August 1, 2014
Sensors will let viewers know more than ever
How quickly did the receiver accelerate? What was his top-end speed? How far did he run, and how much separation did he really get against the defensive back?
Clearer answers than ever are coming to your TV screen this fall, and it's only the beginning of the NFL's foray into player tracking and advanced statistics that could change the way fans—and teams—look at what happens on the field.
Every player will wear two tiny sensors in his shoulder pads this season in the first live phase of a project the league hopes will enhance the in-stadium experience as well, with further media expansion and integration with teams' existing training technology likely down the line.
"It's going to touch areas of our league and give us a deeper understanding of our game that we never really had access to before," Vishal Shah, the NFL's vice president of domestic media and business development, told USA TODAY Sports.
The NFL partnered with Zebra Technologies, which is applying the same radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology it has used the last 15 years to monitor everything from supplies on automotive assembly lines to dairy cows' milk production.
Work is underway to install receivers in 17 NFL stadiums, each connected with cables to a hub and server that logs players' locations in real time. In less than a second, the server can spit out data that can be enhanced graphically for TV broadcasts with the press of a button.
If a player finds another gear in the fourth quarter of an important game, the sensors will pick it up. And if he's running out of gas, the sensors will reveal that, too.
"For those of us that are coaches from our couches, we're like, 'Oh, come on! That guy was open!' Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't," said Jill Stelfox, general manager of Zebra's location solutions division, which produces its MotionWorks software.
"If we know closing distance of a defender and an offensive guy, you can really know whether that hit would be made or whether he really could've made that play."
TV networks have experimented in recent years with route maps and other visual enhancements of players' movements. But the sensors and all of the data they produce could be the most significant innovation since the yellow first-down line.
The data also will go to the NFL "cloud," where it can be turned around in seconds for in-stadium use and, eventually, a variety of apps and other visual and second-screen experiences. Producing a set of proprietary statistics on players and teams is another goal, Shah said.
NFL teams—many already using GPS technology to track players' movements, workload and efficiency in practice—won't have access to the in-game information in 2014 because of competitive considerations while the league measures the sustainability and integrity of the data.
"But as you imagine, longer term, that is the vision," Shah said. "Ultimately, we're going to have a whole bunch of location-based data that's coming out of live-game environment, and we want teams to be able to marry that up to what they're doing in practice facilities themselves."
Zebra's sensors are oblong, less than the circumference of a quarter and installed under the top cup of the shoulder pad, Stelfox said. They blink with a signal 25 times a second and run on a watch battery. The San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions and their opponents wore them for each of the two teams' home games last season as part of a trial run.
About 20 receivers will be placed around the bands between the upper and lower decks of the 17 stadiums that were selected for use this year. They will provide a cross-section of environments and make sure the technology is operational across competitive settings before full deployment.
All 15 teams that host Thursday night football games are on the list, along with the Lions and New Orleans Saints.
"That'll be cool to know how fast people accelerate, how far they've gone on each route," Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd said. "We don't really think about it, but to get everyone's thoughts on it, everyone outside of football, it's pretty interesting."
The innovation was accounted for in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which reads in Article 51, Section 13(c): "The NFL may require all NFL players to wear during games and practices equipment that contains sensors or other non-obtrusive tracking devices for purposes of collecting information regarding the performance of NFL games, including players' performances and movements, as well as medical and other player safety-related data."
Shah said the league tested GPS and infrared technology over the last two years as well but chose RFID in part because there are so many players on the field, which can cause problems with signals. Camera-based solutions used in basketball and other sports weren't an option either.
Sensors also will be attached to officials and yardage sticks. The technology isn't accurate enough yet to put a sensor in the ball and, say, tell whether it crossed the goal line. But it is accurate within less than 6 inches, Stelfox said.
Zebra already is developing a device for the 2015 season that includes Bluetooth technology to measure players' heart rate, lung capacity and temperature as well—another step toward producing data that are not only entertaining but also useful to teams and players.
"It takes time and history with these kind of systems to really get the full flavor of what's possible," Stelfox said. "There's even more we can't think of that's possible."
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