NFL goes RFID crazy with Zebra Technologies

Anyone who's been to the US at any point will know just how big American Football is out there. The NFL continually dominates the sports headlines and generates a huge amount of revenue, estimated to be around $10 billion (£6.2 billion) each year.

To keep spectators interested, the viewer experience has to be continually improved and one of the ways that this is being achieved is through statistics. Fans don't want to just know what happened anymore, they want to know how and why it happened, meaning stats are playing an ever-increasing role.

One company working to facilitate this is Location Solutions, a "discrete group" within Illinois-based tracking and monitoring firm Zebra Technologies. Although traditionally involved in the automotive industry tracking cars and parts, Zebra is now branching out by "applying that same business intelligence to new industries such as sports" and has installed its MotionWorks system in 17 venues so far.

The sports solution Zebra is providing involves tracking all the players' movements during NFL games using active Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. Each player has 2 tags, one in each shoulder pad, which are installed before the season and stay in all year.

The tags are extremely small, have a range of 600 feet, are accurate to plus or minus six inches and have a hugely impressive battery life. According to Mike King, vertical market director for sports, they "run for over a year when they're on," meaning battery life is not an issue over a six-month season.

There are a host of reportable events that can be collected, including average speed, max speed, distance travelled and calories burned. 20 Sensors placed around the ground pinpoint the tags location 25 times per second, providing information on each player's position on the pitch and the distances between players.

In fact, one of the only statistics that isn't recorded is the impact between players, as "the NFl does not want you to know how hard people get hit." Then there is also the ball. Currently, the players, referees and flags are all tracked, whereas the ball is not.

Zebra is currently working with the ball manufacturers to get a customised transmitter fitted for next season, which would add an extra dimension to the data and would significantly enhance the package Zebra is offering.

Although the data collected – 160,000 reports per tag for 48 players per game – is currently being used by the NFL to enhance the viewer experience through what is being branded as "Next-Generation Statistics," it potentially has much greater implications for the coaches and players themselves.

It will enable player performance to be analysed like never before. Having two tags on each player not only solves any redundancy issues, but also provides information on orientation (the direction the player is facing), which is much more relevant to the coach than the spectator.

There is also the possibility for physiological data to be collected, although the current tags would have to be adapted for this to be possible. They will have to wait until next year though as, in the name of fairness, none of the data will be made available to coaches until the system is installed in all 31 stadiums, which is expected to be completed for the 2015/16 season.

Zebra signed a five-year official partnership agreement with the NFL in July of this year and is also looking to expand into other sports and locations, with Wembley Stadium being one such example.

American Football is growing rapidly this side of the pond, as illustrated by the 83,000 fans that attended the most recent fixture between the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, so it would make sense for Wembley to be the first port of call in the UK.

There is no doubt that this kind of technology will become a growing part of professional sport in the future and with systems like Zebra's MotionWorks in place, it could revolutionise both the viewer and the coaching experience.