Sport business must wake up to wearables

Apple watch

The impending release of the Apple watch (on April 24 2015) is likely to take wearable technology (or “wearables”) to the masses. But how significant is this emerging trend for sports marketers (if it’s not too late to call it emerging!)?

Sport and wearables already happy bed-fellows

Wearables are out there already in sports in particular as devices to support athlete training and development. Notable examples include the German national team who used the adidas mi-coach elite team system to support their successful 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign (http://bit.ly/1DtSf8T ) and rugby club Saracens who are trialling sensors which can be worn behind the ear to monitor the impact of head knocks (http://bit.ly/1G55u3y ). They are now increasingly gravitating to the field of play. For example, two players featuring in a recent Euroleague basketball match wore “micro-cameras“ on their shirts which transmitted images during the live broadcast (http://bit.ly/1cFSTYd ).

These examples demonstrate well the three key areas in which wearables are already playing a role in sport:

  • Fitness and health monitoring (e.g. adidas mi-coach system)
  • Wearable action cameras (e.g. as worn in the aforementioned Euroleague match and used by referees in sports such as rugby)
  • Injury prevention (e.g. sensors worn inside the helmets of NFL players and by rugby club Saracens)

New opportunities bring old risks

Sports marketers will no doubt be excited by the prospect of getting their hands on live content from wearable cameras, being armed with medical data to help positively position their sport to parents of a new generation of participants and get access to banks of live data to engage fans, amongst others.

Perhaps one of the most attractive prospects for sports marketers is the opportunity to target sports fans in ways far more sophisticated than was previously possible. In a recent article Simon Farthing of Marketing magazine sounded a note of caution, “highly targeted ads that leverage very personal information from wearable devices will be one of the marketing industries biggest ethical challenges and opportunity over the next few years” (http://bit.ly/1b6Fs2o ).

While it’s easy to be seduced by the technology, sports marketers will need to get their heads around the data protection issues which will inevitably surface. Of particular significance to the sports industry will be questions raised around the use of athletes’ medical data. In the case of Saracens rugby club, what rights do Saracens players have to privacy / ownership of the data collected on them? What rights does the club, league and other bodies such as the governing body have? How are these rights affected if and when players are transferred to another club? Is this third party also granted access to the data? These are some of the questions posed in a very interesting article published in lawinsport.com (http://bit.ly/1JdRVMQ ).

Marketers and lawyers re-unite

Not since the acceleration of IP legislation brought about by the growing commercial programmes of the Olympics and FIFA World Cup in the late 70s / early 80s, have sports marketers been forced to understand legislative issues of such a specific nature. Marketers will need to be clear on their intentions to use data collected via wearables and understand the fundamental legal issues around data privacy and protection.

Depending on what side of the sports business fence you sit, other opportunities and threats will no doubt emerge. One such threat / opportunity is the likely growth of a new and very valuable product category for sponsorship (Go Pro are already recognising the opportunity of official sponsorship) as well as for ambush marketing activities. For example, on this latter point, a provider of fitness and health monitoring wearables could build a nice marketing programme around a few athletes to create an association with a larger competition.

Wearables are here to stay. Ignore them at your peril

Wearables are raising the age-old concern of how to deal with advancements in technology which outpace legislative advancements. A recent article from the MIT Technology Review summed up the general challenges nicely: “changes of a magnitude that once took centuries now happen in decades, sometimes in years. Not long ago, Facebook was a dorm-room dating site, mobile phones were for the ultra-rich, drones were multimillion-dollar war machines, and supercomputers were for secret government research” (http://bit.ly/1FUgLyn ).

There is a real risk that many in sport are or will get caught out by the speedy rise of wearables, and not only sports marketers. Those responsible for managing the laws governing the way sport is played need to wake up to wearables. To quote Nike, one brand keen to develop in this space, wearables are already “writing the future”.

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