Advanced technology is everywhere in basketball, and it’s only gaining steam. Some tech elements are already considered essential to the sport’s operations, such as rafter camera tracking technology that’s been in the NBA for nearly a decade; others, like detailed basket tracking provided by companies like Noah Basketball, are still in the early stages of public consciousness.
Quietly, a special WNBA game in August featured another major innovation, one that might have a massive long-term impact on basketball and several other sports on this continent: a first-of-its-kind combination of in-game wearable technology with optical tracking.
Players for the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun, who met in the culmination of the in-season Commissioner’s Cup tournament, were outfitted with wearable tracking sensors produced by KINEXON, a company active in several European sports that also works with over half the NBA’s teams, providing tracking in their practice gyms. (Such tracking remains off-limits during games in the NBA — for now.) KINEXON sensors were also used during the Orlando bubble as part of the league’s COVID-19 contact-tracing efforts.
The Commissioner’s Cup final featured what might have been the first in-game use of such wearables in North America. Small sensors holding ultra-wideband radio technology were placed in the waistband of each player, collecting data based on their movements and performance 25 times per second.
Players were tracked for acceleration, change of direction, speed and agility. These insights were achieved without sacrificing one iota of comfort — a key sticking point for some players.
“Overseas, a lot of teams wear the [sensors] to track their heart rate and their oxygen and stuff, so I’ve done that before,” the Sun’s DeWanna Bonner told FiveThirtyEight. During the WNBA offseason, Bonner has played in overseas leagues in countries like Spain, Russia and the Czech Republic. “[But] overseas, they just put it right on your body, and the whole game you’re constantly trying to keep it up. I only wore it one time over there and I tossed it, because I’m like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
That wasn’t a concern here. The sensors are roughly the size of a standard matchbook, inserted into a secure pouch where they remain. There’s no setup or adjustment required. “I actually forgot about it as the game ended,” said Bonner, who scored 11 points in the Cup final. “They were like, ‘Don’t forget to take your monitor out.’”
Meanwhile, players were simultaneously being tracked optically — once again in a way rarely, if ever, seen before in this part of the world.
Sony’s Hawk-Eye, an entity perhaps best-known among American fans for making line judgments in tennis, was also contracted for the Commissioner’s Cup final. Using 14 tracking cameras dotted around Phoenix’s Footprint Center, Hawk-Eye tracked 17 distinct points on the skeleton of each player and referee, plus the ball.1
The NBA has used Second Spectrum tracking cameras (previously SportVU) for several years, but its tracking uses just six cameras set in the arena rafters and covers only player torsos, so it’s far less dynamic than Hawk-Eye’s 14-camera setup. The ability to track arms and legs in detail, and from varying vantage points, offers exponentially more insight and nuance.
And that’s without even considering the wearables. When fully synthesized, a process handled by league partner Microsoft Azure, Hawk-Eye cameras and KINEXON wearables were together expected to generate roughly 50 million data points — from that single game of basketball.
“This is the first time that these two systems have been used in combination here in the U.S., if not in the world,” said Christy Hedgpeth, the chief operating officer of the WNBA during the 2021 season.2 “This is all part of a bigger transformation to grow at an important time in our history.”
The experience of the Commissioner’s Cup final was anything but one-off. In fact, those involved see the technology used in the game as a sign that the approach could soon become commonplace, and perhaps not just in the WNBA.
That starts with the way basketball is presented to fans. The Commissioner’s Cup Amazon Prime broadcast, part of a multi-year agreement between Amazon and the WNBA, featured immersive highlights more akin to a video game than a typical basketball game. Broadcasters could rotate the video of any play with a 3D, 360-degree range of view.
“To be able to walk up to Breanna Stewart as a fan and just study her shot, that’s really the perspective I felt like we were able to give fans,” said Lisa Byington, the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Sky play-by-play announcer who also called the Commissioner’s Cup.
That sort of thing is just the tip of the iceberg. Much like Major League Baseball’s use of Statcast data to visualize elements like launch angle and home run distance, basketball broadcasts powered with these forms of tracking can bring fans new information and a new outlook on the game.
Of course, this technology also has the potential to revolutionize player and team statistical data, giving competitors far more detailed information about what’s happening on the court. Take shot contests, for instance: Currently, rafter cameras only track the torso positioning of the shooter and nearest defender at the time of the shot. This newer form of optical/wearable infusion, though, tells us far more, from the exact arm and hand positioning of the defender to how high both players jumped. Instead of a rough approximation for how “open” a shot was, now we can know, down to the millimeter, how close a defender’s hand was to the ball the moment a shot was released, plus several other bits of important context.
Cool theme, right? Now apply it to virtually any other common on-court action you can think of.
Further still, this sort of tech could transform certain areas of game operations. Sick of lengthy video reviews on out-of-bounds calls near the end of close games? The NBA and WNBA are already experimenting with automating those calls through tracking technology, instantly determining who gets possession. Several related referee-assist programs could soon be in the offing, such as the ability to automate goaltending calls, three-second violations and similar infractions with 100 percent accuracy.
The other big piece of the player/team data side is health, a Holy Grail of sorts in these conversations. The movement data captured by wearable tech could help teams understand overall player “load” during a game. The more information available, the better teams can prevent injury and monitor the performance of fatigued players. (More than half the NBA’s teams use KINEXON sensors in their practice gyms for precisely these purposes, per multiple league and team sources.)
Some might term these measurements part of the broader “biometrics” sphere, one that can raise thorny questions about player privacy and medical data. Not so fast, said Maximilian Schmidt, co-founder and managing director of KINEXON.
“Biometrics are more related to your inner body,” Schmidt told FiveThirtyEight. “If you look at a biometric, it’s heart rate, it’s blood pressure, it’s sweating.” That’s not what KINEXON is tracking. “We are measuring movement data,” he said.
“Body movement is just what you see, and we just collect [that] data and process it in real time. … Everyone can see it, and we make it more fascinating.”
So how soon could the North American basketball world see this sort of technology on a full-time basis? It’s tough to say precisely, though the prospect seems far more realistic than it would have even a few years ago.
Any permanent adoption of in-game tech requires collective bargaining, a key obstacle for both the WNBA and NBA. Both leagues and their respective players’ associations have held conversations on this issue over the past two years, per several sources with knowledge of the talks, and the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup final was viewed as a proving ground for the tech.
Concerns from the players’ perspective include not only the issues of biometrics and privacy, but also related ones of data ownership and usage.
“If I’m the athlete and I, for example, am entering contract negotiations, some of that stuff could be used against me,” said Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. “I have the right to confidentiality with respect to this stuff, unless I waive it.”
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The dialogue here has progressed, though slowly. In the last round of NBA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations, a joint committee was formed with staff from the league and players association plus outside tech experts — with the goal of regularly monitoring, updating and discussing the burgeoning wearable tech options and sticking points like data access.
Also at play is money: Players naturally want their share of any new dollars they’ll be helping generate using new tech. But existing revenue-sharing rules in both leagues’ CBAs make this a scalable hill when the time comes.
Many in basketball circles don’t think this reality is far away. Just look across the pond, where the entire German Handball-Bundesliga, the top professional handball league in the country, already uses KINEXON wearable sensors during games.
“They found ways to convince players, teams, federations to have an agreement where they are all convinced that this benefits the purity of the game,” Schmidt said. “I’m pretty sure that in the U.S., when it comes to basketball, we will see the same development.”
How soon that happens is unclear, but make no mistake: This stuff is coming. From broadcast insights and advanced player stats to injury prevention and game operations improvements, modern wearable and optical technologies are poised to change the way fans, players and even organizations view the game of basketball.
CORRECTION (Dec. 21, 2021, 12:35 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said that WNBA players were tracked for measures of “load” in the Commissioner’s Cup. In fact, “load” was not tracked in that tournament, though the KINEXON trackers do have that capability.