by Al Sacco

As MLB embraces wearables, NBA cries foul

Apr 07, 2016
Consumer ElectronicsHealth and Fitness SoftwareSports Software

Wearable technology took two steps forward and one step back in the pro sports world this week, as MLB approved two fitness trackers and the NBA slapped a player on the wrist for unsanctioned wearable use during games.

The 2016 Major League Baseball (MLB) season kicked off this week with a number of star-studded showings — and a couple of snow-related Opening Day cancellations. This opening week is also unique from a technology perspective: 2016 is the first year in MLB’s storied history in which wearable technology is officially approved for use during games

And just as pro baseball embraces the first two of what are sure to be many wearable devices, the National Basketball Association (NBA) banned a popular wearable for in-game use.

motusBASEBALL and Zephyr Bioharness safe at the plate

MLB players can now use two sanctioned wearable devices during games, according to the Associated Press (AP): the motusBASEBALL tracker, and the Zephyr Bioharness.

modus baseball compression sleeve motus

motusBASEBALL compression sleeve

The motus tracker is designed for use by both pitchers and hitters, and it’s either worn inside a compression sleeve while hurlers throw, or attached to hitters’ batting gloves. The tracker collects and sends data — including ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) strain information for pitcher injury prevention, and hot and cold pitch zone stats for hitters — via Bluetooth to motusTHROW and motusBATTING iOS apps. (The gadget apparently doesn’t work with Android devices.) The UCL monitor is currently used by 27 of the 30 MLB organizations, according to the company, and the full motus bundle costs about $150.

The second device is the Zephry Bioharness, a pro-grade wireless heart-rate and physiological monitor that’s attached to a compression shirt underneath players’ uniforms or connected to a chest strap. It measures a number of biometrics, including heart rate, heart beat (R-R) intervals, breathing rate, posture, activity level, peak acceleration, speed and distance, and GPS location. The Bioharness transmits data via Bluetooth to Android devices. (It does not seem to work with iOS mobile devices.) The Zephry “biomodule” tracker costs about $500, and compression shirts go for another $150.

The wearables cannot be used to transmit data during games, however, according to the AP. The data can be used by baseball clubs only for internal purposes and shared with individual players, the report says.

Whoop fitness tracker fouls out 

While MLB sees the potential of wearable technology, the NBA is being more cautious, and this week banned the use of a particular wearable called Whoop, pronounced “hoop.” The device tracks a variety of performance metrics, such as strain, recovery, sleep and frequent-travel impact.

whoop wearable fitness tracker apps Whoop

Whoop fitness tracker and apps

Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavedova had reportedly used the wrist-worn tracker, which looks a bit like a Fitbit smartwatch, over the past few weeks during games without official approval, according to ESPN. The NBA noticed and notified Dellavedova and that Cavs that wearables are banned from use during games. Dellavedova stopped using Whoop, and no punishments or citations were issued.

It’s unclear why the NBA made Dellavedova stop using the tracker, other than the fact that no wearables are officially approved, but ESPN speculates it could be a safety issue. Whoop protrudes a bit from the wrist and could potentially injure another player in a collision or close play. (LeBron James has also reportedly used Whoop for training, but he apparently never used it during games.) 

andrew mccutchen motus baseball motus

Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen wearing the motusBASEBALL tracker

Clear future for wearables in sports

The NBA may be a bit behind MLB in approving wearables for in-game use, but many professional sports organizations are at least experimenting with wearables to prevent injuries and improve performance.

From a team perspective, the gadgets are relatively inexpensive, they’re simple to use and they can translate into measurable ROI. For players, wearables are (mostly) unobtrusive, they provide actionable insights that can be directly applied to their games, they’re “nerdy cool” and they represent a new avenue for endorsement deals — Pittsburg Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen already jumped up on the motus train. 

Challenges remain. In addition to the safety concerns cited by ESPN, there’s a Pandora’s Box of privacy issues, but wearables deliver value when it comes to tracking health and performance issues. Expect pro sports organizations to play a key role in advancing what’s still a nascent corner of the technology market.