The Age Of The Digital Basketball

The NBA and basketball players at large are clamouring for more and more information about how they play. Until the relatively-recent introduction of SportVU stats-tracking in the professional league, the sport was underserved in this department. Likewise, stat-tracking in the commercial market has been largely relegated to wrist-worn smartwatches and fitness bands, none of which provide data approaching what’s possible with SportVU’s abstract gathering methods. In an effort to bridge the gap, sports equipment manufacturers have started making furtive forays into sensorizing the basketballs we play with.

The most recent contender to announce its attempt to commercialize digitally-augmented basketballs is none other than one of the largest suppliers of the sport, and indeed the NBA’s official basketball manufacturer. Wilson revealed its new smart basketball at the height of the March Madness NCAA Tournament via a TV spot. Like other forerunners, Wilson will be encasing performance-tracking sensors within its new ball. The “make/miss” technology was developed hand-in-hand with SportIQ, a firm whose claim to fame is artificial intelligence.

After pairing the smart ball with a mobile phone app, players can map out their hot spots keep track of shot attempts. This path has already been explored by a much smaller start-up that has already released a model of its own.

InfoMotion Sports Technologies debuted its sensor-studded 94Fifty smart basketball (endorsed by Memphis Grizzlies point guard, Mike Conley!) at the CES 2014 tradeshow. By measuring forces at play, the ball can detect dribbling and shooting, down to whether or not a shot had backspin and how fast it was going. It sends the data back to a coupled mobile device.

Interestingly, the 94Fifty ball can not only store the data, but it uses it to provide detailed (and specific) feedback about how to improve your game. Similar coaching will also almost certainly be included Wilson’s final product, and it will likely include drills and practice methods similar to those built into the 94Fifty app. Using the idea of providing a digital coach as its calling card of sorts, a company by the name of Shooters Revolution successfully crowdfunded its own product late last August. 

They developed the Evo One basketball in order to ensure that players are practicing correctly, building it to monitor shooting techniques. It’s still regulation size and weight, but gyroscopes within it let a removable sensor know when you’re not putting enough backspin onto your shot. It makes an audible noise when you’re form is on point, and interestingly needs no paired app to work—just a few batteries. With only a few gizmos attached, it’s also surprisingly cost-effective compared to its brethren, and its niche use shows the potential broadness of this market.

But having a digital coach is useless if you can’t turn practice into results, so what if you’re a team player or want to compete against opponents? The Evo One is more of a practice ball, and its whistle can be deactivated for group play—we’d imagine it could get fairly annoying. As for Wilson’s ball, the company’s Vice President of Digital, Tom Gruger, said in an interview with Engadget that their ball’s data-tracking will extend to competition. It is unclear whether Wilson intends to allow players to share a single ball, or if only an individual’s stats will be tracked. 94Fifty has a “team model” available that works well during drills and practice, but it doesn’t work the best during gameplay.

This begs the question: can any of these digital basketballs measure actual performance if they’re most easily used in controlled scenarios? According to Gruger, Wilson is up for the challenge, drawing a line between “perceived” and “actual” performance. For the others more focused on practice, it’s more of a moot point.

These electronic basketballs will certainly change the way we practice, putting more data than ever before at the fingertips of us and our coaches. They’ll probably even make it into the sport and pro play, too. However, we’ll have to find out a few years down the line when quality catches up to innovation.

The Evo One basketball is expected to hit the market sometime this month, and Wilson’s model should release during the holidays later this year.


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