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High Tech America: The Incredible Precision of the NFL

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Whilst the European soccer fans spent years debating whether to introduce technology to their game that would settle definitely whether a goal had been scored, America and its National Football League have never shied away from embracing technology to enhance their national game. And that first sentence is no exaggeration either – “goal-line technology”, as it was known, was FIFA’s arch-nemesis for years, with endless debates over why having a lineman monitoring the goal line was somehow superior to a camera that could be played back by referees, rendering controversial decisions obsolete.

Of course, you don’t need a camera to confirm whether a player has just scored a touchdown, or even whether a field goal made it in between the bars – no, the NFL’s obsession with technology relates to big data, statistics, and allows coaches and managers to make the perfect decision at the perfect time to give their team the greatest chance of success on the field. 

The upcoming Super Bowl will feature more on-field technology than ever before, and there’s an extra secret going on here too – bookmakers such as those deciding the sports betting odds in Arizona are also taking advantage of these technologies to optimize the prices they offer both for the full game and in-play opportunities.

RFID Tracking

American Football is all about making the greatest possible advancement towards your opponents end of the field. Outmanoeuvring the opposing team, making tight passes and running like you are being chased by a shark on land and the tools of the trade here, and America’s obsession with naming the player of the year, the “GOAT” and so-forth, relies on knowing just how impressive each play really is.

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In 2014, a perfect storm of technologies came together to enhance both the players’ knowledge of their skills, allowing them to improve at a faster rate, as well as offering a multitude of new information to the coaching staff as well. How was this done? First, a system of wearable RFID tags was developed by Zebra Technologies, allowing the distance between each player to be identified with incredible accuracy. It’s not just the players either – the ball, officials, pylons, sticks and chains all feature these tags as well. Around 30 ultra-wideband receivers are tracking a total of 250 tags during every second of every game

Want to know which player had the fastest acceleration down the field during the first down? No problem. Interested if your players chose to make the best passing choices by comparing their decisions to artificial intelligence produced data-sets? No problem. Everything is logged, charted, and analysed ten times per second, requiring a team of three skilled operators to ensure everything is working correctly and that they can provide coaches with the data they need to make the right decisions for the next play.

Bring on the Data!

The benefits of the RFID technology were so great that the NFL decided to add more trackers, more technology, and a whole lot more data to their statistical inventory. Regular GPS technology was tied together with a Local Positioning System(LPS) developed by Catapult Technology, so when you see those field views on TV showing the position of each player, it’s not an estimation. What you are seeing is exact, perfect data, created and modelled in real-time by a combination of cutting edge technologies.

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The LPS technology has been a real game-changer for the NFL, especially for after-game decision making and analysis. Each player wears a specially designed vest under their jersey and shoulder pads, with the ability to track more than 1,000 individual data points per second to within an accuracy of as little as one inch. These real-time metrics include distance and training load, player heart rates, acceleration and deceleration G-forces, inertial measurements, and collision force. Many of these numbers are not just useful – they offer players huge health benefits as well, by allowing teams to place maximum limits on how far they can safely push their players out on the field. 

View the Game Like Never Before

Say you are an NFL referee out on the field, but find yourself too far away from the action at a crucial moment after a player has made a sudden break from the pack and shifted 40 yards up the field in a matter of seconds. What do you do when asked to decide on something that happened so far away? 

You defer the decision to the control room, who can use the hundreds of cameras and the data collected by the RFID, GPS, and LPS technologies to recreate every aspect of the game in a virtual environment which you can view by simply popping on a headset, allowing you to move around the field quicker than “Bullet” Bob Hayes.

This technology is slowly being rolled out by broadcasters too, allowing viewers to take advantage of this technology to watch their favorite game like never before. Augmented reality effects such as adding data-driven 3D graphics as an overlay on top of the field make it easier for players to understand the decisions being made, highlight plays, and much more. 

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The NFL OnePass app is still in development, but already always fans to view additional information about the game simply by pointing their phone at the TV. American’s love football and they love technology. In the future, expect to be able to visit games virtually, and see the action exactly as you would if you were seated in the stands. The AT&T Stadium – home of the Dallas Cowboys – is already experimenting with this technology in combination with Samsung, and it’s well worth a look even if you are not a fan of the Cowboys. 

The future of the NFL has never been so exciting.

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