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RFID delivers new stats for Thursday Night Football

The NFL is embracing RFID to track the movement of players during games, providing powerful new statistics during broadcasts. Most of the new data is used during the NFL’s Thursday Night Football telecasts.

During tonight’s clash between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, the NFL will provide viewers with stats on player acceleration, speed, and distance traveled. The lineups shown during the broadcast also rely on data generated from the RFID tags embedded in the shoulder pads of each player. It is the first time that the NFL can accurately capture real-time player tracking statistics.

Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, is one of 17 NFL stadiums equipped to read the RFID tags embedded in player uniforms.

According to Zebra Technologies, which deployed its MotionWorks solution for the NFL, each player generates about 150,000 data points during a game. About 30 million data points are collected during an entire game. The RFID-based system is deployed at 17 stadiums and relies on 20 RFID readers placed strategically around the stadium.

Once the MotionWorks solution is active at all stadiums, the information collected will be made available to teams, setting the stage not only for battles between quarterbacks, but between data analysts.

“Once everyone has access to the data, you’ll start to see a very compelling change in the game of football,” says Stephen Pearce, VP of Solutions Innovation at Zebra.

“At that point, teams can begin to duke it out in the data analysis space as well as on the field. This will add a whole new dimension to how coaches win games because they will be able to design plays based on the analytics of a specific opponent.”

The NFL has not confirmed when the solution will be rolled out at all stadiums.

“We would like to see that happen by the end of the season,” says Pearce. “Ultimately it is up to the NFL.”

The NFL would not comment on the use of RFID for this article. Several hundred games will be supported by the RFID solution this season.

During the first couple weeks of the season, broadcasters used the data from RFID to show visual game circles under players on the field. They also showed a trail depicting where a player ran. A few weeks ago, broadcasters began to publish information like player speeds.

“People have never seen the speed of players on TV during a game,” says Pearce. “This information is going to change the game of football. Broadcasters have massive amounts of ideas about how to use this.”

In the future, NFL broadcasts are expected to use the data for player comparisons from week to week, showing that a running back, for example, reach a peak speed during a certain week of the season.

Coaches are interested in using the data during practices, when they could track the total distance that a player ran during practice, as well as average speeds, individual breathing patterns and heart rates. Pearce says that players are very interested in the data gathered from the RFID tags they wear.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that the players in general are quite interested in their own data,” says Pearce. “They look at it as an opportunity to improve performance, which is interesting.”

Another future development will include using computers to reveal data about games, practices and individual players. Computer software programs can be taught to understand football by analyzing the motion of the assets, or players, during a game. Eventually, a computer will spit out knowledge like how many times a team used a no-huddle offense, and how effectively a wide receiver ran pass routes.

“It’s going to take a while to get there, but it’s already in progress,” says Pearce. “Eventually you’ll be able to ask the computer how many snaps there were, and how certain players responded to certain situations.

“Computer analysis will allow teams to see if a play was actually run as it was designed, and how consistently players delivered on a specific play. If you have one or two players not running the play consistently, you can engage them about the topic of being in the right place at the right time.”

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