Beyond Moneyball: How biosensors are already changing sports today

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Today is the premiere of Moneyball, a Brad Pitt movie about using computer modeling to creatively analyze baseball players’ statistics to get an edge.

When I watched the film trailer, it made me think about how far sports analytics have come in the last decade. It seemed old-fashioned to me, because at the University of Southern California Center for Body Computing (CBC), we are studying, testing and developing many of the new technologies that athletes will use in the very near future.

New sensors, many as easy to apply as a small bandage or stick-on tattoo, can wirelessly track body heat, heart rate, perspiration and other vital signs and send the information wirelessly to a mobile phone, tablet or computer.

This technology will change sports. We will soon enter a new era that will make the playing field safer, fans will have even more player information, and athletes will be able to play longer and be able to more easily avoid injury.

In a word, we believe bio sports stats will go beyond Moneyball and become the next new trend in sports.

Late last year, we received an NFL Charities grant to study the dynamic heart rate of athletes in a real game situation. At the Body Computing Conference today, we are showing some of our early results. I am the chief of cardiology at USC, and I am, to be quite frank, blown away by our initial data.

Most medical testing isn’t realistic. It’s like using a 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine (the annual testing ground for NFL hopefuls) to gage a player’s speed on the field. How many track stars have we seen flame out in the NFL? Instead, we are using technology to study real-life athletic situations.

We placed heart rate patches on USC football players and studied them while they were playing in a significant scrimmage game, accelerating in real time, getting hit. No one has ever been monitored in this way. We are trying to establish what happens to someone’s heart in this situation and we are looking at different positions.

We’re determining if a defensive lineman has a different heart rate in most game situations than a defensive back. We are creating a baseline for what is normal and abnormal. So we can help athletes be safer.

The number of athletes who die of cardiovascular causes each year in the U.S. is probably less than 300 compared with the large number of athletes participating in a broad spectrum of organized sports (about 10 to 15 million) of all ages in the Unites States. However, sudden death in athletes is an important medical indicator because athletes represent the healthiest and most dynamic members of society. Understanding sudden death in athletes will help us develop recommendations for everyone.

Not only do we think biosensors could bring a safer playing field; we also believe the vital statistics emerging from our “body computers” will create ways for athletes to perform better and avoid injury. Professional athletes are multi-million dollar investments, but they have a very high injury rate, which is usually the result of fatigue. We are developing technology that can track vital signs and allow trainers to make changes in training regime.

Simply asking an athlete, “How are you feeling?” doesn’t yield any actionable results. Biosensors can bring a true information flow. So, in theory, we could put a wireless band-aid on Lionel Messi, the greatest soccer player in the world, and continually track him. Messi makes $27 million a year and is a once-in-a-generation player, so what if we found that every twelfth day he had a blended heart rate and needed rest and a doubling of his hydration?

That information is valuable to a lot of people: his team, fans, sponsors, and Mr. Messi himself. What if we could use biosignals to eliminate incidents of hamstring strains in American football players? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Fans will benefit, too. In their current state, most stadiums and arenas are data vacuums where fans are in information purgatory. This is completely counter to what modern sports fans expect when they are watching a sporting event.

At home, people watch a game, laptop in hand, to look up statistics as well as biographical information on different players, coaches, announcers and even sideline reporters. They adjust their fantasy teams and take to Twitter or fan sites to express their opinions.

Meanwhile, fans in most stadiums can’t even get a decent cell phone connection. This will change soon enough as new stadiums are built and others retrofitted to satisfy the needs of modern fanatics. We are talking with many companies and sports leagues about bio sports stats, and they are tremendously interested.

LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, a new stadium that opened June 9, represents a new kind of Information Age stadium. It features high-density Wi-Fi, high-definition video, digital content and interactive fan services. It’s a model for the future, but it’s just a start. The Center for Body Computing is studying how biosensors on athletes can send fans interesting and compelling information to enhance the game experience even more.

Even the information flow for home-bound sports fans is limited, but that will change too. Golfing analyst Johnny Miller might look at a player and tell millions at home that he has a “confident look in his eye,” but it would be even more accurate if he could say that a player “has a confident look in his eye and he has been able to control his heart rate when standing over putts less than 10 feet, and that why he’s winning this tournament.”

(Interestingly, data that we have studied from the PGA tells us that pro golfers heart rates shoot significantly when they stand over putts; if a golfer can train himself to slow that heart rate down, he can shoot a better score, make more money and have a better chance at winning a tournament.)

While the concepts behind Moneyball were revolutionary in sports, another revolution will alter sports even more profoundly. We’re sure the Oakland A’s Billy Beane, the protagonist in Moneyball, could have a field day with using bio sports stats to pick players. Considering that the A’s are more than 18 games back in the American League West, perhaps the brilliantly innovative Mr. Beane should give us a call.

Leslie Saxon, M.D., is the Executive Director of the University of Southern California Center for Body Computing and the Chief of the Division of Cardiology at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Today marks the start of the Center’s annual Body Computing Conference.

The CBC is a wireless health research center. Its staff works with other USC schools, including the School of Cinematic Arts, as well as innovators to think about, study and create the future of healthcare.