Beginning with the NFL's regular season, players will be equipped with tracking technology in their shoulder pads measuring how fast, far and what routes they run – in real time.
How far did that player actually run to gain 4 yards? How fast? When, exactly, did he start running out of steam?
This NFL regular season, players will be equipped with tracking technology in their shoulder pads that will tell broadcasters and fans, in real time, the answers to those questions and more.
The small radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips designed by Lincolnshire-based Zebra Technologies are part of a hypersensitive location tracking system that will send data to receivers to be installed at 17 NFL stadiums, including at Soldier Field in August.
Those stadiums chosen host 15 Thursday night games, plus non-Thursday games at Detroit and New Orleans, and will include games involving every team.
The sensor chips, about the size of a quarter in diameter and about two quarters thick, run on small, watch-type batteries that last about a year. They're also washable and sturdy enough to incur hard hits.
“You can track exactly how they run the entire game,” Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson said. “You can see how far they run, you can see how quickly they run in the first quarter versus the fourth quarter. You can see three times out of four they will break left versus right.”
All NFL players will be equipped with the chips.
The Bears' first game with the technology will be the regular season opener Sept. 7 at home against the Buffalo Bills.
Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager of Zebra's location solutions team, which developed the chips, likens the technology to Wi-Fi.
“Just like your Wi-Fi system at home, your laptop communicates to your Wi-Fi access point and then you get on to the Internet,” Stelfox said. “It's exactly the same … (but) at a different frequency.”
During the past year, Zebra conducted a pilot program with the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions.
The NFL chose to go with RFID over global positioning because RFID is accurate up to 6 inches, while GPS is only accurate to the meter, Zebra officials said. Though the technology isn't accurate enough to attach to a football, Zebra intends to get to that point.
NFL coaches won't have access to the real-time data this year because the technology won't be available in all NFL stadiums, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said. Once the playing field is level, all teams will have access.
Broadcasters will have instant access to this information at their workstations, which they can use as they call the game.
Viewers who like to play coach from their living room will be able to tell not only that a player gained 4 rushing yards, but that he covered 10 yards total along the way. They'll also be able to see more complex information, such as how quickly and how far linemen were able to push back a defensive player to make a hole for a running back.
Zebra uses this technology with a few cars in NASCAR, Stelfox said, and has for several years worked with a women's soccer team in China and a hockey team in Russia.
“It's been tested for a long time,” Stelfox said.
Zebra also uses similar technology to track the locations of nurses and U.S. soldiers. It has 10 years of experience developing RFID, with more than 1million tags globally. Ford and General Motors use the technology to track inventories.
The company, which recently purchased the enterprise unit of Motorola Solutions, anticipates growth among sports analytics. Next year, Zebra plans a Bluetooth technology that measures players' heart rates, lung capacities and body temperatures in NFL practices.
McCarthy said the league has been looking into these technologies for some time. As early as 2011, the league included language in its collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association that says the NFL can require players to wear “nonobtrusive tracking devices for purposes of collecting information regarding the performance of NFL games.”
“This goes back to something NFL Commissioner (Roger) Goodell has stressed during his tenure here, which is to embrace technology, use it to make the technology better for the players, the coaches, and at home for the fans,” McCarthy said.
NFL officials will also wear trackers. McCarthy said the data can be used as a “teaching tool.”
He said the “next-generation stats” will also affect how players' abilities are measured.
Team stadiums equipped with the technology will include:
- Atlanta Falcons
- Baltimore Ravens
- Carolina Panthers
- Chicago Bears
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Denver Broncos
- Green Bay Packers
- Houston Texans
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Miami Dolphins
- New England Patriots
- Oakland Raiders
- San Francisco 49ers
- St. Louis Rams
- Washington Redskins
- Detroit Lions
- New Orleans Saints