Innovation and Sports: An Uneasy Relationship


Most everything about sports has evolved. Coaching is different. Equipment is different. Training is different. Problems arise if the pace of change is too fast and innovations begin to look like cheating.

What do you suppose the opponent thought the first time a player showed up wearing glasses?


Golf struggles with clubs and balls that are so helpful they render traditional courses obsolete, but the game might be too difficult and it is losing popularity. How much easier should the gear make it? Would a sand wedge with a face like a cheese grater help duffers to spin the ball better?

Tennis is another game that has proven too difficult for a significant number of weekend players who would otherwise pay court fees, buy clothes and take lessons. That is bad for those for whom the tennis business is their livelihood.

Computing and big data don’t make it any easier to decide how far is too far.

According to Stuart Miller in “Turning Tennis Rackets into Data Centers,” there is a wave of advanced technology in tennis rackets including hyper customization and tiny sensors that help the player to analyze his technique.

In an example of hair splitting, the International Tennis Federation will permit data gathering rackets so long as the data is not studied during a match. Perhaps there is a limited television market for watching nerds hunched over computer screens and signaling to the player on court?

But it is not all in the racket. Footwork counts too. According to Fo Tien, one of a small number of testers who have been issued new rackets by Babolat, “someone should invent a sneaker with an electronic impulse center that gives you shocks to keep you on your toes and moving your feet.”

That is actually very low tech and hardly an innovation. At least 60 years ago, my father suggested taping thumbtacks to the insoles of sneakers for just this purpose.

Pointy end up.

The uneasy relationship between innovation and sports might result from some ideas being too good, but it is also caused by some being too bad.




  • John Patton

    I think this question gets at the core of why we play sports and what we want sports to be in our lives. My favorite sport happens to be court tennis where there are extremely thoughtful stewards, coaches and players that have considered the impact of innovation and other changes. The biggest changes in the sport have been in the style of play whereas the equipment has barely changed since the 1500s. Why not take this approach to more sports? Is it because these other sports are too large to monitor or regulate?