Stories from the Edge | NFL Bets Big on RFID, IoT as Player Statistics Become a Strategic Imperative On and Off the Field

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton explains how locationing technologies have given his team the valuable insights they’ve needed to capture their performance edge over the last few seasons.

The New Orleans Saints practicing
by John Pollard
August 07, 2019

The statistics and analytics revolution in football is upon us. While there are numerous opinions as to what that means in terms of impact on the game, value to the fans and as a resource to the teams themselves, there is one thing that is clear: today’s players are interested in their stats, as well as their competitors. That is because statistics inform strategy and provide a measurement of performance, as New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton explains in this new Stories from the Edge video about the NFL’s Next Gen Stats technology strategy…

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Whether related to speed, distance, proximity to other players and the ball during any given play or other sport-specific metrics, stats help individuals gauge personal performance – and teams innately evaluate their collective performance every day of the season. Interestingly, as teams collect more and more data for each player and the team over the course of a season – as well as over numerous seasons – the statistics and analysis derived from the collected data become a benchmark resource to allow for refined measurement and development. They also become a uniquely-valuable prescriptive resource, helping athletes and coaches develop more effective player evaluations, development, and game planning strategies.

Within the game of football, it is now generally accepted by teams across the NFL and within major college football programs that traditional analysis methods may not be as efficient and that many performance measurement “technologies” are not sport specific. For example, the optical technologies used to track players and the ball in the games of baseball, soccer and basketball are not designed to track the unique activity and movement that we see in a sport such as American football where 22 players are moving in different directions and at different speeds all at once.

Additionally, speed is only one key performance indicator in a sport such as football, and it’s not always the most important depending on the player’s role. Many times, it’s just as critical to understand the movement patterns of an individual or team within a given game situation – something that is usually done via countless hours of video review, which requires a great deal of human resources. Plus, the human eye can only see so much, no matter how many times you watch a single play. The only way to really understand what’s happening from a player’s point of view is to capture a practice or competition from his or her own unique vantage point.

That is why professional leagues, teams and athletes in particular are turning to more advanced technologies such as RFID, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) to help them analyze both their own and their opponents’ performances, with the National Football League (NFL) currently being the biggest adopter of these solutions.

An up-close look at the RFID sensors embedded in NFL players' helmets and footballs

Nickel-Sized Sensors Deliver the Stats to Enhance Teams’ Strategies

As you saw in the video, the quantitative and qualitative analysis tools available to NFL athletes and coaches today are a far cry from the “film reels” and stacks of scorecards that have traditionally been aggregated and mined using time-consuming methods. It’s all thanks to the hard work done by the NFL and Zebra over the last five years to get the Next Gen Stats program up and running.

As I explained in a blog earlier this year, nickel-sized sensors embedded on player uniforms and in footballs as part of the Zebra MotionWorks™ Sport system transmit real-time location data to RFID receivers positioned around every NFL stadium. Metrics such as player speed, distance traveled, orientation and proximity, and acceleration/deceleration are captured, analyzed and shared by the NFL with teams, officials and even fans. The same technology used in factories, warehouses and retail stores to track and trace the movements of people, materials and inventory is now empowering the NFL to implement a best-in-class player and ball tracking system that is helping teams capture their edge. Coach Payton’s comments in the video are a testament to the power of this technology.

An up-close look at the nickel-sized RFID sensor

That is why, as the NFL’s Official On-Field Player Tracking Provider, we will be working with the league closely over next three seasons to continue expanding the Next Gen Stats program. 

During the 2019-2020 season, Zebra will tag 2,880 NFL players plus all the officials during the pre-season with the RFID sensors. We’ll also tag nearly 1,700 players during the regular season in addition to a total of 20,000 footballs, enabling the collection of real-time location, speed and rotation data for the footballs.

A look at the type of info teams and players can see using NFL Next Gen Stats

As of today, about a third of all NFL teams are using Zebra MotionWorks™ Sport technology to make decisions about play-calling and design, as well as player development and evaluation during their practice sessions throughout the season. The data generated by this player and ball-tracking system helps trainers more thoroughly review player readiness and strengths in off-the-field analysis sessions, which they can then share with position coaches prior to practice, optimizing the time spent with the players in preparation for gameplay. The ability to drill down in this capacity is just as valuable as game day insights, which is why we will work to deploy our practice tracking solution to even more NFL clubs as the season progresses.

Did you know?

As a global leader in location solutions, Zebra provides tracking technology for enterprises of all sizes in healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and transportation and logistics to deliver a performance edge to the front line of business. As our CEO Anders Gustafsson mentioned in a recent interview with Barron’s, our work with the NFL “illustrates what we are doing – leveraging data at the edge.”

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We want to know...what do you think about the NFL Next Gen Stats? Tell us in the Comments section below.

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John Pollard
John Pollard is the Vice President of Business Development for Zebra Sports and recognized as a visionary and thought-leader in sports statistics, analysis and technology.












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