The NFL is set to continue its ever-expanding project of becoming the world’s most digitally proficient sport, with RFID tracking to be extended from measuring player movement in-game to the flight of the ball. The move comes just two years after the NFL announced it would track every single player with RFID chips in an unprecedented collection of physical data. Some dismissed the plan as data collection for data collection’s sake, but it’s become an invaluable facet of game analysis and even training monitoring.
The chips - no larger than a quarter - will be fitted inside the pigskin, and will record metrics like velocity, acceleration and distance. The information could, if the NFL deems it legal, be sent back to field-side computer monitors in under a second for analysis by broadcasters and coaching staff alike. Crucially, the chip doesn’t affect the flight of the ball at all, and the equipped balls have been tested by a number of veteran quarterbacks to ensure the feel is consistent.
For now, though, the chips will only be used in K-balls - the slightly slicker, harder balls used for kicking plays. The use will also be limited to the NFL’s Thursday night regular-season games. Initially, the information collected will be used to assess what affect a slight narrowing of the goalposts would have on the number of field goals scored. Last year, the league moved the kick from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line, which successfully dropped the conversion rate from 99.3% to 94.2% in a year - more could be done, though, to make kicks less of a formality and more of a competitive element of the sport. It’s the collection of this actionable kind of data that will convince even the least progressive of the merits of technology on the sports field.
It seems only a matter of time before the balls are used in all areas of the NFL, a development that will further reinforce the league’s position as the world’s most progressive in regard to the use of data-collection and technology on the field. And, off of the field, the NFL is leaps and bounds ahead of other - particularly European - sports in stadium connectivity and digitization. The San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, for example, has been stacked with the latest in mobile technology to improve the experience of attending the game. In partnership with VenueNext, an app has been in use in the stadium since 2014 that allows fans to order food to their seats, find their way to parking and other areas of the stadium, access the game paper-free, and other in-play content.
The possibilities when the on-field technology inevitably meets with the technology in the seats are mind-blowing. Think real-time replays, complete with statistical analysis of each play, beamed to each and every attendees mobile app. The rise of second-screen viewing in sports broadcasting will make its way into the stadium, as fans expect more information than can be picked up by simply watching each play unfold. The NFL’s commitment to digital progression sends a message to sports like soccer that technology can drive positive change, and not just within areas like training and broadcasting, but in in-stadium experience and in critical analysis of matchday performance. The NFL is by no means reinventing the wheel, but is adopting technology in a way that’s very difficult to discredit - this is the approach that will see proper adoption.