Forbes, December 30, 2019 – “Football is, at its core, a very violent game. Players are now quicker and can jump higher than ever before. A lineman from 40 years ago would be undersized in today’s game. As a result, football has had to reinvent itself and the way the game is now played has changed significantly, especially how officials call the game in an effort to prevent injuries, primarily to quarterbacks. But injury prevention remains the holy grail in sports, with every team in all leagues looking to get an edge and keep their high priced investments healthy on the field.
This focus remains extremely important in football, where one injury can derail a season and, if the injury is significant, the direction of a franchise. Look no further than the San Francisco 49ers this season, who came into 2018 with reasonable expectations, after a strong finish in 2017, but a knee injury to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3 ended any realistic chance for contention. While this particular injury was not the result of negligence, it highlights how critical it is to keep your best (and most important players) on the field.
NFL teams are engaging in a variety of initiatives which focus on improving injury prevention. One team, in particular, has partnered with a Silicon Valley startup in an effort to bring big data and predictive analytics to analyzing players’ injury risk and to develop personalized injury prevention plans based on the player’s position and data about their on-field play. As first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Steelers have teamed with Sparta Science to bring a high-tech approach to their injury prevention plans.
Menlo Park, California based Sparta has raised $9.7 million in funding and has previously worked with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and MLB’s Colorado Rockies on injury prevention efforts. Sparta has also worked with the 49ers and the Detroit Lions and began working with the Steelers last summer. The Steelers have utilized Sparta’s software throughout the season according to company’s CEO and Co-Founder Phil Wagner.
“Our partnership with Sparta Science will help us toward our ultimate goal of better achieving and monitoring performance as well as prescribing and tracking rehabilitation to help keep our athletes on the field,” Garrett Giemont, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Steelers, said in a prepared statement.
One perk of using Sparta’s tech, which hasn’t been lost on the players, is the ease of collecting the data needed. A player needs only to step onto a force plate, which resembles a traditional scale, and perform simple tasks, like jumping or holding a plank for 60 seconds, for the system to compile its data. Wagner also mentioned that players aren’t told much, in an effort to keep the data is pure as possible. “The best technology is invisible,” Wagner says.
Once the task is completed, Sparta is able to analyze the thousands of data points for each individual player and, through machine learning, determine the player’s risk of concussion or injury and other risks, such as a knee or foot injuries, based on their current condition.
“We generally have been able to save 18 percent of all injuries for a given NFL team,” Wagner says.
Injury prevention not only keeps NFL teams healthier, which in turn it results in a higher probability of playoff chances and ticket sales, but it also reduces insurance costs to cover rehabilitation for football’s major injuries. Sparta has said this has also trickled into the college game, which has used the company to lower their premiums due to fewer on-field injuries.
Sparta told the Pittsburgh P-G that the cost to use the system depends on who they are working with and the type of applications each organization is looking to use. The startup’s biggest client is actually the U.S. Military, which pays millions of dollars to use data to prevent injuries during combat.
Sparta has grown their team to more than 30 employees and has been able to track over 800,000 events, through the use of the force plate. The continued collection of data enables the company’s software to become even more predictive. With this data, personalized training routines can be honed and optimized for even better results. Throughout football’s history, a training staff has relied on feedback from a player during a game to make a proper assessment of the player’s health — which can, of course, be counterproductive to the player’s desire to succeed on the field and increase his earning potential. Through data and machine learning though, this inefficient process has been improved and the player’s health can be prioritized when analyzing injuries or potential for injury.
“A lot of times with data and technology, it’s not explained to athletes, it breeds suspicion. Are they going to cut me or change my contract? The nice piece that we’ve gotten feedback on is that because the test is so short, it allows more time for discussions of results and education,” Wagner said.
This increased transparency of the injury prevention process will undoubtedly help training staff and players to work more in tune in assessing each player’s personal needs. While spending potentially millions of dollars on predictive software can sometimes be a tough expense to swallow, it must be considered in conjunction with the $100 million that the NFL spends to research head trauma, just one of the number of health issues that currently face the league. With player salaries and league revenues continually on the rise, it behooves all involved to utilize new technology in order to make the most informed decisions in the name of the player’s health and more revenue at the box office and television.