Connected Fitness

screeenHow the Internet-of-Things is changing the Sports Industry

For those of you, who are new to my blog let me take a second and introduce myself. My name is Reza and I’m the co-founder and CEO of Full Control, a sports technology company, which collaborates with SAP on a number of projects, as we are one of the few companies, who are building sport apps on the HANA Cloud Platform.

Before I decided to go independent and build my own start-up I was working in the IT and banking industry, which was a good experience but I was ultimately looking for something more exciting. Sports-technology, which I find to be a very emotional and exciting topic, was the perfect alternative.

What the Internet of things in the sports industry means to me

A quick anecdote might help explain what drives me and what it is I am trying to achieve. A couple of years ago a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to run a marathon with him – or at least attend the event to cheer him on. After researching the amount of preparation time necessary to make it through a marathon I quickly decided to attend the Mannheim marathon as a spectator rather than torturing myself for 4 plus hours, which very likely was the right decision, because it gave me the opportunity to really soak in the event. It really was a great experience and much more exciting than I anticipated, as there were a lot of people – 100.000 to be exact – cheering on their friends and loved ones. There were more than 15.000 runners and 4 official timing check points, to keep track of every runners time. I was positioned right at the starting line and it took about 3 minutes until my friend passed by me and after all the runners had passed I was a bit surprised, because nothing happened. The crowd began to dissipate and the TV stations only covered the top 10 runners. It seemed to me that it didn’t matter, what the other runners were doing. I was kind of expecting some more action. When that didn’t play out the way I thought, I tried to kill the four hours, my friend had previously told me he would approximately need to complete this endeavor, drinking coffee and attending some of the marathon events for the spectators. After about 4 hours I was at the finish line to welcome my friend after what I find to be an extraordinary feat. And all he got was a time sheet with his 4 check point times, plus the total time. That was kind of amazing to me, but not in a good way. How, in 2015, were there are more than 10.000 sports gadgets, could this boring personal performance sheet be the only data the runners received. Practically every runner was wearing some kind of a heart rate sensor or fitness tracker and all they got was this personal performance sheet? That experience got me to do some research on the data and sensors relevant to marathons. There are quite a few sensors available and most of them from big companies like fitbit or jawbone: sensors for skin resistance, step counters, heart rate monitors, sensors for cadence, pace and distance covered. We have sensors for everything but the Mannheim marathon didn’t really track anything or if they did, they didn’t make the data available to the athletes or the spectators. So the real question I was asking myself was: ‘Why, with all the available technology and data, is watching a marathon still this boring? What happens to all the data and why is nobody taking care of it? With more data and stats, sports tend to get more accessible for fans as they provide the information necessary to gain further insight.

So after doing some research we found that the main issue is that each sensor is in its own ‘data silo’, meaning that there is no interlink between them. People can share their data with other people but only if they happen to have the same sensor or system. And because there is no interlink it is very hard to bring all of this data together. A while ago my team and I created an app allowing a jawbone owner to challenge a fitbit owner and vice versa. This was very challenging as jawbone and fitbit change their APIs, which in turn requires a lot of app maintenance to keep the app working.
Even if you manage to let the different sensors communicate with each other, there’s another issue waiting around the corner: Analytics – Just because you have data doesn’t mean you can analyze it correctly. So even if you have expertise and experience in that field you need a data scientist who knows how to work with algorithms and also is interested in sports.
So the idea was to create a platform that brings together the software developers, users and all the sensors available on the market. Even if this isn’t a completely new idea, there is nobody working on that right now in sports technology. Now imagine if someone manages to create this platform, every spectator at a marathon can track all of the data (speed, estimated time of arrival at the finish line etc.) of their favorite runner in real time at all times, which would make a marathon a whole lot more interesting and interactive.
Together with SAP the Full Control Team then developed a prototype that could bring all the runners of the marathon in correlation to each other, meaning it could predict what runner would overtake another runner in what time and give spectators many other fun facts about their favorite runners in real time, which is a big step in the right direction in my opinion. We also tracked the heart rate of certain runners, which gave us even more possibilities for analytics like developing a graph of the runners’ heart rate relative to their location. However, we didn’t make this available to the public, as we all had concerns about data privacy.
And marathons are just one example of how to bring together sensors and sports. There are a lot of other sports like Formula 1, Sailing, which from a statistical standpoint is not that different from marathons and even soccer, which is becoming more and more analytics driven. SAP actually claims that SAP analytics played a major role in the German national team winning the world cup. And while sports always will be more than statistics and have intangibles, which can’t be put on stat sheets it is clear that where there is data, there is room for improvement if you have the right people and the right tools.
I will give you an example from baseball, which has actually been mad an award-winning movie – ‘Money Ball’. The General Manager of the Oakland Athletics decides to break with tradition and build a team on nothing but statistical analysis not because he wants to, but because he needs to due to a lack of money. This almost gets him fired, as nobody believed in his vision. But after a rocky start his team of misfits actually goes on a run and manages to have the fourth longest winning streak in MLB history. He rewrote history and changed the game, which everybody thought couldn’t be changed by analyzing data on the theory ‘sabermetrics’ of Bill James, at the time a security guard at a pork and bean cannery.

More than ‘just’ sports

And this, to me, goes further than sports and sports data, as it helps monitor the user’s personal fitness levels and even health. We actually asked one of the participants when was the last time that he was so sick that he decided that he had to stay home. We wanted to know that in order to develop a timeline of his progress relative to his training and his days off. He did not have an answer to that question. So to me the next step is clear: Bringing together all of the sensors and the data and create a health and fitness dashboard, which can track all the important data necessary to monitor your own health and fitness levels.

This digitalization could be the beginning of a new movement in the sports industry and could, sooner rather than later, result in a Siri-like software for digital health, which the user can ask all kinds of questions like what he should eat or how his training is going and what his progress is. So every user could practically have his own dietician and personal trainer in his smart phone.

For us, as a company, it is important to anticipate what kind of new business models and opportunities this could open up. I think in the future fitness and health data could be opened up or sold on a transactional basis. Right now if you download or update an app on your smartphone, some of them require permission as there are data privacy issues involved, such as if the app can have your permission to access your phone’s contact list or pictures. A new business model in the future could be for companies to try and get permission from the users to access their health and fitness data, because they want to analyze it and maybe offer them new customized services based on that analysis. There could also be the possibility for users to sell their fitness and health data to companies, or make it available in real time for them to track. There are all sorts of possibilities when there’s that much unused and underappreciated data lying around, which can be collected and analyzed to improve on a number of things like profit margins for companies, as for instance gross staff naturally exceeds net staff due to the amount of sick days, which are anticipated by companies. Companies, who are willing to accept that the game is changing will have a big advantage over their competition, which usually results in more productivity, better profit margins or simply higher sales from a marketing point of view.

The negative side or the issues of data analysis in sports

Let’s stick with the marathon example. There are privacy concerns, which could ultimately change the outcome of a race. Can data like heart rate of a certain runner be made public during an event, or does it give the competition an unfair advantage if they have a friend who is monitoring the competition and can tell his partner who is probably about to slow down due to a spike in heart rate or give him similar information?
Now let’s move on to an example with even more implications. What if someone hacked into the data of professional athletes in for example soccer and could tell what player will be performing at their highest level and who won’t be, due to little nagging injuries they acquired during training. This could be used to then adjust betting odds and more, even illegal, activities. So data privacy is extremely important and data security holds the key to it, which could present new business opportunities as well.
This data mania also applies to the youth level, where coaches, especially of the big clubs like Bayern Munich, want to have as much fitness and health data about a potential recruit as possible. And if the data is not up to the standards your child won’t be able to join the club, even if he has more potential than others.

Conclusion

This trend will impact our everyday life and routine in a big way by helping us to be healthier and train more effectively and in doing so increase our fitness levels. But data privacy and security have to be considered as well.
What if someone wants to use my data? As a businessman I see countless opportunities and I strongly believe that sharing your data on a transactional basis is the future of sports.
And to those who say statistics and data take the emotions out of sports I have to say I simply disagree. Statistics can keep you informed and make the sport more accessible to the spectator and can ignite heated arguments, which make the experience that much more exciting. And all the statistics in the world can’t tell you who will win in a game or a race as a lot of it is dependent on luck or other intangibles, which can’t be put on a stat sheet.

 

You will find my „SAPTechEd 2016 Talk“ here: http://events.sap.com/teched/en/session/26526

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