The Great Debate: Athlete Data - Who Owns It?

When it comes to professional sports, athlete data usage and collection is exploding.


Data is a new power. Reporting, analytics, and data science have become necessities to maximize value across all industries. This is extremely pertinent in the sports industry where statistics have always been an important component to team and athlete success.

“People in both fields operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage.”
                -- Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

As new and more extensive data is collected, the sports industry finds itself amidst a great debate. Wearable companies create their own readouts and analytics in excess siloing the data into different programs. Programs that are maintained by medical staff and trainers, and rarely - if ever - seen by the athlete. Professional leagues are collecting more and more types of data on their athletes, and the question has arisen - who owns athlete data? Whether from wearables, sports doctors, fitness tests, drug tests, injury recovery or captured movement data, the question remains.

Some leagues have outlined how data can be collected and used, while most leagues have no rules surrounding data ownership and subsequently, most professional athletes rarely see the data collected on them. Take a closer look at how technology is ahead of the sports industry.

It is not a unique idea to monetize athlete data. The NFLPA has provided athletes with a way to monetize personal data through their partnership with WHOOP. Fantasy sports and sports betting companies are grappling for this data to help improve their systems and still many professional sports leagues are still figuring out how to deal with these demands.

The NBA has created wearable regulations built into their athlete contracts. The NBAPA does its best to keep data collection in the power of the athletes and prevent it from being used in the negotiation room. However, it has done little in terms of managing the data safely. Bryan Colangelo in the NBA was a security breach for the Philadelphia 76ers when it came to personal data. Burner twitter accounts, found to be tied to Colangelo’s wife, publicized sensitive team information, trashing athletes and sports executives of the 76ers. One tweet even explained Jahlil Okafor’s trade was due to a failed physical.

Whether this was true or not, it caused harm to Okafor and provided no context for the failed test. Like most biometric data education and context is imperative to understanding the data.

The Professional Squash Association (PSA) has just announced their agreement to record and provide athlete biometric data collected by cameras and sensors from Sports Data Labs to create a new revenue stream. All parties involved - the PSA, Sports Data Labs and Athletes - will all get a piece of the revenue. This attributes ownership to each of these parties.

This partnership between the PSA and Sports Data Labs is a step in the right direction because it aims to involve athletes in their own data distribution. However, it has not been made clear if the PSA athletes were a part of this decision-making process, and if an athlete does not want their data to be distributed if they are able to opt out. On top of ensuring that all of an athlete’s data and the subsequent revenue is distributed properly, Sports Data Labs is also responsible for making sure that athlete’s data is collected into a secure database that cannot be hacked or misrepresented.

The biometric data collected by wearable technology makes the athlete very vulnerable. There are a number of different parties who have a vested interest in knowing that athlete’s biometric data - the league, the team, the opposing teams, fantasy leagues, sponsors...the list goes on.

The debate about who owns an athlete’s biometric data is a hot topic within the sports industry at the moment. The simplest and most popular answer is that an athlete should own his or her data. The athlete should be able to control who sees the data that is collected, and take it with them as they are traded or retire from sports.