Health Data Tracking Is Creeping Into Professional Sports

Posted on October 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Pro athletes are used to having their performance tracked minutely, not only by team owners but also by legions of fans for whom data on their favorite players is a favored currency. However, athletic data tracking has taken on a shape with the emergence of wearable devices.

For example, in spring of last year, Major League Baseball approved two devices for use during games, the Motus Baseball Sleeve, which tracks stress on elbows, and the Zephyr Bioharness, which monitors heart and breathing rates, skin temperature and sleep cycle.

In what must be a disappointment to fans, data from the devices isn’t available in real time and only can be downloaded after games. Also, clubs use the data for internal purposes only, which includes sharing it with the player but no one else. Broadcasters and other commercial entities can’t access it.

More recently, in April of this year, the National Football League Players Association struck a deal with wearables vendor WHOOP under which its band will track athletes’ performance data. The WHOOP Strap 2.0 measures data 100 times per second then transmits the data automatically to its mobile and web apps for analysis and performance recommendations.

Unlike with the MLB agreement, NFL players own and control the individual data collected by the device, and retain the rights to sell their WHOOP data through the Players Association group licensing program.

Not all athletes are comfortable with the idea of having their performance data collected. For example, as an article in The Atlantic notes, players in the National Basketball Association included the right to opt out of using biometric trackers in their latest collective-bargaining agreement, which specifies that teams requesting a player wear one explain in writing what’s being tracked and how the team will use the information.  The agreement also includes a clause stating that the data can’t be used or referenced as part of player contract negotiations.

Now, it’s worth taking a moment to note that concerns over the management of professional athlete performance data file into a different bucket than the resale of de-identified patient data. The athletic data is generated only during the game, while consumer wearables collect data the entire time a patient is awake and sometimes when they sleep. The devices targeting athletes are designed to capture massive amounts of data, while consumer wearables collect data sporadically and perhaps not so accurately at times.

Nonetheless, the two forms of data collection are part of a larger pattern in which detailed health data tracking is becoming the norm. Athletic clubs may put it to a different purpose, but both consumer and professional data use are part of an emerging trend in which health monitoring is a 24/7 thing. Right now, consumers themselves generally can’t earn money by selling their individual data, but maybe there should be an app for that.