By Barry Janoff
September 24, 2013: John Brenkus is an artist whose canvas is Sport Science, an innovative program that has led to a culture-change in the way athletes and their accomplishments are defined and measured.
Sport Science combines science, technology and the traditional blood, sweat and tears of athletes to dissect plays, crunch numbers and better understand how and why players can do what they do now and how the future of sports and its participants might evolve.
Sport Science initially aired on Fox Sports Network in 2007. It was acquired by ESPN in 2010 and has since had segments featured during Monday Night Football, College Game Day and SportsCenter, as well as stand-alones. The show has won numerous Sports Emmys.
Included among the more than 700 Sport Science segments: Breaking down the extreme endurance it took Diana Nyad to swim 100 miles from Havana to Key West earlier this month, how Shaun White reaches record big air heights on his snowboard, the velocity and force behind MMA's Anthony Pettis' kicks, analyzing the skills of WNBA players Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins, dissecting Dwight Howard's claim to be Superman and an in-depth breakdown of what happens when MLB catchers such as Buster Posey are involved in collisions at home plate.
Sport Science traces its roots back more than 20 years when Brenkus and his business partner and brother-in-law, Mickey Stern, formed BASE (Brenkus and Stern Entertainment) Productions, with the intent of producing movies and TV shows. In 2003, they produced XMA: Xtreme Martial Arts, hosted by Brenkus on the Discovery Channel, which studied how martial arts athletes moved and performed.
In 2006, that morphed into Fight Science: Calculating the Ultimate Warrior on the National Geographic channel. It featured such segments as having the "world's top martial artists kick the crap out of crash-test dummies or swipe a ballistic gel torso in half with a samurai sword," said Brenkus. "It really raised the bar for scientific tests on athletes."
Fox Entertainment Group, which owns National Geographic, asked BASE to continue with the concept's evolution. And Sport Science was born.
Earlier this year, Brenkus and crew oversaw for ESPN, The Greatest Athlete of All Time, which studied 16 legendary players, such as Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Wayne Gretzky, Tony Hawk, Pele, Michael Phelps and Muhammad Ali. Ultimately, Bo Jackson beat out Jim Brown for the crown.
Brenkus' The Perfection Point: Sport Science Predicts the Fastest Man, the Highest Jump, and the Limits of Athletic Performance (Harper, 2010) was on The New York Times best-seller list. In addition, Brenkus and his analytics have appeared in a Coors Light spot with Ice Cube ("Is he colder than a Coors Light can?") and Nerf N-Strike ("The darts can shoot up to eight times faster than a cobra strike").
A current Gillette campaign, "Precision Play" with such NFL players as Clay Matthews and Victor Cruz, compares the Fusion Pro Glide razor to precision on the gridiron. A Facebook element has Brenkus breaking down an NFL play every week and then asking people to answer a trivia question, which comes with the opportunity to win a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. (Details here.)
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Brenkus about the sport of numbers and the art of analyzing athletes.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Have you found a particular demo enjoys your insights more than others?
John Brenkus: I hear that a lot of fathers and sons who watch sports really enjoy what we're doing. I like to joke with people that the number of men who like Sport Science is so high. But when you go over to the women's side, I'm almost anonymous. It's definitely a male-appealing thing.
NYSJ: Do you remember the first player or play you analyzed?
JB: The very first Sport Science we did was with a street-baller from New York named Chris 'Skywalker' Lowery. We measured his vertical leap at 50" where the average vertical leap of players in the NBA is 28". (Editor's note: LeBron James' vertical leap has been measured in the low 40s.) We had him jump over a car to dunk a basketball. This wasn't like Blake Griffin during the 2011 NBA All-Star Game Slam Dunk contest, where he jumped over the hood of a Kia. We had Skywalker run down the middle of the basketball lane and jump over the middle of a convertible. I remember thinking, What happens if he doesn't clear the car? But he did it. So we started off with a bang.
NYSJ: Is Sport Science a perfect storm for you, where the technology is available or coming available, the athletes are getting stronger or more physically able to do more things and people want to understand is happening on the playing field?
JB: Yes. People always want to know how fast athletes can run or how high they can go to dunk a basketball. We were the first to test athletes this way and measure, gauge and compile information that could then be translated back to the playing field. The science and technology has evolved to the point where we can do it in a controlled setting at a very high level.
"There is no reason why you can't put a sensor in a football, for a example, so that the spot of the football is being determined by an electronic grid on the field."
NYSJ: Is part of the challenge to stay ahead of the technology and use the most advanced information available to keep pushing the limit of what you are doing?
JB: Certainly. We are fortunate in that every piece of technology makes it way to us very rapidly. If a product is being developed or about to hit the market, they want us to put it through its paces. We use a lot of technology that wasn't necessarily designed for sports-related use. But we can take that technology and alter it for use in a sports setting and really make it work. What we've found is that a lot of the principles are the same, but that applications, programs and technology is getting better, faster, more integrated. We envision a day very soon where technology will dramatically impact sports, even more so than has been happening. There is no reason why you can't put a sensor in a football, for a example, so that the spot of the football is being determined by an electronic grid on the field.
NYSJ: The NFL has been running a Web series, NFL 2020, looking at the league seven years ahead. Do you get requests from leagues, teams, players, others to take the information and use the technology you have to predict what sports and athletes would look like in five, ten, 20 or more years?
JB: We have been studying the limits of human performance, which I wrote about in my book, The Perfection Point. People like to think that we are always going to get bigger, stronger, faster. But that can't be true. There is a limit. We'll never run the 100-meter dash in one second. But there is a time between 9.85 (the current world record held by Usain Bolt) and one second that we will reach when humans can't run any faster. We've calculated the ideal body type, the mechanics, the power-to-weight ratio to determine what the limit might be. In doing that, we stumbled on different sports where we as humans aren't even close to the perfection point.
NYSJ: Have athletes already reached their limits in some sports?
JB: Some of these sports are too new and we don't have a big enough sample size. But there are sports that we've been doing for so long that that we are getting really close to the limit. You will see different types of athletes in basketball or football, where bigger, stronger, faster is not better. The top five NFL running backs of all time by yards gained, for example, none of them were the fastest in their class. None of them were the biggest. Emmitt Smith was not overly big and not super-fast. But he had a perfect combination of speed, strength, quickness and agility. Speed in football can be a detriment. If you are too fast, you can't stop and change direction, which is a much-more important skill set to have on a short field.
NYSJ: Which sport or group of athletes are your favorite to work with in that they offer the most to analyze?
JB: People want to know which sport has the best athletes. For me, it depends on how you define athlete. Football offers the most variety. A left tackle is a very different athlete from the quarterback. But they're both athletes. But in a traditional sense, when you think of being athletic and having coordination, power and skill sets, people would think Michael Jordan. I would say that the NBA has the highest percentage of what the general public would associate with traditionally amazing athletes. The demands of basketball are pretty intense and every player on every roster has to meet those demands. Soccer is also amazing. Football is amazing.
NYSJ: Any athlete in particular you enjoyed working with more than others?
JB: We've done more than 700 Sport Science segments and worked with hundreds of the world's greatest athletes. Which is the best part of what I do. But I look at [Arizona Cardinals wide receiver] Larry Fitzgerald. His positive energy translates to him being a better athlete. He is a great guy, honest, sincere and focused, all of which help him in his athletic endeavors. He's the real deal. Again, he's not the biggest, strongest or fastest receiver ever. But the has a perfect combination of strength, power and speed.
NYSJ: Have you ever crunched your numbers and said, That can't be, and had to go back and recheck everything?
JB: We have gotten better at analyzing numbers and realizing that certain things are humanly possible. It is something that can happen. What we do encounter is people telling us, 'My buddy ran a 4.4 40-yard dash.' And I'm thinking, There are only a handful of guys in the world who can run a 4.4 40, and I'm pretty sure your buddy is not one of them. [Laughs.] We know what is humanly possible. Someone saying they have a 40" vertical leap. I point out to them that in the NBA, the average vertical leap is 28". In all or our research, we've had fewer than ten guys with a 40" vertical leap, so it's pretty hard to jump that high.
"We'll never run the 100-meter dash in one second. But there is a time between 9.85 and one second that we will reach when humans can't run any faster."
NYSJ: ESPN did The Greatest Athlete of All Time. How interesting was that?
JB: It was very interesting. We used a very complicated metric where we worked with more than 30 different categories to rate every players. And we compared players not only to others all-time in their own sport, we also ranked them compared to the competition during their time. So it took us about a year to compile all the data, research and analysis to wind up with an answer. And we concluded that Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete of all time. People argued that Jackson's career wasn't long enough. But he played eight years in MLB, which is not a short career. Jim Brown (who was the second greatest athlete of all time) played ten seasons in the NFL. Bo Jackson ranked the lowest in our 'durability' category, but he was so superior in so many other categories that he was able to make up for that.
NYSJ: The NFL has been putting a lot of time, energy and finances into looking at concussions, head traumas and related medical issues. Have you been able to use Sport Science to examine how players move on the field, the way players tackle and are tackled and how football might change in the near and long-term?
JB: We've been looking at the concussion debate for the last seven years. The information is out there. Everyone is on the right track in terms of trying to reduce the number of concussions in football. But the reality is, the physics are what the physics are. There are a tremendous amount of numbers we are dealing with on the field.
NYSJ: Any conclusions?
JB: Even with the rule changes, you are going to see a tremendous number of concussions just by the mere fact that these are big men wearing helmets running really fast into each other with a ton of force. It's gonna happen. We've looked at all the different gear, the rule changes, the way athletes are built. The bodies are so big and moving so fast . . . you are going to hit your head. There are so many plays, even where players are being fined, that are not intentional. I can't imagine that a player wants to induce a concussion to himself or someone else. That helmet-to-helmet contact happens. It just simply happens. The NFL will have to realize that it's very difficult to legislate.
NYSJ: You have seen, measured, analyzed and dissected a lot of plays and players. Is there something that stands out for you as being the most surprising fact you've uncovered?
JB: This is a crazy stat having to do with baseball. There is an argument about how tight you have to grip the handle of a bat when you hit a baseball. Is it a tight grip? Is it a loose grip? The answer we've found is, that at the point of contact you actually don't have to be holding the bat at all. We did a whole study, looked at 10,000 frames of pictures of guys hitting, video analysis of players hitting and looking at the ball leaving the bat. We found that by the time the vibrations from the ball hitting the bat reach your hands, the ball has already left the bat. The bat actually bends backward, but the ball is already gone. So by the time the player feels the ball hitting the bat, it has already left. It's a fascinating thing to think that holding the bat is irrelevant at the point of contact.
NYSJ: You're working with Gillette now, so are you a customer and not just an endorser?
JB: [Laughs.] I analysed it. I am a Gillette man. I am a clean-shaven guy.