Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

Checking how FIFA, MLB and the NFL feel about tech
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Wearable tech and sports make for a perfect match. For those looking to improve off the field or gain insights while on it, wearable devices hold the key to the future.

But not all devices are embraced by governing bodies – and trying to keep track of just which devices have been given the green light and which haven't can be a tricky task.

Read next: How wearables can detect sport's deadly injuries

And as we've recently seen with the Boston Red Sox allegedly cheating with the help of an Apple Watch, this isn't always a straightforward process.

So in order to clear things up, read on to see where the likes of FIFA, MLB and the PGA stand on the increasingly thorny issue of wearables in sports.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

Back in July 2015, FIFA sent out a letter to major soccer leagues around the world noting that, if they permitted, teams would be free to use electronic performance and tracking systems (EPTS) during games.

There were a few points to follow, such as making the devices, which often fit on the back of a player in a sports bra-like compression top, free of advertising and blended into the normal kit, but this essentially opened the door to in-game player tracking.

In October of the same year, FIFA also announced that itself and IFAB – the gatekeepers of rule changes – were in the process of creating a global standard for wearables in soccer, and invited several makers of EPTS devices to provide their devices to be evaluated.

That was the last official word we've seen from the governing body on the tech, which isn't entirely surprising considering the internal turmoil over at its HQ, but these EPTS devices are used in the Premier League by many teams looking to gain insights into match performance. Of course, this move came after the same wearables had been used in training by teams for several years prior.

The next stage? Who knows, but we imagine there are steps to take with regard to real-time tracking and injury-based platforms.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

Despite typically being one of the most progressive major leagues in world sport, the NBA sits on the fence with regard to wearable tech.

Back in February, the league rejected the use of wearable trackers while players were on the court. With the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the NBA is trying to avoid a situation whereby the data is used in contract negotiations by either a player or team to gain leverage.

The CBA, which came into effect in July, bans devices which are "worn by an individual that measures movement information (such as distance, velocity, acceleration, deceleration, jumps, changes of direction, and player load calculated from such information and/or height/weight), biometric information (such as heart rate, heart rate variability, skin temperature, blood oxygen, hydration, lactate, and/or glucose), or other health, fitness, and performance information."

However, it's not all doom and gloom. A list of wearables, including Adidas miCoach elite systems, Catapult Sports ClearSky and Optimeye systems and VERT Wearable Jump Monitors are still green lit to be used during practice.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

The MLB, unlike the NBA, has shown no such concerns. The Motus baseball sleeve and Zephyr Bionharness heart and breathing monitor were given the green light in 2016, while Whoop devices were approved for in-game use back in March. This means players and teams can keep tabs on injuries and a player's condition around the clock.

It's fair to suggest the MLB has been the most open major sports league in terms of adoption, but it's also recently posed issues, with the Boston Red Sox using an Apple Watch (which was given the green light for players to wear back in 2015) to steal pitch signals from the New York Yankees. Red Sox video personnel looked for signals, then relayed the information to trainers in the dugout, who just had to check their Apple Watch and alert the players. The initial aftermath of this incident is still yet to blow over, but we imagine some repercussions for the Red Sox and harsher restrictions on wearable tech use is in store.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

The NFL and wearable tech have always gone hand in hand – and the sport is even using AR via Hololens to give football teams the edge.

The NFL has its own platform for pushing wearable insights, NextGenStats, which provides broadcasters and fans with info on player location, speed and acceleration on every single play, with this being achieved through sensors on pads and throughout the stadium. It's also looking toward tech in order to help the long-standing concussion issue surrounding the sport.

Read more: How wearable tech is changing the NFL

Like professional soccer teams, many of the same devices used in practice time are also used in games. And interestingly, this data isn't being reserved just for teams, with the NFL Players Association recently reaching an exclusive deal with Whoop to provide players with data which they own and can sell as they see fit. This looks set to provide some balance to the data arms race that could potentially affect contract negotiations (as the NBA fears), though just where this is all heading remains to be seen.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

Back in March, the PGA announced that it would begin testing the use of distance measuring devices, opening up the opportunity for players to potentially take advantage of the bevy of swing analysers and golf watches out in the market.

The trials have taken place at three PGA Tour events in 2017, with a temporary rule allowing players and caddies to measure distance through tech. More advanced features, such as measuring elevation, slope or wind, will have to remain part of the challenge for players. With this evaluative process coming to a close, the feedback will now be shared with the Player Advisory Council on all of its Tours for additional review and discussion.


Wearables and 'cheating' in sport: We explore the state of play

Cricket has long been on the edge of tech within sports, though it hadn't opened itself up to the wearable sector until earlier this year. Intel partnered with both the International Cricket Council (ICC) and startup Speculur in order to bring new insights and analysis to viewers of the ICC Champions Trophy back in June.

Read more: How Cricket Australia is keeping bowlers injury free with tech

The most notable innovation came in the form of a small sensor powered by Intel's Curie chipset, known as BatSense, which fits onto the top of the bat handle and gives broadcasters and fans an insight into data such as bat speed, impact angles and backlift motion.

When announcing the move, the ICC wouldn't reveal the exact number of players who were adopting the technology through the tournament, but it did indicate a player from each team will be using the sensor, and as many as six on one side would be taking part.

We haven't yet heard whether this tech will be branched out to the likes of Tests and other tournaments.

How we test

Conor Allison


Conor moved to Wareable Media Group in 2017, initially covering all the latest developments in smartwatches, fitness trackers, and VR. He made a name for himself writing about trying out translation earbuds on a first date and cycling with a wearable airbag, as well as covering the industry’s latest releases.

Following a stint as Reviews Editor at Pocket-lint, Conor returned to Wareable Media Group in 2022 as Editor-at-Large. Conor has become a wearables expert, and helps people get more from their wearable tech, via Wareable's considerable how-to-based guides. 

He has also contributed to British GQ, Wired, Metro, The Independent, and The Mirror. 

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