Wearables in the starting lineup for NBA and MLB?

Even as professional athletes begin to don wearable tech during games, big questions remain—including who owns the data they gather?

Wearables in the starting lineup for NBA and NBA?
Amin Eshaiker (CC BY-SA 3.0)

DeAndre Jordan, the Los Angeles Clippers’ enormous and uber-athletic center, is best known for his monster dunks, State Farm commercials, and last minute change of heart over which team he wanted to play for.

But Jordan recently attracted attention for a digital decision: He’s been spotted wearing a WHOOP biometric monitoring device during actual NBA games. Apparently, Jordan was a trendsetter, as ESPN reported this week that Major League Baseball has approved the WHOOP device for use during MLB games

This is a surprisingly big deal for the role and image of wearable technology. 

From amateurs to professionals, all athletes rely on wearables 

As everyone knows, millions of amateur athletes and weekend warriors now rely on wearable technology to track and improve their performance and health. Similarly, thousands of professional competitors wear even more advanced technology to hone their competitive edge during training and practice. The one place wearable tech hasn’t been seen much is on professional athletes during actual games. 

That’s finally starting to change, and the implications could be significant, both for professional athletes and for the development of wearable technology. But it turns out that before wearables become commonplace during professional games and matches, there are lots of unanswered questions and potential conflicts of interest that have to be resolved.

All kinds of sports

As I learned last year from Raúl Peláez, head of sports technology for FC Barcelona, professional sports leagues around the world are wrestling with questions like who owns the data collected, what happens when a player changes teams, and what data is too private to track? 

+ Also on Network World: How FC Barcelona leverages technology for athletes’ performance +

Before legions of pro athletes use wearable tech during games, those kinds of issues will have to be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. The NBA, among other leagues, is working on it. The NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with its players has a whole section directly addressing the topic, but it doesn’t actually address in-game use. 

Major League Baseball’s CBA also reportedly addresses wearables. Although the full text isn’t public, it was understood to allow wearing devices only after games, not during a game, but that seems to have changed with yesterday’s announcement.

The NBA sets a public standard for wearables

Still, the NBA is setting a course for others to follow. According to Vice Sports, “NBA players have established the right to their own data, banned the use of such data in contract negotiations, and established standards for the approval of new devices and the punishment of data-use violations.” But the CBA doesn’t address “how, and on what scale, player data will be sold to third parties.” 

Still, the NBA’s CBA lays a decent foundation for the role of wearables in pro sports. For instance, teams may only “request” that players wear approved wearables, and not in game situations. The agreement also notes that “the Team shall be required to provide the player a written, confidential explanation of: (i) what the device will measure; (ii) what each such measurement means; and (iii) the benefits to the player in obtaining such data.” It also specifies that players have full access to all data collected about them and that the team cannot use the data in contract negotiations (though that seems hard to enforce—it’s hard to un-know something once you know it). 

So, you might ask, what’s with DeAndre Jordan wearing a WHOOP under his wristband in real NBA games? Well, it seems wearing it was Jordan’s idea, not the Clippers’, although it’s still not entirely clear whether wearing it violates any rules.

What other athletes are wearing wearable tech?

It seems Jordan was not the first pro baller discreetly wearing wearable tech during games: Matthew Delladova was reported to be wearing a WHOOP device without permission for 13 games last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But given the ever-increasing power of these devices—and the increasingly insatiable desire for sports metrics to improve the performance of elite athletes—and MLB’s recent decision, it could soon become the norm to see your favorite players wired up on the court, field, gridiron or pitch.

Heck, with all the discussion of how pointless the NBA All-Star game was this this year, maybe the league will decide to make it more interesting by requiring all the All-Stars to wear special tech, and share the data generated in real time to boost interest. That might really be a game changer!

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