The Rise Of The Digital Athlete


If you purchased a luxury automobile on a five-year contract with $5.15 million in annual fees, wouldn’t you want to make sure it’s running in perfect condition? According to ESPN, that’s how some NBA franchises are treating their players these days with the help of a raft of technologies that gather data about their team’s performance on and off the court. And the ways they do it would make your head spin, from insanely complex to incredibly simple. Here’s a breakdown of what devices basketball teams are using to monitor their players’ every move, breath and, yes, heartbeat—plus, how the methods might get even crazier in the future.


Proteus Digital Health Feedback System
This patch and smartpill—yes, you read that right—system is in use by several NBA franchises. An oval-shaped patch is applied to a player’s skin, where it tracks sleep habits, skin temperature, body position and heart rate. The wearable also collects data sent to it wirelessly from within the player by the smartpill. The FDA-approved pill’s ingestible sensor and transmitter is powered entirely by stomach acid, and stays in the body roughly one week. These data help coaching staff accurately adjust practice intensity, especially on the road when the variables increase.


One of the first teams period to use digital trackers, the Dallas Mavericks employed Fatigue Science’s Readiband to monitor their athletes’ sleep, presumably because the team already controls its players’ diets and exercise. Quality sleep, as determined by the band’s sensors, promotes better reaction times and overall performance. The data helps NBA players know when to take a nap, prevent injuries and decrease chances of overexertion. Of course, the team’s use of the gadget comes as no surprise—team owner Mark Cuban is one of Fatique Science’s biggest backers.



The Mavs were also one of the first teams to jump on the SportVU bandwagon, using their Readibands in conjunction with the 3D position-tracking system that uses a series of cameras to capture players’ movements. Now, the technology is found in most NBA teams’ arenas. The cameras capture everything from position and passing, to made shots and fouls in real-time. Also, as of earlier this year, the company has partnered with another data tracker called Catapult, which is essentially a GPS unit worn by players. It also helps gauge fatigue levels, which is very useful for aging team rosters.


Jawbone UP
If this one looks familiar, it may be because you’re wearing one on your wrist or have seen one out in the wild. The Golden State Warriors employed the commercially-available Jawbone UP activity tracker to track their players’ sleep and off-court activity levels—and that’s about it. Sure, the simple UP wristband may seem considerably less robust than its more invasive cousins, but it was one of the first digital trackers to be used by the NBA, period. The Warriors’ partnership with Jawbone began way back in the 2011-12 season,  around the time when Nike’s pioneering FuelBand was released.


The future of the quantified NBA athlete
Many experts have weighed in on the future of player data tracking, but the most plausible direction such technology will be headed is likely, well, in. Placing sensors actually within an NBA player’s body will enable teams to discern whether a player has taken their meds, check their urine for performance enhancers and ensure they’re reaching their full potential during practice. In the future, such sensors may take the form of tiny microchips in the bloodstream that can measure muscular exertion. Of course, even now NBA teams are toeing the line when it comes to technological ethics and privacy. Soon, we’ll have to ask ourselves if a $40-million contract gives a franchise the right to control every aspect of a player’s life for the sake of a bottom line.


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