Data Powering The NFL

Football is ready for data and RFID may have passed it to them


Public perception of the NFL is generally that of a well numerated, professional and modern sport (despite some controversy off the field). However, they are currently playing catch up to many other sports in the world regarding their uses of new technology, especially data.

We have previously written about their new approach to online models to help increase their digital offerings, but now they are looking to data to create new subscription models and to help their fans to engage with the sport in ways that they previously struggled with.

This is coming from the use of RFID technology in player’s pads and sensors around the stadiums. This technology has allowed teams to collect significant amounts of data on players, from the amount of ground they cover in match, their routes and even the speed that they are covering the ground. This data is stored in servers in the stadium and will then be used by the team, fans and the league for a variety of uses.

The primary objective is to increase the engagement of fans with their teams.

The technology is provided by Zebra, who have previously created RFID chips for companies to help track their inventory in real-time. This is essentially the same concept, tracking where any one of the chips is then assigning this chip to a player, allowing the sensors placed around the stadium to locate them during play. This technology does not currently allow for actual real-time measurement of speed as people are running, but given that speed = distance/time it is very simple to work out, even if this is an educated estimation.

Michael King, Zebra’s director of sports products believes that ‘The best fans are the most engaged fans’ and ‘They will pay for subscription plans to get this data’. Which is a key reason behind collecting this data, essentially the more fans care about the data and the people associated with it, the more likely they are to pay to get more.

2015/2016 is the first season that this technology is going to be rolled out across every stadium in the NFL, but it has previously been used in the Pro Bowl last year, where the ball had a chip embedded in it to allow fans to track where it was, how fast it was going and which direction it was moving. However, given the controversy around ball regulation following the Patriots’ Deflategate last season, this is not being implemented quite yet.

17 of the 31 teams had this technology last year though and there was a concern that this move would allow them to take advantage of the real-time data better, given their extra maturity having used the technology for longer. To combat this the NFL have initially banned use of the data during the game, which levels out the playing field to some extent.

Having seen sports like baseball become so data driven, with a fanbase that demands significant amounts of game information, the NFL want to do something similar with their own model. It is not going to be as easy as simply collecting the information though, it will require changing a culture that has consistently relied on opinion and perception in the past.

Equally, although this new data collection technique will create significant amounts of data, establishing a relatable dataset will become difficult compared to baseball. This is because whereas baseball relies on fairly static and limited variations, football has a far more dynamic model, meaning that establishing patterns is going to be harder, especially for wannabe amateur sports statisticians.

So will this work? We have seen from sports like rugby and football, who already use similar technologies, that they can have significant positive impacts on the sport, so with the resources and following behind the NFL, there is every chance that this could change the game forever. 

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