Will Sports Technology Become a Field of Its Own?

Sports technology is becoming incredibly advanced and specialized, and tech pros working in industries that touch on athletics are hoping that will result in focused education, better networking with other professionals, and maybe even a formal certification of some sort.

But first, let’s be clear: sports technology is about more than professional athletics, said Tino Mantella, CEO of Tier4 Advisors. A data-center consultant based in Alpharetta, Ga., he is also a board member of the International Sports Technology Association in Marietta, Ga. Sports technology involves deploying tech that can help assess an athlete’s performance, using data to track health, and leveraging visual tools that can show how athletes at all levels can improve.

ISTA president David Geddes sees the sports-technology field as divided into four areas:

  • Sports medicine (health)
  • Sports science (training, in the athletic sense)
  • Fan engagement (back office)
  • Sports engineering (equipment)

“There are billions of investment dollars beginning to make noise, with new products entering the sports market in all these areas,” he said in an interview. “We’re seeing Big Data providers bartering with teams for visibility in such segments as cycling, motorsports and, sailing and other advanced sports.” There’s also growing activity in “less technology-centric but no less scientific” segments such as running, boxing and swimming, as well as the development and deployment of “new training devices, materials, designs and wearables.”

As a result, suggested ISTA’s vice president and executive director Tanya Porter, sports technology is “in an era of exponential growth, similar [to] what we’re seeing in technology integration, data and analytics in any business nowadays.” Driving that growth is a wave of new consumer technologies that provide insights into both team and individual performance, combined with the increasingly sophisticated use of data and data-analysis tools. “The sports world is turning to innovation and technologies to help with their sports performance, fan engagement and business development,” Porter added.

Organizing the Field

According to many of those involved in sports technology, the creation of solutions and platforms has been messy and expensive. “The rapid pace of sports technology has required sellers to educate buyers (or users) because so many times the technology is under-utilized or applied incorrectly,” Geddes said. As a result, deployment is complex and expensive, even as the technology becomes more advanced and more products enter the market.

Plus, many tech pros implementing sports technology don’t know which metrics are best used to assess an athlete’s performance or health, Porter said: “These technologists usually come from other, more traditional business areas that utilize their core expertise and technical knowledge. They may not yet understand the critical development factors of sport, or how to apply a technology into sports with optimal results and understanding for coaches and front-office decision-makers.”

Because of that, the demand for tech pros who have “a baseline understanding of core components of athlete development or sports business needs” is growing, she said. “They need to be able to talk in the sport’s language and be qualified to help interpret the data so that they can work integrally with coaches, athletes and sports executives.”

Victor Bergonzoli, Atlanta-based co-founder and CEO of Dartfish, a video analysis solutions provider for coaches, healthcare specialists and athletes, helped create the ISTA because sports technology lacked standards (“everyone can call him- or herself a sports technologist”). In addition, users were unaware of which solutions existed, and cutting-edge technology was underutilized in sports, which resulted in a loss of investment and lack of refined training.

The ISTA hopes to organize the wide range of approaches and find commonalities between them. As Geddes said: “We didn’t invent sports technology, we’re simply trying to organize it.” With new sports technology products—both hardware and software—launched on a regular basis, Geddes and his colleagues see a need for a group that can tame hype, educate buyers, and make sure tech pros pursuing sports-related careers know what they’re doing.

Specialized Applications

So, yes, the ISTA is developing a certification. “Perhaps our certification core areas are a good first attempt to get our heads around what the industry actually needs, to help us define what it is,” Geddes said.

The organization’s goal is to create a designation that indicates certified professionals will meet standards of knowledge, have applied sports-technology experience, and understand the technologies that impact sports, as well as recognize the key needs of sports assessment, athlete development, and sports as a business, Porter said. The credential, “the Certified Sports Technology Professional,” or “CSTP,” will document the tech pro’s education and experience with sports technology, so employers can identify candidates who are most likely to meet their needs in sports tech.

Of course, the debate over any tech certification’s value is almost a religious one. Vendors and trade organizations such as CompTIA push them as indicators of a candidate’s expertise; but as Nate Swanner recently noted on Dice Insights: “No matter how many certifications you earn, employers want to know that you actually have the most up-to-date knowledge about your chosen subject area.”

That’s critical, Bergonzoli added, because “a good engineer, data scientist or other tech professional needs to know the end user’s needs—the market’s needs—extremely well to develop [something that is] useful and used.”

What will make ISTA’s certification different, Geddes suggested, is that “we’re talking about hybridization of four areas.” Earning the designation will require knowledge of human factors in sport, information systems in sport, biomechanics in sport and applied high-level sports technology.

“There are numerous certifications of the core elements of technology majors, such as engineering, software engineering and statistics, but very few require standards of understanding of how to apply this knowledge into an adjunct field,” added Porter.

Why Sports Technology Needs are Unique

Still, with data scientists and software engineers in such demand today, it’s difficult to imagine that tech pros with hard-to-find skills would have much trouble landing work in sports. But Geddes alludes to an additional cultural factor. “Each sport believes its needs are so specialized that [employers] rarely hire someone who has experience in a different sport. So if you worked in football, that’s no guarantee you’ll find work in baseball,” he said.

“Secondly, consider that the organizational structure of a pro team is unlike any other commercial business. A collegiate program is nothing like a pro operation, and your local club, high school or recreation league is even different from that,” he added. “So the sports industry is an extremely unusual business—in culture and structure.”

Even beyond that, each sport has its own intricacies. For example, consider the use of wax in skiing. “In industrial applications, the range of coefficient of friction may be broader or the breakdown of the wax at different temperatures may be acceptable at cooler temperatures,” Porter said. “But in Olympic Downhill skiing, knowledge of the snow conditions, temperature, surface composition, the skier’s weight and style of skiing on a given day are necessary data points of analysis for optimal wax selection for each skier. The wrong wax could produce a run of 2/100th of a second slower and result in an athlete being on or off the podium.”

And where are the actual jobs? Sports don’t have a “tech hub” in the way New York or Charlotte might be called financial technology centers, but Atlanta is certainly one of the more active, sports-centric cities. The region “has a wide-ranging technology vision combined with a strong sports culture,” said Mantella, who was the Technology Association of Georgia’s CEO from 2004 through 2016.

Mantella noted that IBM has located its sports business in Atlanta, and that the city is home to a number of sports and fitness startups: “A sports tech cluster’s forming here, but it’s not the only one.” He believes Boston, Austin and Northern California may also be in that particular game.