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Tech company Sparta Science combats NFL injuries with machine learning

One of Sparta Science’s test include a jumping exercise which allows the company to identify soft tissue problems usually blamed for hamstring injures in sports.

Source: Spart Science

In a data-driven world, technology companies are playing a vital role for the National Football League especially at the Scouting Combine.

One of those companies, Sparta Science, will finish its fourth year collecting data from players for the medical assessment segment of testing at the NFL’s top pre-draft event in Indianapolis.

The company, founded by Dr. Phil Wagner, uses equipment and software to test a player’s movement, which assists in identifying areas of muscle overload. But most importantly, the data also has the capability of predicting future injury risks.

“It speaks the new era we’re in right now,” Wagner told CNBC in an interview. “You get a granular device and then leverage artificial intelligence – machine learning – to store and make sense of as much as you can stuff in the cloud.”

Wagner, who developed Sparta’s software in 2015 after graduating from the University of Southern California’s medical school, said the software helps the NFL even more today as player positions are more “specialized.” He added there was no better sporting event than the NFL Combine to “better showcase for a vital sign of movement.”

“Movement is the most important thing we do because it either causes every [injury] we have, whether it’s a hamstring or ACL or even diabetes, or it’s a result of things you have,” Wagner said. “Any time you have good data and more of it, you’re able to start identifying where the [injury] trends are.”

Before their on-field drills, players go through functional movement screening with Sparta, which takes about 90 seconds, according to Wagner. Participants will do three exercises on a force plate, and the data is then stored in Sparta’s cloud.

The tests include:

  • Balance, where players are blindfolded, stand on one foot (20 seconds per side), and Sparta collects data that helps identify foot and knee issues.
  • The plank segment of testing requires players to hold two positions where info is stored that focuses on preventing and identifying lower back and groin problems.
  • Wagner said players also jump four to six times, and it’s measured on the force plate to determine “soft tissue injuries, hamstring being the most common.” Teams are made aware of force production during each phase of a jump, along with the injury predictions as compared to the broader Sparta data set of over 1,000,000 scans.

The information is then stored and made available for every NFL team to assist in draft decisions.

One of Sparta Science’s test include a jumping exercise which allows the company to identify soft tissue problems usually blamed for hamstring injures in sports.

Source: Spart Science

“There are two ways to look at an at-risk player from a GM’s standpoint or front office,” Wagner said. “You can say, ‘That guy is a risk. We need [that position] now, so we can’t take him.’ Another angle is, this player is at risk; I know we can make him better, so we’ll be patient.”

Wagner said the real value for players is when universities partner with Sparta outside of the Combine. For instance, Sparta is used by top universities like Auburn and Clemson, so athletes entering the pros could have data from college to help understand how their body has developed over the years playing sports.

Wagner said the force-plate is usually provided free when teams agree to the cloud service, which runs roughly $10,000 to $100,000 per year depending on the cloud space needed. NFL teams usually pay top price for the software, as do Major League Baseball leagues which have bigger roster sizes than teams in the National Basketball Association.

Investing in the future

Currently, Sparta has partnerships in place with teams including the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Colorado Rockies and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

Wagner said Sparta raised $7 million in a Series A funding round in 2018 through a venture fund established by California-based Playground Global. The company also has investors, including San Antonio Spurs CEO R.C. Buford and longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern, who died in January.

Entering its third season using Sparta, Garrett Giemont, the Steelers conditioning coordinator, called the company’s software “valuable” as it can guide athletes with customized workout plans for rehabilitation post-injury, too.

Giemont said he attempts to test players using Sparta once a week during the season if time permits, adding the jump test stands out most about the software. He prefers the jump test when using Sparta but understanding not all players excel in that testing stage, Giemont also makes uses of the plank and balance test.

“With the other testing protocols,,” he said, “it gives you a simple [health] check even on heavily used athletes.”

Sparta doesn’t have a long-term contract with NFL Combine, as the company operates on a year-to-year deal with the league. But the expectation is it will return to the event next February, as the demand for data will only intensify.

“Each year, it becomes more valuable because you have more [data],” Wagner said. “And therefore, the predictions are more accurate and more precise.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated which year the Series A funding round was held and how many seasons the Steelers’ have used Sparta.