Stan Mimoto isn’t a metrologist, but he knew where the wind was blowing.
When he decided to launch SD Labs alongside Mark Gorski seven years ago, the big data revolution in pro football was only in its infancy – with most focus merely on player tracking analytics to help gain a competitive edge. Today, the movement is entering its most pivotal phase yet as biometric data collection becomes more granular and more applicable, and a potentially highly monetizable asset.
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Health and performance data began as a new training tool for athletes, but has sense has morphed into an important pillar of the global sports ecosystem, with increasing value that more outside companies are recognizing. Detailed player biometric data has a licensing component as well the ability to add a new dimension to broadcast coverage, offering an edge in the growing world of sports gambling.
SD Labs, which collects and distributes data for commercial use, is aiming to find new revenue-making opportunities with its partners, including NFLPA, which it recently struck a licensing deal that allows the union to receive an undisclosed equity stake in the company.
Extra royalty checks and required player consent are two ways Mimoto wants to his company to stand out in this emerging private investment space where services remain largely unmonitored. It’s just one of the takeaways as data commercialization becomes more common and more organizations – from betting companies to NFL franchises – stand to benefit.
“There’s a lot of stakeholders involved that are going to have a vested interest in the data and how it’s collected,” Mimoto said in a phone interview. “So, what teams and associations can do with the data will be driven by [labor] contracts or will have to be regulated by policy in some way.”
While the collection of practice data must be approved by NFLPA on a case-by-case basis, the collective bargaining agreement allows the NFL to track in-game player data using GPS sensors. Both players and the league share revenue generated from that data, which is sold to third-party companies, including TV networks. This has made it common for viewers to see a graphic pop up showing a wide receiver’s top speed on his way to scoring a touchdown. The infusion of data is shifting how fans consume the sport.
“It’s totally become an expectation now, and still such a new frontier,” Paraag Marthe, president of 49ers Enterprises, the business arm of the San Francisco 49ers., said. “There’s still so much that you can do with sports data and the commercialization of it.”
Swiss sports data company Sportradar, which has deals with NBA, MLB and other major sports leagues, went public last year at a $8 billion valuation. NFL partner Genius Sports, which partnered with FanDuel last year, has also benefitted from the rise of sports betting. The sports data firm is responsible for delivering real-time stats and sports betting feeds to NFL fans across the globe.
“Data integrating with media is really the key for this really taking off,” BreakAway Data CEO Dave Anderson said. “We’re just scratching the surface because data will soon be thought of as media, instead of just spreadsheets and stats.”
As that commercialization of data grows, so does tracking technology and the potential for abuse. For years, NFL players have had the option to gain insight and improve training regiments with help from league partners like Catapult, Zebra Technologies and Whoop. External use, however, is relatively new.
“It’s an unregulated [market] but if revenue is generated then players are going to be expected to be compensated,” NFL sports agent Peter Schaffer said. “If it creates new revenue generation, then we’re fine with it, but we’re not going to let it breach HIPPA or health [privacy laws].”
HIPPA though doesn’t protect sensitive medical information in many cases. This one of the reasons why the health player data market remains largely unregulated, with no federal law that addresses wearable technology and propriety performance data.
And now more attention is turning to the ripe data licensing market, which is just beginning to take shape with monetization of a range of products from NFTs to digital trading cards. NFL players will receive more money as stakeholders in potentially lucrative licensing deals, but are the extra royalty checks as valuable as the players’ assets that’s being traded in return? There’s no definitive answer.
“From a pro sports perspective, it’s about what’s in the collective bargaining agreement and what’s negotiated individually in a players’ contract,” said University of North Carolina exercise and sport science professor Barbara Osborne, who studies the implications behind athlete data collection. “Or what management and the union agree to as it relates to policy, even if it’s not included in the CBA. There’s still a lot of space left for interpretation.”
The latest NFL CBA clarified language about what rights players have to their data but its not designed to adapt at the pace of modern technology. The current CBA expires in 2030 after a 10-year span- a lifetime in tech development.
The potential of commercial exploitation or misuse is still a concern without legal parameters and scant protection in labor agreement. But for lower earners, getting extra cash to reveal their sleep patterns from the night before may be worth it.
It’s certainly data that many avid bettors would like to get their hands on. The future of NFL betting is currently being driven by play-by-play stats, but the introduction of biometric data would add another wrinkle to fan engagement offerings.
NFLPA partner SD Labs is already delivering in-game biometric data for the Professional Squash Association (PSA). Fans attending the PSA Tour can take a glance at real-time heart rate of players and view their heart-based data on the video boards. This info is distributed to broadcasters but perhaps there will be a day when this is also provided to sports betting operators and partner gambling companies.
“If bookmakers are getting access to training or fitness data, especially for someone who is rehabbing, that could change the gambling game significantly,” Osborne added.
In the meantime, data startups that partner with the NFL, as well as spring leagues like the XFL and USFL, will continue to push exploration through developing tech to unlock new revenue generating opportunities. Anderson believes that younger, experimental sports leagues like PSA, Athletes Unlimited and XFL are more open to adopting innovation to capture the attention of fans. The NFL, which is the world’s richest sports league, has the luxury of evaluating from afar before embracing with its own.
“These are things are that will need to be discussed and continued over the years because things are going to change as technology changes [in terms] of what we can be captured,” Mimoto said. “It’s being able to understand the right framework as this space continues to evolve.”