Can Catapult Sports become the Strava of football? Interview with executive Benoit Simeray

Joe Hall
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Jamie Vardy Catapult Sports Data
Jamie Vardy sports Catapult's tracking hardware while training with Leicester - but will consumers adopt the technology? (Source: Getty)

If you're even a semi-dedicated sports fan, the brand Catapult Sports is likely to have worked its way into your subconscious.

Ever noticed your favourite football/basketball/rugby/NFL team's players wearing what looks like a sports bra over their tops in training?

If so, there's a high chance it will have been brandished with the company's name. After all, Catapult Sports' GPS pods, lodged in the back of the "bras", are used by 1,200 professional teams in 50 countries with 25,000 athletes.

The current champions of the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, the NBA, Premiership Rugby and the European Rugby Champions Cup all use Catapult's GPS tracking system.

But having become embedded with the elite, Catapult is moving into the consumer market with Playertek — a GPS wearable for amateur players that sends physical and positional data to an iOS app on a user's phone.

Read more: From virtual reality to socks to the "Netflix of sports" — these nine companies are changing football through technology and innovation

Like Strava, the popular cycling app that allows cyclists to plot their progress against their friends, Playertek offers players the chance to see who bares the closest resemblance to N'Golo Kante and who's more of a Theo Walcott, with distance covered, top speed, sprint distance and number of sprints all monitored by the pod.

Benoit Simeray, formerly of Tom Tom and Palm Pilot, joined as chief executive of consumer, to help the company transition to consumer at a time when other wearables such as the Apple Watch, the Fitbit and Jawbone are all experiencing a squeeze on sales.

Why make the move from professional sports into consumer products?

One of the reason I joined Catapult is because it's absolutely rooted in science and I think without science, you can’t project yourself for the long run. This is one reason why some wearable tech products are experiencing a bit of a downturn these days. I won’t name any companies, but some companies that have done well over the last couple of years by offering fitness trackers are now busy trying to prove their science, trying to explain what the benefit is of wearing those products.

Catapult is always the opposite. We don’t really think of ourselves as a wearable company but more as a performance technology leader across all levels of competitive sports.

But I want us to be able to start offering our science and tech to a broader group of people rather than just professional teams. We have the legitimacy to consumers because of all the teams that already use our products.

What are the challenges you face in scaling up to such a large extent? Are amateurs serious enough about football to buy a product like Playertek?

Of course, as soon as you move from professional to amateur, it’s a very different scale in terms of supply chain, in terms of how to reach that audience and how to sell to them.

It can be difficult to get accurate numbers. If you take football, you’ve got approximately 500m - 700m people engaged with football around the world. The potential for performance analysis products in football is bigger than it is with running.

With football, there is certainly a market with academies, youth teams and those still hoping to make it as a professional. But there is also a market for more casual players. What football players, or anyone else, never lose as they advance with age is competitiveness. If you play football at 35 you know you’re not going to make it as a pro but it doesn’t mean you’re not competitive. As we open up or technology to other groups of people, we can tailor our approach and tailor the software to them. At the professional level we sell to teams and our users are the coaches. Whereas at amateur level, it's more likely to be individuals and the players themselves.

I think players are after a different experience, a different set of metrics. This is what we’re currently trying to understand. We want to offer a relevant experience, while keeping in mind our mission of helping people perform better.

Is there scope for integrating social element into performance analysis tools for amateur players?

Look at Strava. Not only did they offer a platform that kept cyclists involved in their sport, but they brought more people into the sport. The social element, the gamification of the experience was still serving a goal of improving what you’re doing. The more you engage the greater the chances that you’ll start to keep improving. So yes, we’re looking into that.

What role will Artificial Intelligence play in future performance analysis technology?

Artificial Intelligence, it’s very trendy but it’s not anything new. We’ve recently launched a new algorithm which helps in baseball. Batters in baseball can really suffer from pretty serious injuries around the elbows. We’ve been working for months and months with a team of engineers and data scientists to fine tune our algorithm. This is machine learning, in effect, a form of artificial intelligence. Thanks to that we’ve been able to tailor our product to a number of different sports. It’s part of the DNA of what we’re doing.

At the moment you're using AI to help coaches make decisions - could it ever become more effective at making decisions than coaches themselves?

It’s certainly fascinating what could happen. I think you could argue that in team sports the technique can be very, very important. So I don’t think machines can ever replace all forms of human intelligence. But what we’re trying to do at Catapult when we decided to add performance analytics to video analytics is provide coaches with a more compelling and powerful piece of software. By adding more pieces together we are providing a richer platform for coaches.

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