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NFL must expand use of RFID to track game balls

The NFL used RFID technology to track the in-game movement of more than 2,000 NFL players last season, producing more than 68 billion bytes of data about player positioning on the field. RFID tags embedded in the shoulder pads of all players were pinged 15 times every second.

The use of the technology in 17 stadiums was deemed a success and will be expanded next year. Now that the NFL has concluded its Deflategate investigation, it’s crucial that the NFL embed RFID tags into its game footballs as well.

Footballs like these produced by Big Game USA carry NFC tags and are in use at Texas A&M, Navy, Nebraska and Mississippi State. Is the NFL next?

“Ultimately, the NFL’s goal is to tag footballs,” said Chris Schaefer, senior director of global market development for Zebra, during last month’s RFID Live conference. The NFL chose Zebra’s MotionWorks platform to be deployed at its stadiums.

While the NFL’s Wells Report provided no solid proof that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played a role in deflating balls prior to his team’s 45-7 victory over Indianapolis in the AFC championship game, it is clear that it is possible to doctor game balls because the NFL has no system in place to track them before a game.

While RFID and sensor technology could do all sorts of cool things like record changes in ball pressure and how fast a ball is thrown, it can also be used for asset tracking and confirming that footballs are where they are supposed to be pre-game.

The NFL and Zebra embedded RFD tags into the balls used during the recent Pro Bowl on a trial basis. “From a technology standpoint it worked well,” said Schaefer. “It tracked the ball well and from a player standpoint, they couldn’t tell a tagged ball from a non-tagged ball.”

There is no word yet if the league will turn to RFID to monitor the location of footballs next season. However, like all users of RFID, the NFL will realize more ways to utilize the technology as its deployment expands.

“The benefits are huge for the NFL and as we continue to deploy into new stadiums we’ll find new benefits as we continue to analyze the data,” said Schaefer.

For now, the NFL’s primary use for RFID is enhanced viewer experience, real-time optimization of coaching strategies, improved training plans and increasing consumer engagement.

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