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LaMichael James in the pod at GSSI

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Report From Super Bowl XLVI: Inside The Gatorade Sports Science Institute

Fast Company’s Jason Feifer, in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, gets an inside look at sports beverage brand Gatorade’s on-site athletic testing facility. On the Friday before the game, Feifer spoke with the company’s president and CMO, Sarah Robb O’Hagan, about the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and winning from within.

INDIANAPOLIS: LaMichael James is stripping down to his skivvies, preparing to enter a person-sized dome called the BodPod at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. “It looks like something out of Mork & Mindy, doesn’t it?” says an assistant, who’s helping James prepare.

James, an Oregon Ducks running back looking to enter the NFL in this year’s draft, gives a guilty smile. “I don’t know what that is,” he says.

Doesn’t matter. Forget it, LaMichael. Mork is from another time, one when sitcoms required laugh tracks and Gatorade was just a beverage company. But over the past few years, it has been transforming itself--no longer just about quenching thirst, or the ceaseless quest for electrolyte replenishment. It is now, as Gatorade president and CMO Sarah Robb O’Hagan says, “a sports performance company,” zeroing in on its most active consumers and making new products to feed their ambitions. Which is why the centerpiece of its Super Bowl spectacle in Indianapolis is this gleaming, white-floored scientific facility, full of fitness test equipment that turns athletic prowess into crunchable data--is and currently used like theater in front of a live audience, that is, whoever happens to wander by on the third floor of the JW Marriott on this Friday afternoon of Super Bowl weekend.

That means LaMichael James has stripped down to his skivvies as about 50 random people watch from behind a glass wall. He goes on to take a blood test, then hits a treadmill while wearing a freaky gas mask-looking thing, and continues apace for 90 minutes. Other NFL hopefuls came before him; Gatorade’s been doing this all day. A staff scientist narrates the action to the crowd, explaining how each test will help Gatorade formulate a plan for James, a nutrition and fitness path that should lead him to success at the upcoming NFL Combine.

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute (or GSSI, as everyone from the brand calls it) is a key part of Gatorade’s new narrative. Average consumers can get their hands on the company’s new lines of targeted foods--protein shakes, energy gels--but a science institute speaks to the core of the brand’s message: Athletics are scientific, and we have the scientists. The Institute has actually been around for years, operating in suburban Chicago and running tests on Gatorade-sponsored athletes, and has even been set up at past Super Bowls for athletes to use behind the scenes.

But now, the GSSI is transforming--no longer just a single facility with a Super Bowl spinoff, but a chain of elite testing facilities around the globe, available to as many active athletes as they can manage. About six months ago, the first GSSI branch opened at the pro-athlete factory IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Super Bowl XLVI is the first time the Institute has been on display for the public. More will come soon.

As Robb O’Hagan sits in the Super Bowl GSSI’s VIP room, she can watch the crowd across the facility--a random bunch of sports fans, some with well-fed guts. I ask her what she hopes they’re getting out of this.

“Well, they’re not really our core consumer, but that’s okay,” she says with a laugh. “If we picture them all as high school football players, we want them to take away that athletic performance is driven from the inside out. It’s as simple as that. Nutrition plays a part in their athletic performance. These guys don’t just run onto the field and miraculously perform at that level. It takes a lot more behind the scenes, putting the right things in your body.”

But that answer is missing the word “Gatorade,” I tell her. Don’t you want Gatorade to own that space?

“Absolutely,” she says. “We actually really believe, first and foremost, we’ve got to promote the understanding of the category,” she says. “It’s like a cultural shift of what drives athletic performance, and because we at the brand are bringing it to you, we by definition believe we should get the credit that comes with it.”

Gatorade didn’t begin that cultural shift--trainers have long been applying science to athletics--but it’s certainly well positioned to accelerate and profit off it. That’s likely to drive some trainers nuts. “It’s a real pain in the ass, I’ll be honest with you,” says Jason Ferruggia, strength coach at Renegade Strength and Conditioning. He’s been a trainer since 1994, and back then, he says, it was easier to work with athletes: They came in and trusted what he said. Now, though, there’s an expectation that athletes require constant, elaborate testing--some of which he believes in, but some of which he doesn’t. Still, parents bring him their high schoolers, and demand that he train them in overly complex ways. “In a way I almost have to, because it’s so ingrained in people’s minds,” he says. “You have to put some of this stuff in there, to make them think you’re doing something more cutting edge--but really you’re just trying to appease them mentally.”

But Robb O’Hagan is only excited about where this renewed embrace of science will bring Gatorade. As GSSI tests different kinds of athletes, she expects to collect data that can be used to develop new products and boost physical performance in different ways.

We look out at the GSSI in front of us. James is on a stationary bike, doing a difficult resistance test. It’s exhausting just watching. “We’ve had a few pukers,” she says.

If James turns around and pukes right now, I ask, will that be good or bad for the brand?

“Guess it depends on what comes out!” she says. And then, because the joke is just too tempting, she paraphrases the company’s new tagline: “You win from within.”

Follow Jason Feifer on Twitter @heyfeifer and Fast Company @fastcompany.

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