A new set of “Internet of Things” devices come online today: NFL football players.
After a test program last year, all NFL teams are implementing a system of radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors in players’ shoulder pads, as well as 20 radio receivers placed in each stadium. “Those tags tell sensors placed around the stadium where players are 25 times a second—and the positions they record are accurate to under 6 inches,” writes Blair Hanley Frank in PC World.
The teams, which agreed as long ago as 2011 to implement such sensors, tested GPS and infrared technology but chose RFID in part because there are so many players on the field, which can cause problems with signals, writes Tom Pelissero in USA Today. “Camera-based solutions used in basketball and other sports weren’t an option either.”
What’s causing all this interest in NFL sensors and statistics? Blame fans.
“Like Major League Baseball, the NBA and other sports leagues, the NFL is trying to feed the seemingly insatiable desire of hard-core fans for in-depth information about the game,” writes Ken Belson in the New York Times. “The league has long made its statistics available to video game developers, fantasy football league providers and television broadcasters looking for new and more authentic ways to illustrate games.”
The data will be stored in an Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud system and made available to users of the Next Gen Stats portion of the NFL 2015 app for Xbox One and Windows 10.
“Within the app, there’s a feature called Next Gen Stats that turns each player into a digital avatar for a ‘Next Gen Replay,’” writes Tim Moynihan in Wired. “In coordination with a highlight clip posted shortly after it occurs live on the field, Next Gen Replay displays every player’s speed at each moment of a play, lets you toggle between players, and keeps track of the actual yardage a running back has run in a play or in a game.”
The data will also be distributed to the league’s broadcasters as well as to NFL.com. “Professional football is a statistician’s dream, where numbers fuel coaching decisions, bets, fantasy leagues and a deep connection between fans and the game,” writes Mike Schultz for Sports Interaction. “With the newly introduced trackers, the NFL will now begin to collect data at an unprecedented level.”
“At least 20 colleges—including Virginia Tech, UCLA and North Carolina—employ helmet sensors to alert coaches and medical personnel to potentially damaging head trauma,” writes Steve Fainaru for ESPN. “The sensors show where a collision occurred and estimates the amount of force that was generated. The sensors could enable the NFL to answer a number of fundamental questions—how many head hits players absorb, the force of those collisions and where they most frequently occur.”
Critics of the system say they are unconvinced sensors can measure head impact with enough accuracy to provide useful data. There is also concern that the sensors could provide data that could be used to remove players from games or affect contract negotiations, Fainaru writes. “The [football players’] union also wants to ensure sensor data isn’t used in a way that infringes upon players’ medical privacy rights, or creates scenarios whereby careers are arbitrarily cut short by the teams for which they play,” he writes.
“The union wants to ensure sensor data isn’t used in a way that infringes upon players’ medical privacy rights, or creates scenarios whereby careers are arbitrarily cut short by the teams for which they play,” writes the Associated Press. “Players are also wary of how the NFL could use or manipulate sensor data to limit its liability in current or future concussion lawsuits.”
In addition to the privacy aspect as with any big data project, the NFL, as well as broadcasters, is finding that the real challenge is figuring out how to use all the data. “Broadcasters are still learning how best to use it,” Belson writes. “While broadcasters are allowed to use the data only during games, the real opportunity is for it to be used during pregame and halftime shows, when analysts have more time to sift through it to find patterns.” And as with baseball, one can argue that too much of a focus on numbers can take away some of the charm of the game.
Ultimately, the NFL hopes to share its in-game data with coaches, general managers and player personnel. The league’s competition committee is also evaluating the system. For example, coaches could use it to determine whether players are tired or injured, based on how fast they are running, how quickly they are accelerating and so on, Belson writes.
However, there are concerns about releasing too much of the information too fast, Frank writes. “It’s easy to see why: Looking at data gathered from the Super Bowl, it was easy to pick out some players’ tendencies in a way that could give teams an advantage against their opponents,” he writes. “Opening that up willy-nilly could have serious consequences for the state of American football.”
In the future, the system could be added to college football as well, Frank adds.
The issue of sensors to help prevent another “Deflategate,” however, is still being worked on.
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