Taking a cue from Major League Baseball (MLB) and its new-fangled technology which measures the speed of a ball leaving the bat, the height it flies and the distance it covers, the NFL is joining the party by bringing more technology into the game to enhance the fan’s enjoyment. Whether gathered around the tube at home or packed into a stadium, spectators can revel in the herculean feats of the combatants. Thanks to radio chips embedded in player’s shoulder pads, onlookers will be treated to graphics displaying how fast the players run, the distance between defenders and other interesting things. So what was once the province and prevue of video games and fantasy leagues will now be available to the casual fan and viewer.
To arrive at this point was a circuitous but purposeful journey for the NFL. It conducted an elimination competition among tech companies to bring its technology up to par with MLB’s insatiable desire for measuring performance. Emerging from the fray was a company called Zebra technologies, which uses radio-frequency technology to help companies monitor their merchandise, fleets of vehicles and other assets. For the NFL, it has customized a thumb-size battery-powered beacon into each shoulder pad of the players.
Concurrently, Zebra installed its receivers and tangential technology into NFL stadiums in the U.S. and Wembley Stadium in London as they will host three NFL games this season, as well as, the venue for the annual Pro Bowl game in Hawaii, Aloha Stadium. The new gizmos will make their debut on websites such as NFL.com also. It is so intricate and sensitive that it will be able to discern information even when players are entangled in the plethora of pileups that occur in the contests using algorithms and geometry. To unobtrusively keep the chips functioning, locker rooms will have hidden recharging stations, assuring undisrupted service.
While Zebra has shown it can properly collect the data, the broadcasters are still learning how best to use it. Fred Gaudelli, the producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” said the data helped the network show how far Jordy Nelson, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver, was from his nearest Chicago Bears defender on two touchdown receptions. In the Super Bowl, the data illustrated that linebacker Jamie Collins was the only New England Patriots player who played every defensive down, he said. With many teams employing a hurry-up offense and thus more action, any new technology will be a plus for spectators, especially the millions watching on TV.
Before long the technological advances will find their way onto the sidelines of both actual games and for practices as it will add more tools for measuring performance by coaches. Of corollary benefit will be the ability to prevent injury by measuring things like differences in running speed or acceleration. Sam Ramsden, a Seattle Seahawks director of player health and performance thinks this is a valuable tool, saying, “I look at it more as segue to have a conversation with the player,” he said. “The data is basically saying, ‘Looks like you weren’t cutting as hard today — is there something going on?’ ” Unlike other sports which may be comprised of no more than ,say, 22-25 players or even less as in basketball, An NFL team may employ more than 50 players in the course of the action.
Ramsden said each position had its own characteristics and each coach had his own techniques, and as more data was collected, he would be able to set benchmarks for how hard to push players in practice without injuring them. But that will take time, partly because only about half of his players volunteer to be tracked. But the trend is obvious and soon such technology will be ubiquitous. With today’s players being bigger and faster, and fan’s appetites to be more involved growing, this is a welcome development for a sport that wants to gain worldwide acceptance.