It may surprise you to know that there are a pair of diamond-encrusted NBA championship rings with my last name on them. Unfortunately, they belong to my cousin Danielle, who spent several years selling high-end season tickets for my hometown Miami Heat.
But perhaps technology can help me earn a ring of my own. So Monday, I was on a blacktop court in Brookline working with a sensor-laden ball from Infomotion Sports Technologies, a company with offices in Massachusetts and Ohio. I stood at the free throw line and gracelessly tossed the $250 ball toward the hoop. Within a second, the screen of a nearby iPhone lit up, telling me that the arc of my shot was too flat. I improved with the next one -- by a lot.
Infomotion is just one player on a growing roster of startups that want to change the way athletes train and collect data on their performance. The world of sports is glamorous, of course, which attracts entrepreneurs. But the odds are stacked against creating a company that can grow beyond a small niche.
Many of the startups exist because motion and positioning sensors have dropped in price, or because most new smartphones and tablets include fairly good videocameras. The basketball made by Infomotion, for instance, has nine sensors inside it.
They can tell how fast you’re dribbling, or how quickly you get off a shot after someone passes the ball to you. The sensors communicate via Bluetooth wireless to an iPhone, which not only reports on how well you’re doing at various drills, but also harangues you to try harder. (The voice is that of Princeton hoops coach Mitch Henderson.)
But a lot of new sports startups, predicts Infomotion chief executive Mike Crowley, “are going to discover that collecting data is not useful or valued by the customer, in and of itself. You have to go deeper, and create an actionable experience with the data. What should they do with it? That’s why we built the digital coach.”
The digital coach is the app that goes with Infomotion’s ball, which sells under the brand name 94Fifty. Infomotion got its start in 2008, and originally sold a $2,500 system to college and pro teams. Crowley says the company is about six months from launching a sensor-laden soccer ball to compete with the $300 Micoach soccer ball from Adidas.
The founders of Boston-based Woo Sports focus less on leveraging data to help athletes improve, than giving them bragging rights. Woo makes a device about the size of a pack of gum that clips onto a kiteboard to gather stats from an outing. (Kiteboarding is an extreme sport that blends windsurfing with paragliding.)
When the Woo device gets close to a smartphone, it relays the data, so a kiteboarder riding the waves of Pleasure Bay in South Boston can compare his altitude or maximum airtime with a friend doing the same on the Cape. Chief executive Leo Koenig says Woo has already signed a distribution deal to put its product in several hundred stores; it will be available in the fall, at $149. The company plans to market it to snowboarders, BMX bike riders, and other action sports aficionados next.
Other startups like Ubersense, CoachMode, and DoubleBlue capture video using a tablet or stand-alone videocamera, and then display stats intended to help players improve, or let coaches do chalk talks over the footage.
Boston-based Ubersense is used in more than 40 sports, from the NFL to cross-country skiing. CoachMode focuses on tennis, and DoubleBlue on hockey. Dan Kerluke, chief executive of DoubleBlue, says Sweden’s Olympic hockey team used the technology at this year’s Winter Olympics. (They took home a silver medal.)
This spring, a Tyngsborough company that has been around since 2003, SmartSports, began rolling out its first SmartKage systems. The SmartKage batting cage uses high-speed video cameras, laser scanners, and other sophisticated sensors to help baseball coaches and scouts gather information about player performance that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, says chief executive and co-founder Corrine Vitolo. (The other co-founder is former Red Sox minor-league outfielder Larry Scannell.)
It’s installed in sports training facilities, where users pay about $150 an hour for access. By the end of the summer, Vitolo says, about six SmartKage systems will be in use around the country. The company plans to move into football next.
GoPro, the maker of rugged and small videocameras, is on the verge of a public offering. The company has become successful because it taps into people’s desire to “capture, celebrate, and brag about our successes,” says Sean Marsh of the Boston venture capital firm Point Judith Capital. But when companies target a particular sport, or a specific position, “the opportunity gets smaller and smaller,” he says.
Marsh is an investor in CoachUp, a Boston startup that connects players with private coaches.
It is passion, though, that makes the business of sports tech so appealing, Marsh believes. Passionate athletes, whether amateur or pro, are willing to pay almost any price for the promise of upping their game — or chronicling a great performance to share with others.
While the technology can be impressive, there are certain eternal truths. I will never play in the NBA. And you can’t control the weather. I had hoped on Monday to see the Woo Sports technology in action on Pleasure Bay. But the wind wasn’t strong enough for kiteboarding. On Wednesday morning, I was in the neighborhood again, and the whitecaps on the water made me hopeful. But I got a text from the company’s marketing person: “Too gusty.”