Sports tracking applications, such as athlete monitoring and smart sports balls, are a key emerging use case for precise location technologies. Vendors are now integrating Real-Time Location System (RTLS) alongside other solutions as interest grows.
Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.
Log in or register to unlock this Insight.
More Than Just GPS for Professional Sports Tracking
Leveraging location data is a rapidly growing trend in the world of professional sports technology. While the Global Positioning System (GPS)/Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is commonly used in sports trackers and wearables, real-time positioning technologies like RTLS over Ultra-Wideband (UWB) and Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) are gaining popularity as sub-meter positioning solutions for tracking sports equipment and players. The increasing adoption of these solutions not only opens up new markets for location technologies but also presents vendors with various challenges as end users seek varied form factors, high precision technologies, and unique applications adapted to their specific needs.
Real-Time Tracking Enabling New Sports Tracking Opportunities
GNSS tracking has been a key feature of sports and fitness wearables since their inception, with GNSS data being leveraged to track valuable metrics of the wearer’s activity, such as location, distance traveled, and speed. For professional sports organizations, GNSS data combined with additional sensors, such as Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) and heart rate sensors, allows for deeper performance analysis, including acceleration, intensity, and performance patterns. In the realm of professional sports enterprises, vendors supplying athletes with monitoring "sports vests," such as STATSports and Catapult, are innovating further and adopting UWB for real-time, precise positioning.
Catapult's Vector Pro athlete tracking solution and Vector ClearSky positioning solution utilize standalone UWB technology for indoor and localized outdoor positioning. Like many GNSS sports tracking solutions, this solution transmits readings at a much faster rate (up to 400 readings per second compared to 10 to 20 for GNSS) and is enhanced with sensor data from MEMS. Catapult uses portable, battery powered UWB anchors, with additional features such as Wi-Fi connectivity and a GNSS augmentation capability. Catapult’s implementation allows anchors to be easily and flexibly deployed without the need for existing power and connectivity infrastructure.
The advantages of leveraging UWB or other RTLS technologies for sports tracking over GNSS-only solutions include:
- A localized solution (commonly referred to a Local Positioning Solutions, LPS) can operate both indoors and outdoors where GNSS only operates outdoors.
- RTLS location technologies require less power than GNSS, allowing tracking over energy constrained devices. Batteries are able to last over 6-hour training sessions.
- UWB, alongside cutting-edge Bluetooth solutions like BLE AoA, can position much more accurately than traditional GNSS. Commercial solutions can achieve sub-meter accuracy, commonly around 30cm of precision. This advantage can be enhanced further by combining GNSS, RTLS, and dead reckoning.
- RTLS trackers can be configured for faster recording and reporting, allowing for more granular data which can be better leveraged for calculating metrics such as speed and acceleration.
- During competitions, real-time reporting can be used for timely and automatic generation of statistics and figures. RTLS has been leveraged in sports leagues to provide immersive viewer experiences and assist with ruling decisions and competitive integrity.
Traditional RTLS vendors have also ventured into the sports tracking space, using RTLS to track sports balls and other sporting equipment. For instance, Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) specialist Quuppa partnered with sports analytics platform Wisehockey to provide real-time location data from players and hockey pucks during Finnish hockey league matches. Their partnership enabled player performance tracking and statistics for automated engagement and betting integration. UWB vendor Kinexon's smart ball technology utilizes onboard IMUs and UWB for high-precision ball tracking, achieving as low as 10-centimeter precision, with 12 to 24 anchors installed across a playing field. This technology has been successfully deployed in major football and handball events, including the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) 2022 World Cup as well as other key sporting events such as the National Hockey League (NHL) and over 80% of National Basketball Association (NBA) teams. Kinexon’s solution is available connected balls from partners like Derbystar and Select.
Additionally, other RTLS vendors have found success in the sports ecosystem: RTLOC's sports tracking solution has been utilized in Olympic athletics events, and Zebra has partnered with the NHL to provide real-time tracking for American football games through 2025.
RTLS Can be Leveraged to Unlock New Market Opportunities
Precise location solutions in the sports tracking space present both new challenges and opportunities for RTLS location vendors. Vendors considering support for sports tracking should take several considerations into account:
- Tailor solutions towards practical performance metrics: While some of the key performance metrics are shared, such as the need for sub-meter precision and millisecond latency, the current use cases for sports tracking have proven a good fit for current RTLS solutions. Compared to enterprise use-cases, sports tracking requirements presents fewer implementation barriers compared to traditional RTLS solutions. For example, sports trackers have shorter battery life requirements (typically 3 to 6 hours for sports tracking compared to months or years for enterprise battery requirements); which allows for cheaper trackers leveraging smaller batteries. As small and self-contained products, sports tracking solutions don’t have to be built to accommodate high volumes of devices – removing the need for expensive and complex network management. Finally, the standardized nature of sports pitches and training areas allows for solution providers to design and effectively market pre-configured solutions at a set cost.
- Form industry partnerships: Collaborations with sports teams, organizations, and sports technology companies have been instrumental in driving the adoption of precise sports tracking. Key RTLS vendors have successfully partnered with sports leagues like the NHL, NBA, and FIFA World Cup. In addition to direct end-user engagement, RTLS technologies can add an additional component to a broader tracking and location solution, RTLS vendors have found success partnering with technology vendors who specialize in multi-technology sports tracking such as Catapult, STATsports, and Inmotio.
- Prioritize ease of deployment: The need for engineering expertise to install and deploy RTLS location solutions remains a significant barrier to adoption. Vendors can address this challenge by providing professional services for installation, partnering with system integrators in various regions in order to ensure the necessary installation support is available. Alongside this, vendors can succeed by developing software and deployment tools to streamline installation and minimize downtime. Although sports tracking locations may not have existing connectivity to leverage, vendors can develop specialized solutions that are tailored to fit courts, pitches, and other sports areas. Once installed, solutions should be ready for immediate use. Sports technology vendors integrating RTLS have achieved this through effective software integration and commercial hardware compatibility with laptops and smartphones. Additionally, offering packaged solutions such as kits that consolidate tags, anchors, software, and support into one set-price product has proven effective.
- Demonstrate applications and ROI to potential customers: Exploring the applications and benefits of professional sports tracking will help promote the solution. While overall performance benefits may be difficult to quantify, solution vendors can focus on quantifiable improvements in efficiency during training sessions. The value of commercial engagement can be seen through providing credible statistics for improved spectator experiences and using real-time tracking for live match updates.
While professional sports tracking has been an effective emerging marketplace for RTLS solutions, vendors should look at sports tracking as only one potential that can benefit from similar tracking technologies. Additionally, the limited size of sports tracking deployments in terms of coverage area and the number of trackables suggests that the market may not be as scalable or profitable as the major RTLS verticals such as Healthcare, Industry and Manufacturing, Retail, and Logistics. ABI Research Identifies the key RTLS markets, business opportunities, and other insights in the recently released market research report titled “Indoor Positioning and RTLS: Technology Infrastructure, Applications, and Revenue”.