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September 9, 2015

In-Game Tracking is Latest NFL Dataset

As the National Football League gears up for its 96th season, it is following in the footsteps of other major sports leagues by embracing emerging data technologies to provide on-field player tracking.

The NFL’s take on big data involves converting high-speed data on each player’s position on the field and converting it into real-time statistics. Those stats are increasingly being used by entrants in football fantasy leagues which themselves are becoming an industry segment (ads for fantasy football and other leagues seemingly appear non-stop on sports cable networks).

To meet the growing demand for real-time professional football stats, the league signed a deal last year with Zebra Technologies to develop a real-time player-tracking system. The Zebra system installed in most NFL stadium uses radio-frequency technology originally designed to track inventory and other assets. Zebra outfitted players’ shoulder pads with battery-powered beacons that emit 12 signals per second to receivers arrayed around stadiums.

The data is relayed to servers where coordinates for each player are mapped and passed along to broadcasters. At the same time, Zebra catalogues each play of every game.

Zebra said the RFID tags worn by each player could track and deliver game stats like the distance between a receiver and a defensive back to within six inches. The company’s algorithm also is used to aggregate player stats and display them in real-time. Those stats can be integrated into broadcast and replay graphics, to immerse fans in more stats and even be used as a coaching tool by visualizing player data for coaches.

The company said it wrung out its MotionWorks system capturing and archiving on-field statistics during three University of Washington football games in 2013. The system captured the location, motion and state of each UW player into what the company calls a “visible value chain” intended as a way to enhance player performance.

The NFL plans to expand the system beyond training to deliver more in-game stats to fans, especially fantasy football enthusiasts. “It’s a new way to quantify and analyze the game, and we think it can really revolutionize the NFL ecosystem,” Vishal Shah, the league’s vice president of media strategy and business development, told the New York Times. “You’re going to see pretty in-depth uses. Who’s on the field and what are the matchups?”

Not everyone in sold on the value of tracking data. It captures useful data like how fast players are running and accelerating—the all-important “closing speed” required of NFL defenders—and may provide clues as to when players need a breather. One trial user told the Times the data tracking technology had some nice features but was not a “game changer.”

Proponents nevertheless insist the RF technology and the tracking data it generates represent what one distributor of Zebra’s tracking data called “a whole new set of data” for figuring out what’s happening on the gridiron.

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