health/performance devices everyday
If you take the exception of wearables such as GPS, or HR monitoring systems, some teams that we talked to argue that many pro teams do not use wearables (smart watches, patches…) every day. In fact, in some cases, and let’s be honest here, some pro teams spend a lot of money on some wearables but in the end they end up not using those wearables everyday for many reasons: (1) The wearable is not engaging enough meaning that the data does not change a lot on a day to day basis and does not provide good health insights. (2) The data is not accurate enough which is an issue in elite sports as accuracy is key. So what usually happens is that at the end of the year when some teams have to do a tech audit and look at all the wearables that they use they end up not renewing the products or getting rid of some wearables entirely.
Wearables don’t always fit the teams’ workflow or daily workouts
The other trend that we have seen in the past decade when it comes to wearables is that some of those wearables don’t always fit the teams’ workflow or daily workouts. For example one NBA team told us that they were using a smart insole to track the mapping pressure on the foot when the NBA players where doing some exercises. The issue there is that when the NBA players where doing lateral movements the smart insoles were no longer capturing the data which was a key issue.
The point here is that sometimes, because of the types of exercises that athletes do on a daily basis, some wearables do not fit into the workflow and the data is no longer being captured. And the reality is that many S&C coaches are just not going to change the way they train their athletes. It is just not feasible and that’s where some wearables fall short sometimes.
Recovery and treatment: Which wearables should teams use and when?
Based on our discussions with pro teams, it is also becoming extremely important for teams to know which wearables to use and when to use them, especially when it comes to recovery and treatments. For example some teams might start by using some compression boots (Normatec) at the beginning of the treatment and then another type of wearable during a second phase of the treatment in combination with cryo chambers or cooling/heating therapy devices. And then teams could be using EMG sensors (Strive, Neurocess, Myontec…) as part of the rehab process. The point here is that wearables are not all applicable all the time. Teams should use those wearables during specific times and phases which will help speed up the recovery of the athletes. With that in mind, on the vendor side, in our opinion, vendors should think about this as well in order to build the best wearable device that truly meet the needs and workflow of athletes and teams. They need to understand the teams’ workflow first and foremost. If they do not spend time to talk to teams to fully understand their routines, workflow then there is a high chance that the wearable product won’t fit in. That should not be overlooked in our opinion.
Wearable sensing: From HR, HRV, sleep measurement….to hydration, electrolyte, lactate, BP, blood sugar measurement.
Ten years ago most wearables could only track things like HR, HRV, sleep quality. Now some experts and teams argue that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of accuracy of the measurements. While we agree with that, we believe that we have come a long way. Many of the teams that we work with are excited about this next generation of wearables which we believe could be a game changer in the world of elite sports.
In our opinion, a new wave of wearables with advanced wearables with advanced biosensing and actionable insights will become the norm in the next 2 years. We are now seeing the emergence of new types of wearables with advanced biosensing capabilities (lactate, Blood pressure (Valencell), hydration/electrolyte measurement (Flowbio, Epicore, Nix Biosensors...). As we mentioned in previous notes, Apple is likely to introduce a new Apple that can measure hydration/electrolyte. Apple is also working with a chip IR sensor company that can measure lactate as well. Measuring lactate is important as it is one of the biomarkers that could indicate the potential risk of injuries. The point here is that we will see wearables capable of measuring biosensing beyond HR/HRV. You can check out our full analysis of the wearable sports space here.
Now we also expect to see wearables capable of delivering actionable insights. For example these wearables will be able to tell a user insights such as “You are burning too much calories. You should slow down”, or “You are 60% dehydrated. You should take a water break and intake 6 ounces of electrolyte during your training session”.
To enable this OEMs will build advanced algorithms capable of identifying patents in order to deliver such insights. These wearables will also be able to understand the “baseline” of each player. Ultimately, we believe that these are the types of actionable insights that athletes and coaches are looking for. This will also help increase the stickiness of these wearables over time.
Wearables, once allowed during live games such as basketball, could give an edge to pro teams in order to make better decisions and ultimately win more games. A few years ago, former NBA commissioner David Stern, explained his vision: “I just picture that day when the assistant coach is in a locker room someplace or a war room sending messages directly to another assistant coach on the bench saying, ‘Uh, Player X, his hydration is lousy, his heartbeat is too high, his lactic acid is congealing, his blood pressure is high, and the facial recognition tells me that he’d love to be anyplace but the court right now, so it’d be a good idea for you to replace him’.
Picture: Former NBA commissioner David Stern.
Next gen flexible smart clothing products are also emerging
The other interesting trend happening is the emergence of companies building next gen flexible wearables. One of them is Nextiles, a material science company working on next generation flexible wearables.
As we noted before, Nextiles built a smart apparel platform that helps people exercise better, more safely, and more efficiently. The company pairs athletic apparel with an analytics system that identifies new insights about a persons movement.
The company weaves and threads electrically conductive fibers to develop new types of wearable circuitry, through a repurposed sewing technology. The company has an expertise in electrical engineering and circuit design, giving the unique ability to merge fabrics and hardware to engineer new wearable platforms. Nextiles was founded on 2019 and is headquartered in New York, New York.
Here are some pictures of Nextiles’ sensors embedded into the fabric:
Here are some pictures of Nextiles’ next generation flexible wearables:
We believe that these are the types of companies that will help further drive the adoption of wearables in the world of elite sports. You can check out our full podcast interview with George Sun Nextiles CEO here.
Not all Sports Leagues have the same Policy Towards the Use of Wearables. Sports Leagues such as the MLB & NFL allow the use of wearables during Live games
Now let’s talk about the sports leagues’ regulation towards the use of wearables. In North America, as we mentioned before, the NBA is one of the few major sports leagues that does not allow the use of wearables during live games. As shown in the table below, the MLB allows 3 wearables (Whoop, Zephyr, Motus) to be used during live games. The NFL also allows teams to wear wearables during live games. For example NFL players are equipped with Zebra’s RFID chips to measure the players’ speed, acceleration, velocity, and more. NFL teams also use wearables from companies like Plantiga a smart insole startup during live NFL games. In the MLS, teams are allowed to use GPS systems but it is the player’s choice to agree to wear the GPS system or not during live games.
Source: Upside Global confidential, 2021.
The NBA Still Does not Allow Wearables During Live NBA Games
Currently the NBA does not allow any teams to use wearable during live NBA games. The league only allows NBA teams during practice or the G League. The NBA has even been very strict towards NBA players who tried to use wearables during live games in the past and it backfired. In fact, a few years ago, Matthew Dellavedova, point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, wore the Whoop wearable on his wrist for 15 games. After the NBA was informed about the presence of the wearable on Dellavedova's wrist, he avoided a hefty fine but was banned from strapping it on again. This is the typical example of what the situation is regarding the use of wearables during live games.
Picture: Matthew Dellavedova, NBA player (Cavs)
Player Associations (NBPA, NFLPA, etc..) Forging Deals with Wearables Startups.
Over the past decade, players associations such as the NBPA, NFLPA and others, have forged deal with many wearable tech companies. For example the NBA teamed up with is Whoop, a leading wearable startup that just raised $400M. The idea there is that NBA players are in control of their wearable data and have the right to sell their data to monetize it.
As shown in the video below NBAPA president Chris Paul has been an advocate for Whoop over the years. Please note that Whoop has signed a similar deal with the NFLPA.
The NBAPA is not the only player association teaming up with wearable tech companies. Another example if the NFLPA which teamed up with Whoop as well.
But the MLBPA is concerned about how the wearable data can be used
That being said not all Player Associations are embracing wearables. One of them is the MLBPA. In fact, the MLBPA are worried how a greater thirst for biometric data might start to creep into contract negotiations.
“As players, we’re very interested in getting feedback from what these technologies can bring us—like wearing a sleeve that can tell you what kind of stress you may be putting on your arm or a sleep monitor to know how you’re sleeping or how to improve your sleep, something like that,” New York Yankees pitcher Adam Warren said. “There’s a lot of stuff that can benefit a player to try to reach that maximum potential.
“The thing you worry about, though, is, what if a team sees he’s a bad sleeper or he puts a little more stress on his arm, whatever these devices do. You worry about, if you’re not the greatest at a certain [metric], does that affect your contract? Does that affect how the team sees you?”
Here’s a hypothetical that explains the inherent conundrum. Suppose use of the elbow sleeve is eventually shown to identify a tendency that could lead to Tommy John surgery. In some cases, coaches could help a player correct his mechanics and avoid the problem altogether. In other cases, the injury may be inevitable, meaning the player misses out on a long-term contract.
Which scenario outweighs the other? While some players will benefit, the position of the entrenched veteran players is clear.
“We don’t want a situation where they reveal some sort of indicator, whether it be real or not, of somebody’s declining performance or declining health and then cut bait on that player,” Ottavino said.
Some of the players Vocativ spoke to also worried about possible monetization of that data—such as a sponsorship arrangement in which a hitter’s heart rate while facing an opponent’s closer in the ninth inning is broadcast on television—but the league has no plans to do that.
The point here is that the MLBPA has some legit concerns about the use of wearables. Wearables need to be used properly to make it work.
NBA agents and players concerned about NBA teams using Wearable data to negotiate contracts
Historically NBA agents, and the NBAPA have been opposed to the idea of having NBA teams use wearables during live games by fear that NBA teams could use the wearable data to negotiate contract and see if a player’s health is deteriorating. In our opinion, that’s a reasonable concern.
Wearable data + sports betting, the next big revenue opportunity for the NBA and other major sports leagues.
As noted earlier, we recently sat down with a top NBA exec who believes that we could soon see the NBA allow the use of wearables during live games. His belief is that sports betting will be the biggest driver for NBA teams, NBAPA to allow it. Why? NBA agents, players and NBAPA would allow it if they get a cut of the sports betting revenue opportunity.
The NFL making big bets on sports betting. Expected to make $270M from sports betting this year.
NFL, who historically, has been against sports betting, is the perfect example of a league who has historically against sports betting and is now all in.
“It’s like turning the ship 180 degrees from where the NFL was, but they’ve embraced it, and it’s absolutely the right move,” said Trey Wingo, former host of the “NFL Live”. “At the end of the day, money is money, and the NFL is really good at making money.”, continued Wingo. Please note that Trey Wingo is now the chief trends officer and brand ambassador for Caesars Entertainment.
The NFL has been very active in this sports betting space, teaming up with betting operators, infusing broadcasts with gambling content and allowing betting to seep into the stadium experience. In April, the league announced partnerships with Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel as its official sports-betting partners.
So how much revenue is the NFL expected to generate from sports betting this year? The league is expected to generate $270M in revenue this year from their sports-betting and gambling deals, according to a person familiar with the league’s finances.
“You can definitely see the market growing to $1 billion-plus of league opportunity over this decade,” said Christopher Halpin, an executive vice president for the NFL who is its chief strategy and growth officer.
In fact, bettors could place over $20B in football-related wagers this season. This would result in $1.5B in revenue for sportsbooks, according to industry analyst PlayUSA. Here are a few more details:
PlayUSA projects at least $12B in NFL-related bets, excluding parlay bets, yielding at least $800M in sportsbook revenue.
It also predicts at least $8B in non-parlay college football bets, bringing $550M to sportsbooks.
The Fiesta Bowl and Guaranteed Rate Bowl also teamed up with Caesars Entertainment this year as college football warms to sports betting.
Bottom line: Over the past decade there has been a growing adoption of wearables in the world of elite sports. But the reality is that many pro teams still do not use wearables everyday. The accuracy of some of those wearables need to improve and better fit the workflow of teams and athletes but there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of wearables in the world of elite sports starting with the emergence of more advanced biosensing capabilities, and algorithms. That’s what we are exciting about.
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