At the turn of the century, a stopwatch was the extent of technology for amateurs participating in sports. Some 21 years on, one seldom now sees a jogger without a Fitbit or Garmin watch measuring their every move.
These technologies were typically developed at professional level first before trickling down to the masses and, across Ireland, there are a spate of companies getting in on the action.
Most notable is Statsports, the Newry-based provider of GPS trackers for sports. Avid sports fans will recognise the company's vest with a tracker placed between the shoulders. That tracker contains a GPS device, a gyroscope and an accelerometer, among other things.
“We want to make sure we’re managing [a player’s] load in the lead-up to the game so that we’re giving them a training session that’s suited to their bodies,” says Paul McKernan, the company’s managing director.
He explained that the device has initiated a change in the way teams are trained. “The idea of training them all the same way is almost archaic now. All individuals have different needs,” he says.
The company’s flagship product – Apex – aims to help build up a training profile for a player. It helps teams understand, for example, how to avoid a player getting repeated injuries. Since the company was founded in 2008, capturing all of these data points has got into the “DNA of each professional top club”, McKernan says.
Statsports has successfully captured a substantial share of clubs in the English premier league, including Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, as clients. GAA teams including Dublin, Mayo, Armagh and Down can also be seen wearing the device.
And the company's star continues to rise with its Sonra watch app being showcased at Apple's worldwide developers conference in June. Such a move signals intense interest from the iPhone maker: companies such as Shazam previously featured at the conference were subsequently acquired by Apple.
"You don't have to be based in New York or London to do big things," said McKernan, noting that the manufacturing of the company's hardware is based in Enniskillen and Cork.
From a strong base with professional athletes, the company is now in the process of selling directly to amateurs playing field-based sports.
Of course, Statsports isn't an outlier in Ireland. Another company in Northern Ireland making inroads in this sector is Incisiv, a neurotechnology business run by Cathy Craig, a professor of experimental psychology.
Craig’s interest is in how the brain uses information and anticipates what’s going to happen next. “You have to know what path is going to happen, where a ball is going to go, which part of the net it’s going to, so you have to move ahead of time,” she says.
Her company’s technology simulates different scenarios in virtual reality (VR). Incisiv’s flagship product, called Cleansheet, aims to train goalkeepers to make better decisions under pressure. Using VR, the technology recreates and customises specific shots to improve a goalkeeper’s ability to get to the right place at the right time.
When we think of top goalkeepers, often we think of raw talent and attribute that to genetics. But Craig explains with “with the right training and skill development, everybody can be better at what they do”. “Some will have a predisposition that they can do better than others but you can develop talent through opportunity and training.”
Incisiv has also worked with Ulster Rugby to establish whether players evading a tackle will step to the left or the right. Its VR technology will then measure success and how or why players were successful.
“Sometimes people will practice things in isolation, like dribbling footballs around cones, but if you bring in another player you’re bringing more context and task relevance,” says Craig. In effect, then, her technology offers a situation that is as close to reality as possible.
And the company is growing. Craig noted that it has just finished a trial with Scottish Rugby looking at concussion in players. "We're able to measure the movement of a player as they're immersed in these environments and those movements can tell us about brain function," she explained.
The area of understanding and preventing concussion is becoming ever more important to teams and business is responding. In Galway, N-Pro has developed a rugby headguard which can reduce impact to the head by up to 75 per cent compared with its competitors.
"We have developed a multi-layer system with viscoelastic foams which are able to deal with high energy repeatedly," says Mark Ganly, the company's chief executive and co-founder. "A simple analogy is that our product is like a bulletproof vest. Rather than force being concentrated in one place, it's being spread around."
The company continues to study the impact of its headgear in two trials. One is an observational trial in which the company monitors the injury rates of players who have bought their headgear. The other trial is more invasive with players blood being monitored and profiles built around them.
Even with those studies ongoing, Ganly notes the company has had success to date having launched in Ireland, Britain and France. It also has a distributor in Australia and New Zealand and will soon launch into the United States and Canada.
Data is clearly the focus of many companies. Dublin-headquartered Kitman Labs, whose technology is used by hundreds of elite sports teams across a variety of disciplines, is working to reduce the risk of injury within professional sports using artificial intelligence and data science.
Then there's Galway-based Orreco, which uses biomarkers to identify an athlete's threshold and then provide a personalised strategy to help them stay around their peak performance zone.
And while the performance of athletes is the goal of many Irish companies, others are working to make the following of sports teams or individual athletes a better experience. Also based in Galway is Locker, a company providing a platform on which fans can consume content from a variety of sources on the sports or teams they most want to hear about.
Users of the app are able to select their favourite sports, leagues or teams and follow content from a multiplicity of sources. Ultimately, the company wants their app to be a one-stop shop for all sports content, including audio, video and from subscription sources as well as currently free sources.
Just this month Locker announced that it had secured $700,000 (€590,000) in pre-seed funding in a round led by Techstars Sports, making it the first Irish company backed by the accelerator based in Indiana in the United States.
“We worked in sports publishing and we saw that nobody ever centralised sports consumption in once place,” explained Locker chief executive Ross O’Dwyer. “That’s why we founded Locker . . . We put that all in one place and the first phase is over 300 publishers.”
The company ultimately intends to seek growth in the US market, where it has already made inroads. For example, it is in the process of integrating ticketing and marketing for one baseball team into the app.
Understanding fans is also the work of recently launched Fulltime Analytics, which is focused on using data to help clubs increase growth across ticketing, merchandise, fan engagement and sponsorship.
All of this points to increasing opportunities, albeit in an ever more competitive market place, to better understand both elite sportspeople as well as fans. Even in e-sports, one northern Irish company is working to understand the cognitive ability of players and the stress they’re under.
When one is pressed to identify prominent industries across Ireland, pharmaceuticals or the broader consumer technology industry comes to mind. But while the budding sports technology sector may not have been a prime target for State backing, with its substantial success to date, it’s clearly here to stay.