By Barry Janoff
July 25, 2012: In 1965, TV viewers were first treated to Get Smart, a comedy show in which spies used (and often misused) cutting-edge technology to gather information.
On July 25, Major League Soccer and adidas joined in an effort to help the league and fans get technologically smart at the 2012 AT&T MLS All-Star Game.
The match, which pitted MLS stars against Chelsea of the English Premier League, was labeled the first "smart" game in pro sports history. During the event, players from both teams — including David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Chris Wondolowski and Dwayne De Rosario — used adidas' miCoach Elite, a data-tracking system that provides coaches, trainers and players with such real-time performance metrics as heart rate, speed, acceleration, distance, field position and power.
Beginning with the 2013 season, the adidas miCoach Elite System will be used by all 19 clubs, in effect making MLS the first "smart" league.
According to adidas, the miCoach Elite System features a small data cell that fits into a protective pocket located between the shoulder blades in a player’s base layer. More than 200 signals per second per player are sent to a central computer via a series of electrodes and sensors woven into the base layer fabric. Information is then displayed on the coach’s iPad.
The integration of the miCoach Elite System is the latest result of an alliance with adidas that began in MLS' inaugural 1996 season. In 2010, MLS and adidas signed an eight-year deal, which industry analysts valued at more than $200 million, that replaced a ten-year, $150 million deal signed in 2005 for adidas to take a lead partnership and marketing role in MLS.
Marketing support inlcudes a miCoach Elite System TV spot, "MLS: This Is Smart Soccer," which launched on ESPN2 during the AT&T MLS All-Star Game in PPL Park in Chester, Pa. It features among others MLS players David Beckham, Fredy Montero, Darlington Nagbe, Brek Shea and Will Bruin.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with adidas Group CEO Herbert Hainer, MLS commissioner Don Garber and vp-adidas interactive Paul Gaudio about the impact of the new technology and the role adidas has played in the growth of the league.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Every league is working to develop and use technology to its advantage, so why is MLS the first-to-market with this system?
Don Garber: We are a league that can take more risks. You have to look at where we are in our growth, the strong fan support we have and the high percentage of fans who are tech-savvy and want be part of the next wave of technology. Also, we may be unique in the way we work so closely with all of our clubs and our players. And you have to credit our long-standing partnership with adidas and our combined goal to bring innovative and game-changing experiences to the sport of soccer.
Herbert Hainer: We started with football because that is the sport we know the most about. But, of course, it can be carried into other leagues.
NYSJ: How vital is is for MLS to be a leader in sports technology?
DG: There has always been a close alignment between technology and sports, but most of that has been involving television. Now, there are multiple ways to watch sports, but that is still mainly about broadcasting. This technology will take sports in America to a higher level. Our partnership with adidas has always been about making the sport better. Working with adidas, we are bringing players, coaches and fans across the league a revolutionary technology to help teams perform at the highest level.
HH: This is a major step forward in what adidas is doing in world football. The sport and business are evolving. And the technology is evolving. We have to continue to show what we are doing on the field and in technology. As the paths of sports and technology continue to converge, we are pleased to be pioneering in this area and continue to deliver cutting-edge innovations to teams and leagues worldwide.
"This technology will take sports in America to a higher level. Our partnership with adidas has always been about making the sport better."
NYSJ: When you sit down with NBA commissioner David Stern, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other league leaders, do you talk about the ways in which MLS is advancing technology?
DG: [Laughs.] We talk about a lot of things. Including technology. Every league is looking at ways to improve in a rapidly changing landscape. Specifically regarding miCoach, I hope this can spread to other leagues in the U.S. The technology certainly can be accomplished. Adidas has relationships with the other leagues in the U.S. and I see them looking to take it elsewhere. Once this rolls out in the MLS league-wide, other leagues will have a better understanding of what it can do.
HH: Technological support is needed for different reasons in different sports. The miCoach Elite System is a big step forward and will create a lot of interest. We will talk to the NBA, to David Stern and Adam Silver. And, of course, we will be talking to all the other leagues.
NYSJ: Have any players or coaches been reluctant to add the miCoach technology to their game?
DG: Not really. Soccer players live in a world that is more engaged in what I call a new demographic: They are more tech-oriented, as are most athletes. Some of the biggest traffic on Twitter is from professional athletes. So they are engaged with technology and are interested in and supportive of what we are doing. The purpose is to help improve the level of play on the field, take the skills they have learned and combine that with technology that can measure what an athlete is doing, what he doing correctly or not, and make them better players. And to get data that would also avoid injuries by monitoring heart rates and other physical measurements.
HH: We are always trying to make the game more interesting and fun for players and fans. We always look for ways to get more people to follow soccer. This provides much more information. Players and fans are interested in information that shows what happens to players, how hard are they working, how fast can they run, how fast can they accelerate. When you buy a car, you get every description: How fast it accelerates, how many seconds from 0-to-100. You get a lot of information and details. That makes you more informed and with the sport makes it more accessible.
Paul Gaudio: [Coaches and players should embrace this because] clearly this will have an impact relating to on-field injuries. You can monitor if a player has slowed down or if his performance has changed somewhat or dramatically. You would be able to tell that something is wrong. But it would not be used relating directly to concussions. There is no correlation. But as we gather data on each player, moving forward what makes this system so exciting is that we can measure where a player is when performing at his best, and then work to get the data back to those levels after an injury. We would have a benchmark against which you could measure data.
NYSJ: How would you describe the relationship between MLS and adidas?
DG: They have the sport in their DNA. They have long been committed to growing the sport in the U.S. and around the world. They see MLS as a key driver in helping to make this country more passionate about the sport.
HH: We are very proud of the role we have had in the growth of MLS and soccer in the United States. We are proud to partner with our long-term partner Major League Soccer to debut our latest innovation the miCoach Elite System at the MLS All-Star Game and then across the league in 2013. We have been with MLS since the beginning and have continued to look for ways to expand our role with them to build the sport and, of course, our business.
NYSJ: How long has miCoach been in development?
PG: We have been working on this technology for well over two years. There are a lot of good ideas in the works, but without the right partner they just stay on the shelf. There was a problem between what could be measured and what could be analyzed. How do you bring the information to the competitive level in real time with reliable data. It is not as much about the technology as about how we can serve it up. Coaches want the data they need to make on-field, real-time decisions in such areas as speed, distance, power, heart rate. This will help us to better understand the impact of physical activity on the body, both good and bad.
HH: You can be sure this has been thoroughly tested under many conditions before we reached this point where we will use it in the All-Star Game and then next season bring it to all the MLS clubs. We have tested it in other games, which we did not announce, to make sure that it performs the way we want it to under soccer conditions. We just tested it in a game [last week] and it was perfect.
NYSJ: Will fans in stadiums and viewers on TV be aware of the data being measure and how coaches and players are using it?
DG: They will be aware that the adidas miCoach Elite System is being used. We will give them a peek behind the curtains. Fans [were] able to follow the miCoach Elite System statistics via adidas Soccer's Facebook page.
NYSJ: How will this technology impact MLS, adidas and the relationship moving forward?
DG: The league is moving in the right direction. All of the indicators we look at to measure growth have been particularly good this year. It helps to have great partners. With adidas, we work with them on day-to-day situations regarding what we have to do to improve the level of play, make the athletes better, give the fans a quality of play that is always improving. But that goes beyond the basics of uniforms, shoes, balls and equipment. The technology is more apart of the game than ever. We have to continue to innovate, whether it's the technology we are using or the decisions we are making to advance and enhance soccer.
HH: This will definitely have an impact. I am absolutely certain about that. If you follow sports in general, you see that more and more technological support is going in. Hawk-Eye (the system that tracks the trajectory of a ball and can then show in virtual-reality replay where the ball landed) in tennis at Wimbledon. At the Olympics in all sports. FIFA is talking about goal-line technology. Technological support is needed for different reasons in different sports.
This is a very busy time for adidas, with MLS, the MLS All-Star Game and the Olympics, where we are a partner with the IOC. It is a challenge, but this is what it is all about. We had a very good start in 2012 and we are looking to reach record sales and profits. This is what is helping to drive our business.
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