The National Football League (NFL) announced in-game player tracking technology today for 17 stadiums for the 2014 season. And, while limited to a little more than half the buildings in the league, the NFL is doing things differently than other leagues.
RFID tracking chips will be placed on every player at some point this season—two of them—to allow the NFL to measure something the NBA and NASCAR don't: player orientation. Is this a way to improve the fan experience, or is it just creating data for data's sake?
The league calls this initiative "Next Generation Statistics," and they plan to pipe the insights primarily into stadiums hosting NFL's Thursday Night Football on the league's own television network, the NFL Network.
"From those 17 stadiums, specifically," explains Vishal Shah, NFL vice president of media strategy, "we'll be capturing position- and location-based data. Really, the focus and the genesis of this project was the ability to capture proprietary new statistics in real time. Then secondarily, create fan experiences which have applications. Probably the most visual one is within the broadcast itself."
The tech driving the analytical push—MotionWorks—is the same technology installed this year for NASCAR's Michael Waltrip Racing practices, but it's actually not new. MotionWorks is a legacy business initially developed for industrial manufacturing. Zebra, the maker of MotionWorks, developed the technology to measure distance within motion-based systems and improve safety and efficiency on factory floors about 10 years ago. Their technology was deployed all over the globe even before they began selling to pro sports leagues.
At launch, MotionWorks will be used to augment television broadcasts and provide fans with statistics previously unavailable even to teams and coaches. Missed blocks and turnovers (like butt-fumbles) will not simply be understood "missed assignments," but be broken down by way of spatially oriented statistics that show fans who screwed up and where.
And so will their coaches.
Zebra's real-time location system (RTLS) receives transmission from two RFID chips from each player—one in each shoulder pad—and will provide precise positioning data, as well as velocity, acceleration, distance run, and impact measurements in real time—while the game is still in play. The data itself is put together in a database and can be output into a variety of graphics and tables depending on use case.
So how does MotionWorks know the difference between subjects?
"We’ve got a component-sized event module where you just change the rules of the game," says Jill Stelfox, vice president & general manager, location solutions at Zebra Technologies. "There’s rules for football. There’s rules for pit crews in NASCAR. There’s rules for soccer. There’s rules for hockey. You just change the rules. The data collection mechanics are the same. The broadcast integration is the same."
So, by introducing velocity to the equation, Zebra hopes to usher in a whole new era of analytics to America's favorite game.
MotionWorks can discern every player from the others—even in a scrum—and provide data quickly enough that the graphics can be layed on top of the broadcast within the same two-second delay employed since Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl.
"The clever part about that by the way is it’s pretty hard to pull off from a movement happening on the field to being able to do an enhancement on a video live," says Stelfox. "All of that mechanics happen in less than seconds, right? There’s a one or two-second delay to the total game itself and we’ve got to fit in to all of that including the producer being able to understand or not understand but choose what to look at. It all happens very, very quickly, which is pretty cool."
Like other leagues, the NFL is tracking people. But why not track the ball?
"The ball has its own set of unique characteristics that we look to go ahead and solve for from a tracking [perspective]," explains Shah, which means the technology—at this point—is strictly of entertainment value for fans, and of supplemental use for coaches and players until these new metrics are defined."
In the future, the stats that fans obsess over could be metrics that didn't even exist before RFID tracking.
The NFL spent the last several years parsing through the available technologies—Bluetooth, GPS, infrared—before settling on MotionWorks.
"A lot of these statistics may have been available on a post-production basis for a very huge set of players," explains Shah, "but given some of the challenges that the NFL has around its sport when it comes to these types of technologies including the number of people on the field, occlusion, and people being on top of one another, the real technological sort of challenge was finding the right technology [for our game]."
By teaming with Zebra, the NFL thinks it has the best chance of capturing XYZ positional data of the players officials on X-Y-Z axes. Statistics like speed, total distance run, acceleration, and distance between players were soon to follow.
"It's these statistics that we think from X, Y, and Z, you could create a lot of derived statistics," Shah predicts. "I think we have a fairly good understanding what fans want. We see some of the statistics being visualized on-screen, but really, we're going to be able to just create a much deeper, broader, set of statistics from the XYZ and positional data itself."
The league is uncertain at this time as to what MotionWorks might someday supplement, but the possibilities are self-evident. With measurements accurate to the millimeter, MotionWorks might someday augment officiating by way of ball position, line judgement, and maybe even really friggin' high field goals.
"We're leaving that medical data under the purview of the experts," says Shah. "That's not under the purview of this particular project, but we'll certainly look at and consult with all the club officials and medical professionals around what is the right approach with data capture in the first place."