The NFL will track players with RFID for better stats in real time

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The National Football League is getting into the internet of things by placing RFID chips inside players’ shoulder pads so coaches and fans can get real-time stats while the game is in play. The NFL joins other sports including soccer and basketball in attempting to get better data quickly via technology.

The NFL will use Zebra Technologies’ real-time location system in 17 stadiums during the 2014 season. The tech will track position, speed, and distance, sending it first to RFID receivers around the arena and then to a database where the NFL is envisioning new uses for the data. Zebra, which is better known for building asset-tracking tech for Fortune 500 companies, will install the receivers in the 15 stadiums that host Thursday Night Football games (Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, New England, Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington) as well as in Detroit and New Orleans. The data will be captured from all 32 teams and presumably will be shared among them.

Using RFID is a bit different from how other real-time player tracking has been done for soccer and basketball. Those two sports are relying on cameras to track players and then calculating the stats based on algorithms developed for the visual tracking each sport. In the case of soccer, humans help the cameras out, logging data the cameras may not see. As for the NBA, a pilot project that began in four stadiums during the 2009-201 season is now up to 10 stadiums, and this article documents how the new stats are changing the game.

I also did a podcast with someone from SAP where we discussed the technical challenges of bringing in this data and what it might mean for sports. So, as the worlds of sports stats and real-time tracking collide, I’m curious how the gameplay itself will change. Maybe there won’t be a Hail Mary pass anymore because coaches and players will have a clear sense of the statistical futility of the effort against the potential for injury. Maybe that final lob of the ball toward the basket in the NBA will get more accurate as players set themselves up for success based on a lifetime of statistics.

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