After closing out 2020 with a funding round of US$100 million, including investment from some of sport’s biggest stars, Whoop has continued its momentum into the new year courtesy of a multi-year, fitness-focused partnership with golf’s PGA Tour.
The deal builds on a relationship first established between the pair last summer, highlighted by a moment that arguably proved the ultimate validation of Whoop’s wrist-worn fitness trackers.
At the RBC Heritage in June, Boston-based Whoop helped prevent a serious Covid-19 outbreak when golfer Nick Watney, checking his device, spotted that his respiratory rate had increased significantly overnight. What followed was a rapid test, Watney’s withdrawal from the tournament, and a potential disaster averted.
The incident was effectively the acid test for nine-year-old Whoop, which was valued at US$1.2 billion after its October financing round, proving its mission statement to improve health and optimise performance. It also provided a welcome dose of good PR for a firm that already counts the National Football League’s (NFL) Patrick Mahomes and Eli Manning, National Basketball Association (NBA) ace Kevin Durant and golfers Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas among its financial backers.
“I think the best partnerships develop organically,” Will Ahmed (right), founder and chief executive of Whoop, tells SportsPro. “Our relationship with the PGA Tour players dates back three years when they first started using the product. We just saw it grow organically on tour and then Covid hit and the PGA Tour was one of the first sports organisations to come back in the US.
“We really only look to partner with organisations and athletes where they organically and authentically like wearing the product. If we didn't do a deal with the PGA Tour, a lot of players would still be wearing Whoop.”
Having distributed more than 1,000 of its straps to players, caddies and other essential personnel on the PGA Tour, discussions between Whoop and the tour began over how to broaden their collaboration. For Ahmed, two areas in particular proved appealing.
“The first was player health and performance,” he continues. “Making sure that PGA Tour players were given the best access to health data, to understand their bodies. The PGA Tour identified Whoop has the best products for that.
“The second was to enhance the fan experience using physiological data, which is where Whoop Live comes in to show heart rate data, and over time other physiological metrics, on top of video assets and potentially in real time during broadcasts.”
Whoop’s device led to Nick Watney getting a Covid-19 test, preventing a serious outbreak
Nearly four years ago, Whoop made sports industry headlines when it signed a partnership with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), which included giving athletes ownership of their data and the option to commercialise it. Now, Whoop’s designation as the official fitness wearable of the PGA Tour offers it global exposure across some of golf’s biggest events. The temptation, perhaps, would be to present itself as having the best product made for the best athletes. Instead, Whoop wants to use its presence at tournaments to enrich the experience for fans as well as players, highlighting that fitness is for everyone and providing data-rich viewing.
Part of that will be monitoring and displaying golfers’ heart rates during key moments throughout the season, from crucial putts to mammoth drives, with real-time metrics integrated into video content. Players who feature on Whoop Live will even secure a US$10,000 donation to a charity of their choice.
But Whoop’s custom content created alongside the PGA Tour will not only enrich the viewing experience. Ahmed hopes it will also inspire people to get active.
“I joke sometimes, if you're watching a sports broadcast today, what's the difference between that versus 25 years ago?” he says. “A lot of it just comes down to better cameras. Sure, they do a lot of work for you but not that much has changed in that broadcast experience. That's where Whoop feels we can play a role as well, by enhancing what it means to be a professional athlete competing at the highest level.
“Whoop Live is a phenomenon we've talked about for eight years, since the founding of the company: the idea that you could bring physiological data to video and to replay and to broadcast to enhance the experience.”
With investors such as IVP, SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and Accomplice, to name but a few, Whoop is not actively looking for capital at present, though Ahmed refuses to rule anything out in future. Nevertheless, he says the company has a clear, proven offering to ensure it can stand out in a crowded fitness tracker market replete with formidable competitors like Apple and Google-owned Fitbit.
“I think the most important thing is the product experience and Whoop is really the only product on the market that can change your behaviour and improve your health,” he explains. “That's a really hard value proposition. First of all, you have to have someone wear the technology 24/7, which if you've seen for other products has been a challenge. People take products off because they don't have a long enough battery life or they're not providing valuable enough data.
“Just getting people to wear something on their bodies 24/7 is enormously hard. But the layer beyond that, which is really the gold standard, is can the product change behaviour? Can it actually improve health?
“We've been able to show that if you're a Whoop member, and you’ve been on Whoop for 12 months, you have a lower resting heart rate, you have a higher heart rate variability, you're sleeping more consistently, and you're getting a higher quality of sleep. That's a very powerful physiological change that's taking place, it's a very positive one.”
NFL star Patrick Mahomes is one of Whoop’s high-profile athlete investors
With a string of top athletes putting their money behind Whoop, expansion into other sports is something the company is “definitely” looking at, says Ahmed. In addition to the PGA Tour, the firm’s round-the-clock physical data collection, training and recovery information, as well as personalised coaching, has been utilised by the likes of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
And while sports stars may not be the soul priority for Whoop, their endorsement undoubtedly creates a ripple effect that will aid the business’ wider goals in golf and beyond.
“What's exciting about Whoop is that our origins are in sports; we started working with the best athletes in the world from day one. Two of our first hundred users were people like LeBron James and Michael Phelps,” notes Ahmed.
“As a result, if you meet a professional athlete who's wearing a wearable, chances are that it's Whoop. We've really cornered that area of the market and I think what's so powerful about sport, and professional athletes for that matter, is their ability to communicate to society at large around health and fitness.
“It makes for very good ambassadors and storytellers on what it takes to train optimally and live healthy. We’re excited to tell that story.
“If you're motivated or aspirational and you've got something that you want to improve in your life, Whoop is a very good tool to help you with that. While we do have all these amazing professional athletes wearing Whoop, the majority of people who wear Whoop are everyday, recreational enthusiasts who are looking to improve themselves.”