A protocol for trust: how giving data owners transparency and control will open up countless opportunities for the quantified athlete

(8 minute read)

High stakes

We’re in the midst of a quantified athlete revolution in sports.  Today, almost every professional sports team informs key decisions with sports science and data science.  In fact, the practice of sports science has grown so important that 13 NBA teams now employ focused staff members or entire departments with ‘sports science’ or ‘data science’ titles. 

Upstream from the analytics, players associations and leagues have begun to jockey for lead position in governance and ownership of data generated by wearables.  Most recently,

  • The NFLPA announced this April that they will distribute WHOOP wearable devices to players, “providing NFL players easy access to, ownership of, and the option to commercialize their health data”.  ESPN dubbed the move a “data equalizer”
  • The NBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) includes a three-page section on wearables (page 359 for those overwhelmed by the 600 page document), outlining the formation of a Wearables Committee (consisting of 3 players association representatives and 3 league representatives) and placing stipulations on wearable use in-game and during practice.  The last clause of the CBA’s wearables section even addresses commercializing this data - “The parties agree to continue to discuss in good faith […] the commercialization of data from Wearables”.   Ok, so maybe it punts on commercialization for now.  But, the inclusion highlights how top-of-mind these issues are for players and teams.

The implications of biometric data ownership are just as significant in college athletics.  The University of Michigan’s $170 million apparel contract with Nike includes a term that gives Nike the right to utilize “Activity Based Information”, subject to the university’s approval. 

In both collegiate and professional cases, owners of this data, predominantly players, are apprehensive.  Once they share their biometric data, can they control who views it? Will the data be used against them in contract negotiations or scholarship discussions?

The data sharing equation

To really understand this apprehension, it’s important to dig into why humans do and do not share data.  We believe it can be boiled down to the formula below.

Data is shared when: Perceived value of sharing data > perceived cost of privacy

Data is not shared when: Perceived value of sharing data < perceived cost of privacy

Let’s look at an example.

I currently share almost no data with my health insurance provider.  What would be the benefits of sharing data?  They’d be substantial.  Likely lower premiums. (I’m lucky to be a fairly healthy adult).  Possibly useful suggestions on wellness (since we’re both aligned that a healthy me is a more valuable me).  

But, my perceived cost of privacy is high in this instance.  I’m concerned that if I did give my insurance company access to my activity or heart rate data, they could use any unfavorable metrics to raise my premiums.  And, I have no way to share this data with my insurance company’s wellness personnel and ensure that it stays there.

Circling back to sports, the perceived cost of privacy for sharing biometric data is too high today.  Similar to the insurance scenario, athletes and teams worry that any data they share could be used in a harmful way (e.g., contract negotiations or staff evaluations).  Even though both parties are interested in using this data to limit injuries, improve performance, and drive new revenue streams, it’s the possibility of harm that overshadows the vast benefits.

Empowering the data owner

At Tempo, we believe the core reason for this anxiety is the lack of visibility and control athletes and teams have when it comes to sharing their sensitive data.  Today’s data infrastructure is not set up to track data assets as they move around the digital world. 

For instance, take email - one of the most common ways to share data today. If I were to send a file containing my sleep data to my team’s medical staff, I would lose control and visibility after I hit ‘send’.  Was my data subsequently shared with my coach or forwarded to a media outlet?  Probably not, but opacity breeds anxiety (just witness kids’ fear of the dark).

Data opacity doesn’t have to be the status quo though.  In fact, the emergence of blockchain technology has highlighted a solution that provides data transparency across the digital world, including an immutable ledger of all interactions with a piece of data.

Combining this ledger with the ability share specific data fundamentally changes the cost of privacy for data owners.  I no longer have to give access to all of my sleep data.  Instead, I can share my Monday through Thursday sleep data with just the medical staff during the season. 

The possibilities

By being able to track all interactions with your quantified athlete data in the digital world and give you control to share specific data, what will change?

Well, we think a lot. 

The most immediate possibilities involve improvement in performance management and injury prevention.  Teams are investing more than ever in data science and medical expertise – and they should.  Last year, over $2 billion was spent on salaries for injured players in the major US professional sports leagues.

Tempo allows these specialists to include ‘off-the-field’ data in their assessments and programming, which is arguably as valuable or more valuable than ‘on-the-field’ metrics.  After all, if the average practice is a couple hours, the vast majority of an athlete’s day is spent ‘off-the-field’.

With visibility and control, there are also exciting commercial opportunities for professional athletes and teams.  Imagine Gatorade running a ‘Hydrate like the Pros’ ad campaign where you could track how hydrated a player is during a game or offseason workout.  Or Nike allowing you to compare your activity or nutrition to Lebron, but only if you bought his shoes or apparel.  How about CBS showing a kicker’s heart rate as he lines up for a fourth quarter field goal?

The commercial uses above add a new dimension to fan engagement.  Incorporating biometric data makes the content more relatable.  As a consumer, I’m no longer just viewing the content. I’m feeling the increased heart rate of a nervous kicker.  I’m experiencing the strain of working out as hard as Lebron. 

Nike is already envisioning a future like this and, as mentioned earlier, has started to include access to wearable data in their contracts with college athletic programs.  Tempo would give universities piece of mind that they could always refer to a trusted ledger that captures how their athletes’ data is being used by these corporations.  With the rapid increase in wearables, it’s an important step to protect student-athletes.

Conclusion

We’re still in the early innings of a data explosion in sports and, more broadly, consumer healthcare. The biggest risk to the quantified athlete and quantified self movements is data privacy. At Tempo, we’re proud to be bringing visibility and control to the data owners, empowering them to make intentional decisions about how they share their data.  It’s an important paradigm shift in the digital age.