“They’re so far
ahead of the
learning the way
—Julie Allegro, Fyrfly Venture Partners
Moneyball, was so impressed by Kitman he signed on as an
adviser. And those are just Sparta’s head-to-head competitors.
There are also a slew of sport-specifc frms using motion
capture, wearable sensors, and other methods to help pitchers,
tennis players, or golfers optimize their motions.
Next to 3-D motion capture, Sparta’s technology can seem a
little, well, spartan. Why be content with looking at an athlete
through the soles of his feet when you could be measuring his
whole body? Wagner’s retort: All of the others are gathering
data they don’t know how to interpret. They’re compiling
haystacks instead of fnding needles, and then drawing conclu-
sions no more scientifc than the baby-crawling pitching
guru’s. “That’s a key problem in sports science
right now—it’s more about marketing,” he
says. Wagner points across the gym to
where Daniel Descalso is fying down
an Astro Turf strip used for sprint
workouts. “We could gather force
data on this sprint and everyone
would write stories and talk about
how cool it is. The problem is, it
has no scientifc validity.”
Because Sparta has been mea-
suring one thing and one thing
only in the same way for almost
nine years, Wagner says, its data is
all “clean,” or usable. That mountain
of clean data yields the kind of rigor-
ous insights that not only impress
coaches but also stand up to peer review.
Sparta has turned its data into six scientifc
papers (four published, two pending) on injury risk
factors, more than any of its competitors. The crown jewel is
one published in collaboration with researchers at the famed
Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, showing a correlation
between force-plate patterns and UCL tears, the injury that
costs MLB teams more than any other. The startling conclusion: Pitchers who demonstrate the most drive relative to the
other parts of their jumps blow out their elbows more often.
How is it possible to deduce anything about a pitcher’s
elbow on the basis of how he jumps? “How could you not?”
says Wagner. “There’s a big rubber on the mound for a reason.
People forget that all movement is initiated through the ground.
Even in swimming, races are won or lost in starts and turns,
which are essentially a jump.”
When it comes to the intersection of sports and data, Julie
Allegro, founder and general partner of Fyrfy Venture Partners,
is an unusually discerning critic. At her frm, she focuses on
machine-learning startups with large, proprietary data sets. But
she also grew up in the sports world: Her father, Jim Allegro,
was a founding executive at ESPN. “So everybody sends me all
their sports startups,” she says.
Last July, a friend who is a professor at Stanford business
school told Allegro about a local sports-tech startup she ought
to know about. After bootstrapping for seven years, it was
looking to raise venture capital for the frst time. Allegro
agreed to meet Wagner and liked what she heard. “I know
a lot of companies claim to have proprietary data. But the
volume of data [Sparta] has—that’s a real competitive advan-
tage,” she says. “They’re so far ahead of the competition, and
with machine learning the way it is now, that’s just accelerat-
ing.” With Fyrfy leading the round, Sparta set out to raise
$1 million in seed capital; when it closed the round after a
month, it had $2.7 million.
Wagner wanted the money to hire more engineers. Sparta’s
database was growing so big, he says, its machine-learning
platform was having trouble keeping up. “It’s like patching
a roof—you can patch it only so long.” The startup’s Silicon
Valley location is a mixed blessing: Talent abounds,
but competition makes it expensive. Just down
the road in Menlo Park is Facebook, and
Google and Apple aren’t far away either.
“The good thing is I can ofer tickets
to Warriors games,” Wagner says,
the NBA team being a client.
With seven engineers now
operating in-house, a few yards
away from the training area
where famous athletes bench
and squat, Sparta is able to mine
insights that are not only coun-
terintuitive but wholly unex-
pected. For instance, it has found
that white American athletes
beneft more from single-leg squats,
while Dominicans do better with
bilateral ones. No one knows why. But
that’s the beauty of following the data: It
works even if you don’t know why. “We’re just
starting to scratch the surface with ethnicity,” he says.
“We want to continue to get more granular with prescriptions.”
The end goal, Wagner says, is what’s often referred to in
health care as “n of 1 medicine”: completely individualized
treatment. “What about a 32-year-old Caucasian with a
history of hamstring strain who has a .303 batting average?
What does he need?”
Unlike some of its rivals, which have rushed out versions
of their products for the corporate and consumer markets,
Sparta is moving cautiously. It recently started working with
U.S. Special Operations Command, a natural extension from
elite sports. Special forces soldiers, Wagner says, aren’t much
diferent from NFL players, with one big exception: “The
consequences are much greater. Instead of not making the
Super Bowl or getting another contract, you die.”
In another two or three years, Wagner thinks Sparta
will be ready to introduce medical and consumer products.
“Ultimately, our mission is to make sure if there’s a desire
by any individual to be active, there should be no physical
obstacle to that,” he says. With a sizable nest egg for the frst
time, he says, “we’ve got our handcufs of.” Athletes, after
all, belong on the feld—although, for Phil Wagner, life on the
disabled list has worked out pretty well.
JEFF BERCOVICI is Inc.’s San Francisco bureau chief.