The Athletic: Can Silicon Valley startup Sparta Science help NFL teams prevent injuries?

By The Athletic

July 29, 2019

By Daniel Kaplan Jul 26, 2019

Injuries plague almost every sports team, wreck fantasy squads, not to mention impair players. Long seen as an unavoidable cost of doing business, teams are now deploying advanced technologies from biometrics, sweat analysis, sleep pods and the list goes on.

Enter Sparta Science, which now has over 150 clients for a device that analyzes an athlete’s injury risk. Deployed by the NFL Combine, five NFL teams and 95 other pro and college teams (including Clemson’s NCAA football championship team), its software measures physical weakness and strengths and prescribes the appropriate strengthening to prevent predicted injures.

And according to Sparta founder Phil Wagner, the five NFL teams, which he declined to identify, saved $12.1 million on average each in player costs from not having to field new competitors for those who otherwise would have been injured. (Sparta’s client roster includes the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins, according to the company’s website. Reportedly, the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars had previously partnered with the company as well.)

“So you’re able to look at the number of days that were going to be missed, and prorate that based off the salary,” he said of the methodology. That of course assumes the data is correct, and that Sparta does indeed save a team from losing players to injury.

The core of the technology has been around for decades, and is called a force plate. Initially developed for horses and other large animals, the device, which looks like a large floor scale, uses stress gauges to detect where in the body pressure is and is not coming from.

Sparta’s addition is software that collects the data and computes, for example, how someone balances on the force plate, compares it to other data, and then predicts whether they have, say, a risk for knee injury. (this reporter tried it out and the data correctly noted he had a left groin strain). Users balance, jump and plank on the device.

“The injury predictive stuff is where the most value is,” said Eric Galko, who runs Optimum Scouting, which currently is working to recruit players for the XFL. “But I believe it’s still pretty raw their data set.

“The data set is the most important, a lot of this stuff is no, ‘I don’t want to be the guinea pig.’…It’s chicken or egg, right? We need the data to show you something…(Sparta) seems to be the most impressive and when they have a data set, that will be incredibly helpful.”

Data is the key. The more people who balance a certain way and rip their hamstrings, or slump on a plank — their hands on the device — and then develop a back injury, the more the software can predict what injuries may be coming from what the pressure gauges spit out.

And Wagner clearly believes he already has the data. There are 150 Sparta force plates in circulation. So take the Miami Marlins, which is a new client. Their players use that one device, and each player generates thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of data points. Sparta already has billions of data points, Wagner said.

A fitness buff who during the interview sips a green concoction made of oregano and olive oil (for immune defenses, he explains), Wagner has his own history with sports injuries. He played safety for UC Davis for two years in the early 2000s before suffering enough concussions that the NCAA sidelined him. He patterned his play after his idol, Ronnie Lott.

“Just lead with your head,” he said.

So he played two years of club rugby. When he graduated, he relocated to New Zealand to play minor league rugby. In his first game, he said he was knocked out cold in the first five minutes.

He came back stateside several years later and spent four years at USC earning a medical degree before opening Sparta. In the early days, Sparta was essentially a high-tech gym based in Silicon Valley. Launched in 2009 during the height of the recession, no one, Wagner said, walked in during the first four months.

Surviving on parental loans, Wagner began meeting athletes and selling them on the injury prevention techniques he had in his training center. A little-known NBA player he worked with in 2011 helped turn the tide. The player had just signed a short term contract with the New York Knicks, and Wagner developed a new training regimen for him based on his body type.

“We really changed the way he moved so he would be quicker and stronger on contact,” he said.

Several months later, Jeremy Lin would set the sports world ablaze with Linsanity.

Eventually by 2015, many of his clients having moved away from the Bay Area, Wagner shifted toward developing the force plate with his engineering staff, selling the first one to Old Dominion University. Navy SEALs trained nearby had learned about it, opening the military business that is the biggest revenue producer today for Sparta.

What’s Sparta’s biggest hurdle?

According to Wagner, it’s the bulging sports medical technology space. Sparta’s software is FDA-approved and regulated, he said.

“The biggest competition is the frickin’ noise in this space,” he said. “There’s so much health tech that is creating, you know, distractions and confusion.

“Almost like every week we hear about a new one. It’s like, ‘Hey, this new technology, we’re looking at,’ a sports team will tell us, you know, so every week it’s something different. So that, that’s really is the distraction.”

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