In May this year Southampton Football Club finished seventh in the English Premier League and qualified for the Europa League. Yet, just six years prior, the south coast club had been close to extinction, with financial problems leaving them on the brink of bankruptcy and being relegated to the third tier of English football.
The story is truly a remarkable turn around in fortunes. But the really amazing thing is that Southampton's recent success can be attributed, not to a Russian Oligarch's deep pockets, but wearable technology.
"We are Southampton, we don't just buy success, we breed it."
That's a quote from the Southampton Manifesto, a document that sets out the aims the club. It was read out by club chairman Ralph Kreuger at the official opening of the club's new hi-tech training centre in 2014. It's a claim that's difficult to argue with.
Southampton has become a prolific producer of young talent. Its academy alumni list boasts some of Europe's finest talents including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw. Last season the first team coped seamlessly with an exodus of five top players and the manager, something that would have sunk most other clubs.
From the mattresses players sleep on at away games, to a system that puts new boss Ronald Koeman just a click away from being able to watch any team
So how did they do it? The success is built, in no small part, on an approach that puts technology and data insight at the heart of everything the club does. Southampton have adapted the number-crunching, data-driven approach that saw cash-strapped baseball underdogs Oakland Athletics rise to glory in their 2002 season, using statistical analysis to identify bargain talent and put it to best use, building a winning side. The method was eventually made famous in the 2011 Hollywood movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt as then manager Billy Beane.
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What Southampton has done is slightly different. Thanks to much improved wearable technology, they and other English Premier League clubs are using data not just to find new talent as the Moneyballers did, but also to grow it and improve it – tracking a player's every move in the hunt for the marginal gains that deliver peak performance on the pitch come match day.
From the mattresses players sleep on at away games, to a system that puts new boss Ronald Koeman just a click away from being able to watch any team, player or potential transfer target, anywhere in the world.
On the training pitch, wearable technology is giving Premier League clubs like Southampton a whole new layer of insight into player performance.
"The technology we use, and the data this allows us to collect and interpret, has a significant impact on monitoring players and preparing them for performance," says Alek Gross, head of Sport Science at Southampton. "Within the sports science department we have introduced a number of new technologies and systems."
The club's new training facility boasts an entire department dedicated to analytics. On a daily basis the teams get a combination of data to review from wearables. From full STATSports powered GPS and heart rate tracking, to daily feedback from iPad-based subjective surveys that chart a player's state of mind and sleep quality courtesy of the Fatigue Science ReadiBand.
Daily feedback from iPad-based subjective surveys that chart a player's state of mind and sleep quality
Meanwhile, urine and bloods tests and twice weekly saliva samples are taken for regular immune system check ups. There's a hydrotherapy pool where underwater cameras record bio-mechanical data. It's all used to optimise and enhance a player's performance at every turn. Even the club sponsors Veho offer a tech advantage providing mini HD cameras for the capture and review of all training sessions.
Southampton FC's deal with Garmin has helped too, according to Gross. "Through our ongoing partnership with Garmin, we were able to provide our players and coaches with a wide range of fitness and wellness devices across running, cycling, multi-sport and general wellbeing to help monitor their fitness and activity levels," he explained.
"We use a range of technologies such as these to assess performance and wellbeing for both our fit and injured players.
"This has allowed us to gain a greater insight into how players are coping, and adapting to training and match stimulus. We can then prescribe more suitable training programmes throughout the season. In addition to data collection, we have developed more integrated and robust data analysis systems that allow us to quickly make decisions and create interventions, which ultimately should result in greater on-field performance."
One person who knows a thing or two about technology's power to improve performance is Dr Bill Gerrard, Professor of Business and Sports Analytics at Leeds University. He spent years helping some of sport's big names adopt tech-driven coach-led-analysis. For him, the information coaches now possess from wearable technology presents an opportunity for resource-stretched teams to get the edge over wealthier rivals. It's what Gerrard calls "The David Strategy" and it helped Saracens Rugby Club to a Premiership title and Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers outperform their means in the Premier League.
There's biometric sensor technology in development with the potential to measure metrics like perspiration, as well as adrenaline and cortisol levels, all important indicators
But are we at risk of overloading clubs with new gadgets? Despite being an advocate of data analysis, Gerrard's not convinced we need more technology just yet.
"I think at the moment there's still a long way to go, just to get to grips with the data we have. The technology we have collecting data is already far outstripping our ability to actually analyse and use that data," he argues.
However, that's not halting the march of technology into football and sport generally. In American football, for instance, big NFL teams use FreeD, an advanced video recording system to create 360-degree instant replays, offering unprecedented detail in action replays.
Essential reading: Wearable tech, NFL and the Superbowl
There's biometric sensor technology in development with the potential to measure metrics like perspiration, as well as adrenaline and cortisol levels, all important indicators. A company called BSX Athletics is just about to release a set of calf sleeves that can monitor the build up of lactic acid in your muscles. There's even talk of virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift being applied to the training ground.
"We'll see a stronger integration between all technologies starting to evolve in elite sports," argues Boden Westover, marketing director of Catapult Sports, whose OptimEye S5 tracking tech is used by the Brazilian national football team among others.
"You'll see the data start to be pulled into other applications like virtual reality so players can undertake decision-making tests without the rigours of actually playing professional sport," he said.
"We'll also start to see overarching athlete management systems that house all the data from various technologies, so coaches can easily manage their athletes."
The advent of wearable technology is creating a whole new world of opportunity for clubs to get ahead but there might be need for caution.
Technology doesn't come cheap and while clubs like Southampton, who are quicker to adopt innovative products, might be able to enjoy first mover advantage, longer term there's a danger that the price of increasingly advanced systems could create an even bigger divide between the tech haves and have nots. Ultimately that means Southampton's miracle revival could be harder to repeat.
Interested in how technology is changing football? Check out our in-depth feature.
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