On Thursday nights this NFL season, you might hear Jim Nantz laud a receiver’s blistering 21 mile-per-hour run up the sideline. You might hear Phil Simms criticize the defense’s .3-second delay off the line as the reason for an exceptional running game. You might find out the exact distance of a Peyton Manning scramble.
NFL broadcasts have gone into the locker room, onto the sideline, and into the stands, scraping for every bit of information that will bring the viewer closer to a live experience. The next logical step then, is to go inside the player.
For the 2014 season, 17 stadiums have been rigged with RFID sensors, which will sync up with two quarter-sized chips lodged in players' shoulder pads. The technology will provide real-time speed, distance, and direction info to coaches and the broadcasting booth.
Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer, told the Boston Globe that the sensors, produced by Zebra Technologies, are primarily for the fan experience. “We’re thinking about how your broadcast could be enhanced with information about the mobility of players,” she said in a Globe article. “We’ve got to work through all the specifics of what we show to whom, and when. What’s the right level of data? But it’s definitely an exciting time.”
While the entertainment value of real-time player tracking is obvious – from illuminating the true speed of the next D-lineman’s fat guy touchdown, to Tom Brady’s sideline pacing habits – professional and collegiate teams are using similar technology in practice for real performance gains.
On practice fields for at least half of NFL squads and several leading college programs, coaches keep one eye on a screen while player’s condition and run through drills. Using technology called Catapult, which uses accelerometers strapped to players’ backs to provide more detailed information than the forthcoming in-game version, coaches can monitor speed, effort, agility, and heart-rate amongst numerous other data points.
Florida State University, one of the first to implement the sensors, sees the info as valuable for injury prevention and recovery, according to a feature in the September issue of Men’s Fitness:
"Developed by an Australian sports science company, Catapult, the sensor tracks more than 100 metrics, including distance, speed, acceleration, deceleration, and heart rate. It also monitors change in direction using 3-D accelerometers, 3-D magnetometers (essentially digital compasses), 3-D gyroscopes, a GNSS antenna for GPS, and a processor with a memory unit. As it collects data, the sensor transmits numbers wirelessly to the coaches’ sideline command center. There the computers use algorithms that factor in the players’ vitals and other biographical info, then elegantly format the information into readable—and actionable—graphs and charts.”
FSU uses the info to tweak conditioning programs for different positions, and to punish players lagging in practice.
Men’s Fitness’ NFL Fit series has also found Catapult used as a key metric during NFL practices, particularly for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were the first customers in the league. “We GPS our guys to measure sprints, accelerations and decelerations, and total distance covered,” said Tom Myslinski, the Jags’ strength and conditioning coach. “Then we design their training program based on that data.”
For fans, the futuristic chips mean flashier graphics and juicer color commentary. For players, they mean smarter practices and fewer injuries. Or a pissed off coach who knows they’re dogging – now with data to prove it.