Written by Thane Ritchie

Thane Ritchie is the founder of Ritchie Capital Management who currently is involved in private equity and energy investments.

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Jan 20

The second screen is becoming the first screen, and sport execs know it. With mobile video gaining popularity every year, it’s no longer just the game that’s important to fans — it’s the entire experience, which is increasingly augmented by mobile technology. If sports franchises want to remain relevant and keep fans enthralled, they must follow this trend by leaning into mobile fan engagement.

Before smart phones — less than a decade ago — there was neither need nor capability for features beyond the game itself. Though the saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention, in this case, invention has been the mother of necessity: once smart devices became ubiquitous, our need for them in every aspect of life did too.

The rise of smartphone ubiquity and technological sophistication is just one reason engaging fans through their phones has become so important. Other factors include changing demographics that include more millennials, competition with big screen TVs at home, and huge opportunities to boost revenues. All these things entail that sports venues have top notch connection, and suggest that interactive extras via mobile device would be to their benefit.

So, what exactly does leaning into mobile engagement entail? The opportunities are vast, and some have already been put to use. Imagine, for example, being able to order food and drinks to your seat at a stadium, or upgrade your seat to a better section — all paid for on your phone. These options are very appealing to younger generations, and are money-making opportunities as well.

To rival the at-home game experience, stadiums are vying to offer new and exciting mobile applications just for game goers. These apps may insider looks at camera footage, behind-the-scenes photographs, or additional statistics and facts on players. Ideally, fans could also access player profiles, fantasy performances, and access instant replays in real time.

The other side of this technological shift is that it gives marketing insiders the ability to collect data on who their fans and their habits, informing the development of new products and apps based on detailed insights. None of this is possible without stadium connectivity, though — so it’s no surprise that every major league in America is working toward getting stadiums completely wireless.

It would be misleading to say they are close to meeting their goals, because with technology evolving, so do the goal posts, so to speak. If and when stadiums and sponsors master the mobile game, there are other types of tech likely to emerge, like virtual reality, augmented reality and drones. How exactly this will pan out is still unclear, but I have a hunch that the fan experience is destined to transform, even if gradually, until technology is absolutely integral: a necessity instead of a bonus.

Photo: Aleksandr Osipov via Flickr

 

Dec 11

There are all types of methods, used and abused by human beings, that have stunning effects on athletic performance. Steroids, widely banned, have the ability to make athletes better, faster and stronger — nonetheless, such drugs are largely illegal for ethical and medical reasons.

In the meantime, the concept of the human body as a machine that can be tweaked and optimized is gaining traction thanks to advancements in science and technology. But the world of sports remains committed to the all-natural athlete, despite the fact that this ideal no longer exists. Today’s athletes are aided by special uniforms, technological training, nutritional supplements — and, in spite of regulators’ best efforts — new types of doping methods that are difficult to ban and impossible to trace.

It may seem odd that athletes are expected to adhere to primitive standards of excellence while the rest of the world embraces technological advancement, unhindered. Drug bans in the name of health and fairness make sense, but steroids are not the only way athletes can boost their performance. Safer and stranger modern innovations exist — the use of which some term “tech doping.” These futuristic methods don’t always fall under the realm of cheating, but some may toe the line.

Tracking and perfecting

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Sans drugs, there are many ways athletes can (and do) fine tune their bodies to near super-human results. Perhaps the simplest and least controversial way involves technology that tracks performance for valuable insight on what drives successes and failures. With proper data, the athletic achievements can be replicated, mistakes reduced and overall performance improved.

Today’s athletes can swallow pills that monitor core temperature, wear sensors that track movement, and attach devices that record video and statistics. The wealth of information yielded by this technology can help athletes (along with their coaches and trainers) understand their performances and tweak their technique accordingly.

And it gets more advanced: athletes that digitally track their eye movements are able to discover which retinal fixations (and corresponding cognitive functions) correlate with success. This isn’t cheating, but it’s not natural either. Understanding the body and the brain this intimately would not be possible without the breadth of technology we use today to obtain and harness information.

Uniforms and equipment

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Can high-tech sportswear constitute as cheating? Apparently so: ultrasonically welded swimwear by Speedo was determined to have artificially enhanced athletic performance in the 2008 Olympics, after which the high-tech swimsuits were banned. There is little reason to believe that cutting edge shoes, outfits and equipment couldn’t, in time, give athletes a similar edge on land.

Already, today’s athletes benefit from lightweight, sweat-resistant sportswear that boosts performance by minimizing hindrances like weight and heat. NFL quarterbacks have in-helmet speakers, Olympians have bobsleds made of carbon fiber, and speed skaters wear suits that reduce drag. Is this cheating? Some think it comes close, or at the very least gives certain athletes unfair advantages.

The big issue here has a lot to do with resources, or the lack thereof. When the quality of equipment and sportswear dependant on a team or nation’s money flow, it’s little wonder wealth and wins so often go hand in hand.

Techy Training

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The optimization of body and brain isn’t only done through careful tracking, but physically altering the way an athlete thinks, moves and acts in prep time.

A system called Neurotopia is one of such methods used by Football players for brain training and stimulation. Through this technology, athletes can train their brains to influence physiological processes that amplify their performance. The machine lets its user play a game with their mind in which lively mental focus is rewarded, and low focus punished. If used correctly and often, the player’s brain will optimize performance for rewards outside of the machine, too.

And speaking of science fiction-style training: athletes have experimented with all types of equipment — like pods that simulate exercising, and altitude chambers that replicate low-oxygen conditions — all for improved metabolism and endurance. They may also have highly-engineered diets, workout routines and therapies to ensure their brains and bodies are fine tuned to perform under pressure.

Training has always been key to success, but it’s only recently that advanced technology, science and metrics have become this valuable, and in some cases manipulative of mind and body. When these innovations become mainstream, the athletic training montages in sports movies like Rocky will seem crude and prehistoric.

Health and wellbeing

One of the biggest boons to athletes is the likelihood of injury, and the lasting impacts of, well, impacts. Luckily, there are emerging innovations that help prevent athletes from getting hurt, or ensure quick and effective treatment when they do. With athlete safety more scrutinized than ever, preserving bodies and careers is a priority for those in the sports tech industry.

Recently, various types of wearable technology have been used to detect high-impact collisions and other injuries so that medical treatment can be undergone right away. Gear is designed to be protective, with highly-engineered fits that support moving bodies and prevent injury. Head trauma may soon be able to be diagnosed on the sidelines with advanced spit and blood tests.

On top of this, athletes may soon benefit from a scientific feats that make them even better functioning than the normal human. For example, a cooling glove that eases muscle fatigue and produces results equal to steroids, supplements and cryotherapy to enhance athletic recovery, or even genetic engineering for built-in athletic strength.

What’s next?

Put all of these together, and we arguably have athletes that are better, stronger and faster as a direct result of science and technology. Today’s athletes are not natural at all, and it’s not a bad thing — some might even call it an inevitability.

When it comes to cheating, it will be difficult to know where the line should be drawn. Even with regulations in place, many athletes continue to quietly partake in performance enhancement drugs undetected. Some argue that sports would be better off allowing steroid use — transparently and with and medical advisement — than to let it continue in the shadows. As for “tech doping,” it’s also a sticky issue. As long as the playing field is unequal, players with money and science on their side will likely keep the upper hand.

The same goes for safety. Though many technological innovations protect athletes, not all teams can afford the standard let alone the extras. Winning almost always trumps safety, and only rigorous and long-term research will tell if emerging performance enhancement methods are truly sound.

At some point, fans, athletes and others in the industry will have to acknowledge the implications of these advancements, and decide: Can we equal the playing field? Do we allow enhancements of some kinds, and not others? Or none at all? Will we embrace the super-athlete, or decide natural is better after all? Whatever the case, I hope decisions are mindful of both athlete well-being and the potential of tech to transform sports as we know them.

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Dec 9

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Leave it to scientists at MIT to create the sportswear of the future — and expect it to look a lot more than a superhero costume than jersey. Recently, researchers at MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group have been using an ancient bacteria to develop a self-ventilating second skin.

The bacteria was discovered 1,000 years ago in Japan, but only now is it being repurposed as a wearable solution to bodily sweat. With the bacteria, scientists have developed a natto material called BioLogic that physically morphs when exposed to moisture. Tiny flaps in the material open when the body within reaches certain humidity conditions so that the sweat can evaporate.

How does it work? Well, first the cells were grown in bioreactors, then molded for use in a micro-resolution printer so it could be bioprinted onto wearable fabrics. The film deposits were then sent off to the Royal College of Art, who integrated them into clothing by pinpointing which parts of the body sweat the most.

Unsurprisingly, sportswear manufacturers are incredibly interested in this innovative development. New Balance is one such company invested in the process. For athletes, this could mean light, breathable clothing that keeps your sweat from saturating workout clothes or uniforms by responding to your body to open up ventilators.

There’s a bigger picture here, of course. Biologically sensitive material opens as many doors as it does flaps far outside the world of athletics. Researchers are thinking about color-changing clothes, lampshades that respond to light, flowers that blossom and change color when watered, and steam-activated teabags.

So basically, if you’re a human that runs, has a garden, uses artificial light, drinks tea or all of the above, it’s entirely possible you’ll encounter BioLogic or a BioLogic-like material in the future. Who ever though bacteria on your skin and in your hot beverage would be a desirable thing? Not me, but apparently innovation knows no boundaries.

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Nov 20

What happens when you put two teams decked head-to-toe in green and red on one football field? Thousands of fans seeing nothing but gray.

NFL sponsor Nike’s Color Rush initiative did just that during a game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets on Thursday, November 12. The uniform designs, intended to be a “bold new look” celebrating the 50th year of football on color TV, ended up worse than black and white for color blind spectators.

It appears that Nike forgot to consider just how common color blindness is: one in twelve men have it, along with .5 percent of women. Without any other visual cues, the Bills’ red suits and the Jets’ green ones were nearly identical to many. NFL uniforms are typically distinguished not only by team colors, but by featuring one team fully or partially in white.

Because colorblind folks have the most trouble with reds and greens, it didn’t help that the Bills and Jets were decked out in bright holiday colors. They may have well been watching a homogeneous 22 person team in monochromatic spandex. I guess five decades of color TV is enough time to forget that some people don’t have the retinal cone cells, no matter the quality of their television.

Even the Bills’ head coach, Rex Roy, was confused. “I look out there and my team’s in red. Blue, I might have had a chance,” he said. “But I’m like, ‘Who are they? Oh shoot, that’s us. So, it’s different.” The NFL called it a Christmas-tinged nightmare, though it was obviously porridge-tinged for some.

As for fans without vision impairment, they haven’t reacted all too positively to the look either. Football fans aren’t known for their mild manners any more than New Yorkers are, and there’s a 100% particular overlap in this case. Twitter exploded with complaints and jokes, as Twitter is wont to do, with players compared to power rangers, gummy bears and Christmas ornaments.

The Color Rush initiative is meant to honor each franchise by combining current and historic team colors in unique and bold uniforms, which each of the 32 teams will don during Thursday night games. Fortunately, Nike now knows that there are other factors than pomp and circumstance to take into consideration while testing new uniform designs.

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Nov 16

As I’ve touched on before, wearable technology is bringing new and astounding changes to the world of sports. Wearable tech can improve player safety, team visibility, call efficiency and so much more. In other words, it’s a game changer — literally.

Some wearable technology is already used by athletes, but when it comes to imagining what the future could hold, the sky’s the limit. Brilliant hypothetical designs can demonstrate the potential of wearable technology to improve sports like soccer, rugby and football. Some may even be useful for non-athletes as well.

The following concepts (by Bwin via CNET) imagine how athletes’ outfits will look and function in the future. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to seeing these innovations in action on fields, courts, and rinks across the globe someday.

1. Offside lights & watches

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It can be difficult for everyone — including referees — to tell when athletes are out of bounds. With light-up offside indicators, flexible LED displays would flash on players’ outfits when they’ve crossed a boundary. This can minimize and even eliminate human error, or worse, cheating — the lights don’t lie.

GoalControl is one organization already focused on clarifying boundaries through wearable technology. In this case, the referee would have the wearable: a watch that displays real-time data based on camera footage so refs can make more accurate calls.

2. Player cameras

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Speaking of footage, imagine getting a view of a game from your favorite athlete’s perspective. With wearable cameras like GoPros in use commercially, it’s feasible that similar devices could be embedded into athlete uniforms, assuming the rules would allow it.

Already, wearable technology like Google Glass has been used to record behind-the-scene or even on-the-scene footage at sports events by both reporters and athletes. In the future, POV footage could give viewers a unique perspective of the game, while giving sports organizations a brand new product to broadcast or sell.

3. Wearable ads & statistics

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Advertising is a huge part of professional sports, as is evidenced by Super Bowl commercials, corporate sponsorships, on-site activations and more. Flexible LED displays could theoretically turn an athlete’s uniform into another screen for brand promotions.

LED ad outfits are unlikely to become the standard anytime soon, least of all in the United States. Though sports teams globally have long brandished the names of sponsors on their jerseys, it’s one of the only spaces the “big four” professional American leagues won’t advertise on.

Alternatively, LED textiles could display player statistics on their jerseys so fans can peek at the data without doing additional research.

4. LED visibility outfits

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When the weather’s bad, it’s not just moisture that makes sporting events unpleasant: bad visibility can be physically dangerous for players and bothersome for fans. High-visibility textiles, which light up in bad weather, could remedy this issue.

Though some kinds of high-visibility gear already exists, even the brightest neons won’t be of much use at night in the rain. Apparel embedded with flexible LED technology would be the ideal solution, but only if it can be powered effectively without adding extra weight.

5. Built in generators

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So how are the sports outfits of the future powered? Since clunky batteries would weigh down wearable electronics, the best solution may be battery-free: specifically, outfits could be charged with kinetic energy generated by the players’ movements.

There are a number of wearable electronics that are self-powering, some through body heat, others through body movement or even human blood. For athletes, running and jumping could someday be efficient enough to power at least some of their high-tech wearables.

6. Impact visualizers


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Lastly, here’s one type of wearable that is already making waves in American football: the impact visualizer, which (in this design) changes colors when a player takes a hit. An outfit with this kind of tech built in could flash green, amber, or red to alert referees and doctors when a player needs medical attention or a break.

Impact sensors have already been embedded into helmets, mouth guards and chin straps to measure the force and duration of collisions players endure. The hope is that recognizing severe impacts right when they occur can help athletes get treated as soon as possible, minimize suffering and long-term side effects, and prevent further dangerous incidents.

Nov 2

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Sports and climate change might not be the most intertwined communities, but that could change soon.

The 100% Sport campaign is the result of a partnership between British Telecommunication (BT) and gold medal-winning sailor Sir Ben Ainslie with the intent of bringing sports fans together to tackle climate change through green efforts, specifically renewable energy. This isn’t the first endeavor from the sports community to bring awareness and prevention of climate change, but the 100% Sport campaign goes beyond to unite fans across sports to channel their passion and fandom to enhance the enthusiasm towards reducing carbon emissions.

Sir Ainslie, an experienced environmentalist through 11th Hour Racing’s marine awareness, knows the importance of awareness. In BT’s news release, Sir Ainslie explained that, “As a sailor I’m constantly aware of my surroundings. Sailing at venues around the world you get to see first-hand and up-close water pollution. It’s not just something I’ve read about, it’s something I’ve seen and experienced. I’ve also experienced the real power of fans –cheering you on to the finish line, and seeing how they have got behind our race to become a truly sustainable sports team.”

Currently, fans are encouraged to spread the movement on Twitter through the #go100percent–the first step in the campaign’s bottom-up strategy. Early in the campaign, less than a month old, traction appears to be trending upwards on Twitter. It will take some time to see if the movement gains viral levels, but with BT’s 1.7 million strong channel viewership they expect that if even 10 percent take notice the movement should have early success.

With fans taking an increased level of awareness, the campaign hopes to bring to light the levels of extortion that comes from stadium building. With more attention thrust onto the subject, the hope is that fans will pressure these stadiums to invest this money into arena accountability to enhance its environmental responsibility.

Joining Sir Ainslie in the campaign is rugby stars Austin Healey and Martin Bayfield to encourage fans to get involved. Check out the video below featuring the two discussing the movement at length.


Oct 21

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Sports and tech continue towards a mutually beneficial future. A recent CIO profile revealed how some sports organizations are furthering the bonds between sport and tech.

The partnership between the two sectors finds sports organizations bringing startups into events like pitch competitions where the clubs seek out bright potential that harnesses the sporting experience as well. By jumping on the bandwagon, these clubs are making it clear that the game embraces tech well beyond the recent uptick in analytics and sports health–a stark change in direction from the current landscape that finds most organizations lacking the adequate IT infrastructure needed to enter the next generation.

CIO noted some exciting ventures that include the Los Angeles Dodgers Accelerator program and the Cleveland Cavalier’s new CavsEats mobile app that allows fans to order food from concession stands without missing a second on the court. Both rollouts signify huge gains for both sport and tech. While the Dodgers are embracing the large-scale approach to finding its next big venture, the Cavaliers honed in on just one or two startups to begin its process.

Fans should expect to see further integration amongst the two sectors in the coming years. Just like any sporting team or startup looking to be the leader in its field, constant innovation is required. With tech now firmly entrenched in player and fan experiences, we may be seeing the dawn of a new sporting era for all parties involved.

Oct 12

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This is the age of Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat just to name a few. Or, the new way to watch your team’s play even when you can’t.

Thanks to social media, if you miss a big game you can now go on Twitter for an up-to-the-minute highlights or even get a game report from multiple fan perspectives. Platforms such as Instagram will give you the behind-the-scenes information you can’t find anywhere else. Whether you like it or not, social media is the place for die-hard sports watchers to go to these days.

Creating a voice for teams that is consistent with the overall team brand as well as fans is something social media coordinators have to do every day.  “It’s the social media coordinators who are responsible for finding that nexus of humor, truth, and branding,” according to the Complex Magazine article.

Complex Magazine zeroed in on the single-handed and sometimes dual presence that drives the witty social media presence behind NBA teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks. Some, like the Nets and Sixers, notched many more wins in the social sphere than they ever did on the court.

Complex delved deeper with a profile on the daily lives of social media coordinators who work for The Brooklyn Nets and The Philadelphia 76ers.

It seems as if the teams who have great standings are the only teams who play nicely on social media–they simply can’t take the risk. Teams like the Nets and the 76ers, on the other hand, are encouraged to draw outside the proverbial box as much as possible since neither have top standing.

For the Nets, Sixers and even successful Hawks it seems the secret to a slam dunk is crafting a witty, clever tweet that lands at the right time.

Being empathetic with your fan base is what the 76ers social media crew does exceptionally well. They have adopted the ‘if you can’t beat em…join em’ attitude in regards to their team. This is a creative approach for a franchise that has spent years at the bottom of the NBA standings during a years-long rebuild that has featured two of their #1 draft picks spending their first season on the sidelines with injuries.

Social media highlights for the Nets’ season include capturing moments fans would not have had access to otherwise—shots taken at practice, locker room, pressroom and keeping tweets witty yet aligned with their stylish image.

The Atlanta Hawks made a splash on social media when it had a groundbreaking, interactive ‘Swipe Right’ Tinder night where basketball fans were able to combine love and basketball in one quarter. Matches could meet in lounges filled with Altoids and roses.

All of these teams seem to make waves with mash-up’s that infuse their teams and players with witty pop culture references. The NBA social media coordinators also interact with fans, rival teams while, above all, making sure that they are still brand appropriate.

Reshares, retweets any and all forms of social media attention can help boost sales, merchandise and everything else NBA related.

Sep 28

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San Francisco recently hosted the Wearable Tech in Sport Summit–a two-day summit aimed at providing “deep insight into how the sports industry is being shaped by wearable technology and digital fitness.” Presented by Innovation Enterprise, a global innovation enterprise across various sectors, the summit brought together leaders from the sports and fitness industries to discuss how wearables allow the individual athlete to make more informed decisions based on their fitness results.

The summit noted that this new information has made the industry evolve with this new found level of individual analysis. To provide that insight the summit brought in a who’s who of leaders across sports and fitness. Speakers included leaders from Intel, Samsung, Adidas, the USOC and the San Francisco 49ers.

The summit boasts over 150 industry leaders and over a days worth of networking opportunities. To back their findings, the summit also has over 20 case studies from “only the most innovative companies.” These studies and presentations revolved around topics from mobile fitness to sports science.

I wasn’t unable to attend the summit this year, but I am excited to hear what emerges in the coming weeks and months. As the summit noted, the landscape of these industries continue to change at a rapid pace. With sports and fitness tech both constantly upgrading and evolving, it is important to stay on the pulse of innovation, especially if you are planning on making investments. While I can’t personally endorse this year’s event, it looks to be the sort of summit the industry will continue to need in the coming years.

Did you attend this year’s summit? Let me know in the replies. I’d love to hear your takeaways.

Sep 18

Artist: Zabou, Chance Street, Shoreditch, London

Artist: Zabou, Chance Street, Shoreditch, London

Athletes are a commodity. Their performance, training methods and even downtime has become more detailed science than athletic artistry. With wearable and data technologies, sports are showing a rise in audience interaction and a lowered expectation of privacy for players. Some of them are beginning to feel more like lab cases than athletes.

Brian Bulcke, a defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League, says, “I feel like a guinea pig sometimes when we talk about athletes and technology, and I stress that we’re people too.” Bulcke continues, “We’re professionals, so I think the respect line on privacy, security and all that kind of stuff needs to be maintained in athleticism, despite being entertainment.”

Because the Canadian lineman works as a business development lead for a program that mentors tech companies at Ryerson University in Toronto during off-season, he can speak directly to both sides of the struggle. Part engineer, part athlete, Bulcke is attempting to develop tech that takes the ‘guinea pig equation’ out of the locker room. However, he believes it will ultimately come down to athletes playing a more active role in the conversation about the ubiquitous uprising of tech in sports.

“It’s the athletes and the people on the frontlines that will help define the industry. We’re the early adopters but we’re also a megaphone for the rest of the athletes in the market,” adds Bulcke. “Over the years we’ll see more and more athletes permeate into the wearables space.”

His advice is for players to give pushback if the lines between personal and professional tracking becomes muddy.

“I do think there’s a line there, and we focus purely on when you’re at the workplace, and the workplace for athletes is when you’re practicing or playing games or doing rehab and assessments,” said Brian Kopp, president of the North American division of Catapult, an Australian company whose wearable devices are used in major league teams in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and college-level sports programs. “When you go home and you’re doing whatever on your own time, you’re not wearing our device […]”.

But what is most disconcerting to athletes? The more metrics and tracking big-data algorithms, the higher the likelihood for negative salary negotiations based on performance data during very specific training sessions. In other words, players aren’t allowed bad days — big data is always watching and recording. Sports fans have very little sympathy. According to a portion of fans, players as entertainers who make inordinate salaries; if tracking enhances the audience experience, it’s justified.

“The insights that come from the data that evolve and advance the story and make the game potentially more interesting for fans – that’s where I see one of the big opportunity areas, and we’re already starting to see that,” says Stacey Burr, vice-president and general manager of Adidas’s digital sports business unit. “I don’t know how that whole world works, to be honest with you; we’re just providing facts and figures, and I think there’s somebody else that has a set of mental models that they use in terms of what the future opportunities are for individual players.”

Wearable technology continues to generate massive global revenue for sports, fitness and activity monitors. As the wearable tech industry is expected to grow from $1.9bn in 2013 to $2.8bn in 2019 (according to analytics firm IHS), the sports tech versus privacy subject will most likely heat up as well.