Just months prior to winning their first World Series in 32 years, the Los Angeles Dodgers—via Elysian Park Ventures, the team’s venture capital arm—invested in the sports science company BreakAway Data. Formed in partnership with Gains Group, the software and service provider helps collegiate teams and pro sports properties better understand their athletes through data in order to personalize player development.
While BreakAway is relatively new in name and as a commercial product (though the company did inherit some Gains Group clients), the processes and concepts behind the platform have “pretty much existed within the Dodgers organization” since president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman joined the club in 2014, said Dave Anderson (chief digital officer, Gains Group). The players play the games, so it would be misleading to suggest performance science is the catalyst for the Dodgers success over the last six seasons. But Brandon McDaniel (director of player performance, Dodgers) said, “It’s undeniable the processes in place have helped players from other organizations [like Justin Turner] come in and vastly improve facets of their game and prospects—or even non-prospects we’ve drafted [guys like Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, Gavin Lux and Will Smith]—turn themselves into big leaguers very quickly.” All five players mentioned were key contributors on the World Series championship team.
Our Take: To be clear, there is a difference between sports technology and sports or performance science. As McDaniel explained, “sports tech is gadgets and wearables,” some of which are useful in gathering objective measurements on athletes. “Sports science is using information to be led in the right direction and ultimately to acquire, assess, develop, perform, plan or prep with a true process [in place],” he said. BreakAway provides the foundation for that process.
BreakAway is not going to turn a team or player lacking talent into a winner. But McDaniel said the platform should allow sports organizations “to make more informed decisions” about player development, which in turn could lead to “potentially much greater success developing athletes than they would have [experienced otherwise].”
The Dodgers hired Gains Group in the fall of 2019 to codify the team’s performance science process. “[The organization] had done a great job of integrating range of motion with biomechanics, on-field assessments and ultimately on-field analytics to create this on and off-field perspective of a player,” said Anderson, whose company was brought in to convert it into an easy-to-use digital platform for player development. Only once the technology was constructed did the club begin to consider its business potential and did Elysian express interest in an investment.
BreakAway seeks to become the go-to outsourced sports science provider for pro sports and collegiate teams without the resources (think: finances, time, technology) to implement their own sports science programs. “Instead of teams hiring people, trying to come up with processes and figure out what technology to integrate, [BreakAway] will handle it all for them,” said Anderson, who suggested there are upwards of 300 sports organizations across the globe that would find value in the platform. While many may have a sports scientist or three on staff, the Gains Group executive said that is simply not enough manpower do performance science right. “The Dodgers have a staff of over 20 people and even they are a little shorthanded,” he noted.
BreakAway is as much software-as-a-service as it is service-as-a-service. The platform ingests all of the necessary sports science data on a given athlete and spits out a coach and player-friendly visualization of the athlete’s strength and weaknesses within four overarching categories; explosion, reach, capacity and balance. The insights gained are derived using data collected from users across the platform. “There is power in being part of the network. In being able to gain context from other [players] and teams,” Anderson explained.
It’s reasonable to wonder why the Dodgers would want to share the keys to their success with the balance of the sports world. McDaniel says he doesn’t look at it as if “we have the answers and now we’re going to put them in a package and share them with our competitors. Elysian invested [in BreakAway] for a couple of different reasons. Number one was the opportunity to be creative and grow our current systems out. We can also create a really cool network and learn things about football, soccer, basketball or hockey –at different levels– that can ultimately affect what we do here,” he said. It should be noted that the terms of Elysian’s investment in the company were not revealed.
Part of the reason teams haven’t invested more money into sports science is it has always had an unclear ROI. But with rising player contracts, huge media deals, and now lost revenues, Anderson says it will be more important than ever for teams to put their best product on the field. “An investment into sports science and injury prevention is less about can you afford to and more about can you afford not to.”