Aug 31 2018

NFL Technology Preview: How The Game Is Evolving

IT innovations drive improvements both on the field and across the fanbase.

When the NFL 2018 season kicks off Sept. 6, football will return to its unique place in the sports landscape, with its breakneck speed, herculean strength, smashing impact and amazing skill. Alongside these traits, technology plays an increasing role in the game and the experience fans have in watching it.

Numerous technologies have a major effect on how athletes perform, how teams entertain fans and even how games are broadcast. Here are three ways in which technology will improve the NFL in the upcoming season.

The Power of Data on the Field

NFL teams are digging deep into the data to improve the performance of players, coaches and front office personnel.

Player performance has been a key focus of the data analytics movement throughout the league. In recent years, teams have been using RFID sensors from Zebra Technologies in players’ shoulder pads to measure and track data about player movements and impact. The sensors can compile information on how fast players run, cut and accelerate, as well as how hard they hit. Analysis of this data can help determine who’s playing well, who is struggling through fatigue and who may need to come off the field to prevent injury. The league also uses data from player performance to post advanced statistics for fans during game broadcasts.

Teams throughout the league also use Microsoft Surface tablets to help coaches and players analyze what happens on the field and plan strategies around their analysis. The NFL also has a mobile app called the Sideline Viewing System that it uses to help coaches review plays and make annotations to they can adjust play-calling and instruction that players receive during games.

In the front office, player personnel officials use data to assess the performance of players on a team’s roster or those who may be considered for the team. Teams are using data to assist in scouting to help evaluate incoming college prospects, appraise their own players and target free agents.

“I think what this can do is confirm what you saw on film,” one NFC general manager reportedly told USA Today. “But this technology can tell you: That guy is that fastest, or he’s the one who can create the most separation, or what have you. You can even glean data based on trends from the surfaces and conditions of each stadium.

NFL Brings IT to the Fans

Every NFL team is focused on giving its fans the best possible experience. Technology plays a key role in optimizing the experience fans have, whether they’re at the stadium, at home or anywhere else.

In-stadium wireless networks have been a staple in recent years, providing connectivity to fans and team personnel. Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers, has been considered one of the most technologically advanced stadiums in the NFL. The stadium features 400 miles of fiber optic cable and 1,300 Wi-Fi access points to enable such fan-friendly functions as helping fans order food from their seats or monitor how long lines are for restrooms.

Many teams have also deployed their own mobile applications to bolster their relationships with fans. In addition to features such as ticket purchasing and concession sales, these apps help deliver content directly from teams to fans. For example, the Miami Dolphins use their mobile app and IBMCloud and to give fans instant access to scores, stats and updates on their mobile devices.

Advanced displays in stadiums provide for an even better fan experience. Teams use video displays ranging in size from modest to massive for functions such as advertising, wayfinding, digital signage, replays and highlights. For example, in U.S. Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Vikings placed huge video boards (one 68 feet high by 120 feet wide and the other 51 feet high by 88 feet wide) in opposite end zones. The team placed the displays as low as possible to deliver a better experience for the fans.

“By having them where they're located, it's like the replays and all the live pictures that you have, it really makes the fans feel like they're in the middle of the action,” Bryan Harper, the Vikings’ vice president of content and production, told AVIXA. “We invested in the video board and the highest pixel quality that we could get, and we invested on the camera side of things to provide that experience.”

Tech Offers a Fair Game for Officials

NFL referees have an incredibly difficult job, so the league is employing a number of technology solutions to help them. The league has made frequent use of different technologies to help make sure referees get their calls right, perhaps most notably in the deployment of Microsoft Surface tablets for instant replay review. Viewing replays on the tablets, referees are able to see multiple angles and zoom in on specific areas to make sure the right call is made.

Officials also get an assist from the Art McNally Game Day Central room, located at the NFL headquarters in New York. The facility, named in honor of the league’s former director of officiating connects dozens of monitors to every NFL stadium in the country. Officials in the headquarters are able to watch every play from numerous angles to help officials on the field.

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