NFL players are among the most marketable human beings on earth. Beyond the millions of dollars they command for bringing it on Any Given Sunday, fans buy the shoes, sports drinks, headphones, clothes, insurance and pizza these players endorse. Household names like Rodgers, Brady, Newton and Beckham adorn the jerseys of millions of followers worldwide.
However, wearable tech is about to open up a brand new revenue source for the players: the personal data they generate not only while working out and competing, but also while travelling, relaxing and sleeping.
Thanks to a first-of-its-kind partnership between Whoop Inc. and the National Football League Players' Association (NFLPA), players will be able to commercialise the data gleaned by the Whoop Strap 2.0 we reviewed in January.
Soon, fans could be working out (and sleeping) like the pros, but other potential use cases are equally intriguing, perhaps most obviously in the realm of fantasy sports.
From hunches to endless research
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, over 56 million people in the US and Canada play in some form and the number continues to grow.
Whether it's playing for money through one-day fantasy games FanDuel (shhh, don't call it "gambling"), or in a league playing once a week with a group of friends, access to a huge body of data from NFL athletes could change everything. There's already interest from the big players in the industry.
"FanDuel users pour over tons of data points to pick the perfect fantasy football line-up," said FanDuel spokesperson Kevin Hennessey. "Having these new stats available would be of interest to our users and be another data point to discuss and debate among fantasy football players, agents, reporters and sports talk show hosts."
Most fantasy sports players are familiar with spending a Sunday morning agonising over selections. You could have two running backs putting up huge numbers, both are up against defences that are porous against the run, so who do you choose?
Right now, it often comes down to a gut feeling, but Whoop's data could change that. The strap tracks recovery from strain and logs how well an athlete sleeps. Imagine if you could see each player's 0–100 recovery score on a Sunday morning? How about if you could see how well they slept in the build up to a road game? That'd be huge. What about if the opposing defensive line's aggregated recovery score is much lower? Suddenly, through this data, the choice becomes easier.
"There was a time in professional sports when fans weren't told when players were injured" says Whoop CEO Will Ahmed. "Now we know when players will not play, weeks, days and seconds leading up to the game, there's live updates. "I think, in ten years, it'll seem remarkable that fans didn't understand the recovery of the athletes before games either."
Nik Bonaddio is CEO of numberFire, the analytics arm of FanDuel. It makes projections based on countless data points, which members can utilise when making selections.
"I'm really glad the NFLPA is opening up that data set," he says. "The data we can get off of those sensors is another data point that allows us to figure things out at a higher level of fidelity.
"In any data system, there's a maxim of 'garbage in and garbage out'. If the data is low quality then the analysis you're going to create is low quality.
"On the flip side, if you're getting high quality information then your analysis is going to be so much better. We're excited about it because a lot of what we do is trying to bring the world of analytics to the average fan."
Bonaddio said numberFire would "definitely" be interested in acquiring the data from the NFLPA.
He added: "It's going to bring a great level of transparency, it's going to make the broadcast more exciting and will make the unlocking of the mysteries of the game so much more visible."
Beating the odds
Will Ahmed of Whoop believes that while fantasy players could benefit from the additional knowledge, the availability of this data will also enhance sporting storytelling.
In the context of one-day fantasy, a low recovery score might mean top players are available to acquire much more affordably. Fans would make their wager on whether their favourite players can defy the odds.
"The story becomes 'can someone overcome a low recovery when it matters'. It introduces a whole new conversation around things like heart," he said.
"How often do you hear a commentator say 'this player has heart'? Well, how do you find that from a data standpoint? It's the degree to which you're able to push when your body is run down. So if someone with low recovery has a remarkable game, that's a sign of somebody who has heart.
"One of my favourite sporting moments as a young fan was the Michael Jordan flu game. Going into a Finals game he was up all night getting IVs. He looked terrible during warm ups, he barely practised and he went on to have this incredibly gutsy performance and the Bulls won and went on to win the championship.
"If you look at it through the context of Whoop data, he would have had a profoundly low recovery. It would have been less than 5%. Whoop would have said this guy is crushed and the fans and the betting market would say 'the Bulls are really in trouble,' but the bet would be whether Michael Jordan can overcome this."
Putting players in control
While it's fun to hypothesise about the shake-up promised by this biometric data, there's still a long way to go before it can become a reality.
The five-year NFLPA deal gives all players access to Whoop bands, but getting them on everyone's wrists will take time. Even then the union doubts it'll ever see 100% penetration. For it to be effective in fantasy sports, you'd probably need all players wearing them. You'd also need the consent of these players for the data to be used in this particular manner. Remember, this is sleep tracking, heart rate variability… seriously personal stuff.
"The power needs to be in the players' hands," Devon Kennard, line backer for the New York Giants, told Wareable. "I don't want just anyone to have access to my data, but it would be cool to use it in a way that benefits me. I can see some advantages, but as long as the player is in control and can gauge who can and can't see how his information is being used, there's a lot of different ways that can be utilised."
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Devon has been wearing Whoop for a few months now and thinks it will help him get more sleep heading into the new season. He also believes the strap will further his understanding of how his body is responding to practice and games.
And, although it might be monetarily beneficial to players to license data to interested parties like fantasy sports companies, there's plenty of reasons why it could be damaging too.
Would it be advantageous for the amount of sleep they got before a big game to be in the public realm? Could declining recovery scores affect contract negotiations? Would the availability of sleep and recovery data play into the hands of opposition teams and players? How will the teams react to their own players selling this incredibly sensitive and highly valuable data?
Will Ahmed says the teams might just have to deal with it. He says: "It's data the athletes should own because it's happening on their clock and it's profoundly interesting to the public because it's relatable."
Steve Scebelo, the NFLPA's VP of Licensing & Business Development, agrees. "These are personal attributes and we want to make sure we have the relationships in place where there are no questions about the ownership of that data," he said. "It's clearly the players. It will be the players' decisions as to how it gets used."
Bonaddio doesn't think it'll be that simple. "The teams aren't going to want to give their opponents information that would put them at a competitive disadvantage. I think there's going to have to be some level of ability for teams to have some control over the data that gets exported," he says.
The more the merrier
Although Whoop is first to the table, the numberFire boss also sees potential for other wearables to get in on the act and change the way we make fantasy selections. Right now, Whoop doesn't track individual player movements, but the Zebra Inc. RFID sensors currently worn by the NFL players sure do.
"Let's say I was trying to decide which wide-receiver I wanted to play," he explained. "I might look at average speed of Antonio Brown, which is maybe 15 miles per hour, while Odell Beckham Jnr. might average 14mph. "I can look historically and say 'alright the Steelers are playing the Browns, the Browns have given up 10 TDs to players who have run upwards of 15mph.' I can assume they have a problem with faster receivers so AB has an advantageous match-up relative to another receiver."
This is where it gets really deep, but for those willing to put the time into data mining, their fantasy fortunes could take a serious upturn. Fantasy sports and gambling are just the proverbial tip when it comes to this super rich data source, though. It's Whoop Inc's job to seek out the opportunities for the NFLPA and its members to consider, be they group deals or those for individual players.
Imagine the layer of realism they could add to Madden NFL games. Imagine what this information would do for commentators' ability to weave the narrative. On the business side, there's potential for a second Moneyball revolution, with data completely changing the face of contract negotiations.
However, regardless of the commercial possibilities, it'll be interesting to see how players use wearables to further their own games by working out and recuperating more intelligently. "What athletes do to optimise recovery and the other 20 hours a day is the untold story in sports," says Whoop's Will Ahmed. Isn't it about time we heard it?
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