Sporting goods go digital in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Matous Golf vest with a built-in sensor that captures the wearer’s golf swing motions is seen in use in Miyakojima Ward, Osaka.

OSAKA — Sporting goods are increasingly high-tech. Sportswear with built-in sensors can capture data on the wearer’s golf swing motions, while tiny sensors aboard flying baseballs can count how many times the ball rotates in each pitch. The captured data are instantly available on a tablet display.

Such information-age gear delights users who want to improve their sports skills effectively.

As digital transformation sweeps the sporting goods industry as a key to better training and instruction, makers aim to use it to cultivate a post-Olympics market.

Detailed data

Osaka-based textile manufacturer Teijin Frontier Co. released in January a golf vest called Matous Golf. Sensors built into the back and waist of the vest measure the degree of body twist in each swing and a dedicated app replicates the motion using an on-screen avatar. Users can compare their posture and technique with an ideal version and even get professional advice online. Teijin spent about three years on development before commercializing this product.

“The technology has enabled us to give detailed instructions, down to the centimeter,” said teaching pro Takao Kamei, 57, of the Professional Golfers’ Association of Japan. “You can check your swing at home. This vest has infinite possibilities.”

At present, Matous Golf is only available for rental at ¥33,000 a month (including tax), but the company will start selling it this year, hoping for ¥3 billion in sales by 2025. Teijin hopes to develop the technology for baseball, ballet and other activities eventually.

Osaka-based SSK Corp. began selling a hard baseball with a built-in sensor in 2017 and a sensor-equipped soft baseball in 2019, both available for ¥30,250 (tax included) each. The ball can measure the speed, the number of rotations and the extent of curve of each pitch, making it easy to do analysis that would otherwise require a precision camera.

Higashiharima High School in Hyogo Prefecture, a participant in this spring’s National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament, has been using the high-tech balls for several years.

“Such data as the number of rotations has clarified the tasks for players,” manager Junichi Fukumura said. “It became easy to track players’ improvements.”

A similar hard baseball that can analyze pitching data has been available from Osaka-based Mizuno Corp. for ¥32,780 (tax included) since 2018.

Sense of crisis

The development of such high-tech goods was driven by makers’ sense of crisis over the nation’s chronically low birthrate, which can cause a decline in the demand for sporting goods.

“In the existing market alone, we’ll end up vying for a shrinking pie,” a Mizuno spokesperson said. “We need a market for our industry to grow, and making use of digital technology is a key to survival.”

There’s another factor encouraging makers to pursue digital transformation. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated changes in work styles, creating a situation in which sports instructors have tended to reduce the hours of training they give face to face. Makers forecast future demand in products that effectively support individual training.

But, there are challenges. Sporting goods makers have few connections with the digital industry. They are used to developing products on their own, such as by focusing more on new materials and fabrics or improving design aspects such as the shapes of shoe parts, and therefore have “little experience with [tech] business negotiations,” an employee of one sporting goods maker said.

Mizuno’s development of digital balls started by chance. In 2015, a Mizuno employee in charge of product development encountered a prototype exhibited by a sensor maker at a trade fair in Tokyo. Back then, even expensive image analyzers couldn’t accurately capture more than 16 ball rotations per second. But the prototype sensor could measure 50 rotations. Astonished by the accuracy, the employee proposed that the sensor maker work together with Mizuno.

Kansai boasts tech

The Kansai region is home not only to major electronics manufacturers but also small and midsize companies with superb technologies as well as research institutes. Mizuno says the development of more impact-resistant sensors would enable the collection of data from batted balls in baseball and returned balls in tennis.

“Digital technology advances so rapidly that new products can be released one after another once it is adopted. It’ll bring many benefits,” Osaka Seikei University Prof. Shinji Ueda, who specializes in sports economics, said. “It’ll be such a waste if this fusion does not progress in Kansai. Occasions such as cross-industry meetings should be utilized effectively.”

The central government expects the sporting goods market to expand rapidly if digital integration advances. An estimate made by a government expert panel in 2016 showed the market for professional and casual athletes is expected to grow from ¥1.7 trillion in 2012 to ¥3.9 trillion in 2025.

Hiroshima-based Molten Corp. will adopt the digital technology it has cultivated in auto parts and medical equipment production to sporting goods at its new development base, which will start operations next autumn. The company is also a well-known maker of basketballs.

“We want to make sports more enjoyable and increase its fan base,” a Molten spokesperson said. “Many sporting goods are still not tech-savvy, and that’s why there is a potential for it to become a big market.”