Over the past decade, advances in analytics have revolutionized the sports world, changing how training and competitions are managed and played, and allowing teams distinct advantages by providing brand-new ways to measure performance and skill.
While some analytics focus on determining the value a player brings or evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of play calls or other decisions, until now, few have put a microscope on the fancy footwork employed by athletes.
“If you look at elite athletes in any sport — from the likes of Steph Curry in basketball, to great tennis players, or American football players Troy Polamalu and others — it all starts from great footwork,” Erez Morag, chief innovation officer at startup Playermaker, told The Times of Israel recently.
The company, which specializes in wearable sports performance trackers, is looking to capitalize on the data-driven analytics approach that has massively reshaped major sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball over the past decade, in terms of both presentation and performance.
In the MLB, the StatCast tracking system was introduced into all 30 of the league’s stadiums in 2015, and was quickly implemented by scouting departments and major sports channels like ESPN. Partnering with Google Cloud and Hawk-Eye Innovations North America, the technology uses 12 cameras positioned around ballparks, accumulating more than 17 petabytes worth of data per season.
Playermaker — which has primarily focused on soccer analytics, but is branching out to include other sports such as basketball — doesn’t use cameras but rather sensors attached to players. While other sports data companies like PlayerData and StatSports offer sensors attached to a vest, Playermaker says it is the only one to put trackers on players’ cleats.
“Our advantage is that we are mounted on the source of motion — the foot — where everything begins. Footwork is the secret of sports,” Morag said.
The company says that by harvesting data it collects from players’ motion on the field, specifically from their feet, they can unlock athletes’ potential in ways difficult to detect with the naked eye, while also helping protect them from injury and improving management.
“By having our sensor in both feet, we can learn about the activity patterns, and the footwork, of large populations of men and women’s youth [players] while they’re actively engaged in their sports,” he said.
To crunch all the data, Playermaker developed an algorithm “that allows us to understand not only the physical aspect of the game, but also the technical aspect of the game, how involved you are in the game, how many times you touch the ball, how many possessions you have, how balanced you are between the left and right feet,” said Morag.
Founded in Tel Aviv in 2014, the company says that its technology has already been used in over 250 elite, professional and recreational soccer organizations, including English soccer powerhouses Arsenal and Liverpool.
In 2019, legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger became a major investor in the outfit, which moved to London the same year, changing its name from Motionize Israel. Playermaker CEO Guy Aharon told Sky News that Wenger was skeptical about the technology at first, but bought in after the company bused a youth team to the manager’s north London backyard for a demonstration.
“He recorded and monitored their session using our equipment then looked at the data. He said it was amazing and that he wanted to help us push it forward as an investor,” Aharon said last year.
Being able to analyze player information has given Playermaker an understanding of player development and injury rehabilitation, but has also allowed insight into an area that typically gets left out of the analytics revolution: women’s sports.
“We’ve had more than 1 billion meters of data collected on female players alone. This is unheard of. Unheard of. You can learn so much [about] activity patterns,” Morag said, referring to the distance traveled by the athletes wearing its sensors.
At the recent Maccabiah Games in Israel, the so-called “Jewish Olympics,” Playermaker sponsored a women’s U-16 soccer team, providing it with access to the technology.
Morag joined Playermaker in 2015 after having served as the head of Nike’s Athlete Performance branch, and played a key role in developing the system to synthesize the raw data gathered from the sensors into something that can assist players. A prolific researcher in biomechanics, he has received 30 patents for his work.
To address privacy issues involved in feeding player data through AI, Morag noted that players have the option of choosing who, to share their individual metrics with.
On its website, the company says it keeps all information “highly confidential for all clubs and users of the system,” and complies with relevant data protection laws.
“All data are stored on private servers, meaning the data is secured at all times,” the website says.
Last year, Playermaker was added to the FIFA Innovation Programme, an effort by the soccer governing body to help develop and standardize emerging technologies in the sport. Wenger, who stepped down from Arsenal in 2018, became FIFA’s chief of global football development shortly after joining Playermaker. The value of his investment was not disclosed.
The company has raised $50 million in two subsequent funding rounds — a $40 million injection in June led by Ventura Capital Group, an Emirates-based venture capital firm, and $10 million in 2019 from Singapore-based FengHe Group.
The company is also making further inroads on the professional pitch. In March, Harvey Elliott – a 19-year-old winger/midfielder for Liverpool with several championships already under his belt – became a brand ambassador for the company.
Morag said Elliot’s playing style, very technical and not just physical, personified what Playermaker’s offerings could bring to the field.
“We wanted to connect with authentic players with authentic stories that are using our product, that are up-and-coming players,” Morag said. “At the same time, [we] can help their game grow with our small contribution to the game.”