Gridiron Tech Tags Players, Delving Deeper Into The Game's Data

Something new is coming to the NFL this year: high-tech tracking devices on players. In some stadiums, they'll give teams and TV audiences real-time readouts of player movements. They'll also give coaches tons of data to fine-tune their game plans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A new season and new technology - the NFL opens tonight with a game between Green Bay and Seattle. The League and a Silicon Valley company have teamed up to give information-hungry fans and coaches a whole new raft of data. Players will be wearing sensors that track their movement and speed. The hope, as we hear from NPR's Tom Goldman, is to provide a deeper understanding of the game.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Yes, the NFL is America's most popular televised sport, but the league didn't hire guys like Vishal Shah to sit around and be satisfied.

VISHAL SHAH: The presentation of the game, the availability of statistics that we collected - it's been relatively static for the last decade.

GOLDMAN: Shah is the NFL's VP of Digital Media.

SHAH: Even in the presentation there hasn't been any substantial enhancement since the first and ten yellow line introduced into the broadcast.

GOLDMAN: The itch to innovate beyond that superimposed yellow line you see on TV games lead Shah and the NFL to Zebra Technologies in San Jose, California. Zebra's Jill Stelfox says before her company got down to business developing the new NFL player tracking system, it had to change the Zebra mindset.

JILL STELFOX: We deal with Fortune 500 customers.

GOLDMAN: And hospitals.

STELFOX: Helping them make life-and-death decisions. The military.

GOLDMAN: Delta Force and Navy SEALS use Zebra tracking devices in training.

STELFOX: And so it's really serious.

GOLDMAN: Not in the Zebra conference room however, where the company embraced its new NFL clients up by slapping on the walls several Fatheads - those life-sized player cut-outs. So under the watchful gaze of star quarterback Eli Manning and others, Stelfox picks up and describes a quarter-sized sensor, or tag. Two of these will be attached to every NFL player's shoulder pads this season.

STELFOX: There's some circuitry inside here, a computer board and there's a battery. And these tags can blink 25 times a second.

GOLDMAN: Sending tiny radiofrequency transmissions to receivers planted around stadiums. We're taking a shortcut here, but these rapid transmissions ultimately turn into squiggly lines trailing players on a video screen, like the ones on Mike King's computer at the Zebra offices. King is in charge of the entire NFL deployment this season. He's demonstrating player tracking during a kickoff in an NFL game. King shows how a coach would use the technology as a training tool, noting how the line behind one player shows the player ran backwards.

MIKE KING: He's taking a really inefficient route. So if he had just run across the front, he would actually now be further up so he could act as a better blocker.

GOLDMAN: The sensors also relay real-time data on speed and acceleration.

KING: If they think a player is slower than normal, if they want to point out an opposing player who may be faster than they would appear, there'll be data right there that they can display on the screen that says exactly what that is. They'll be able to say you may think he's slow, but look at this acceleration.

GOLDMAN: Ultimately, the plan is to make the information available to fans as well. Those who go to games will get a more comprehensive package of data than those who watch on TV. It's the NFL's way to get fans off the couch and into a stadium seat. And the next-generation stats could be a treasure trove for info-obsessed fantasy football players. But even in football, can there be TMI? Could the glut of information be used the wrong way? George Atallah is an executive with the players union.

GEORGE ATALLAH: Absolutely, we always have that concern.

GOLDMAN: Concern that the data will be used selectively when judging a player's value or revealing an injury.

ATALLAH: Medical information being released into the public that we don't necessarily want out there. And frankly some of the teams, just on the performance side, might use some of this technology against players in contracts.

GOLDMAN: Atallah says that the union will monitor the new technology, which, he adds, has a ton of benefits. The NFL will roll out the player tracking throughout the season, gathering the data internally and showcasing some of it on football broadcasts. It's not expected to be fully accessible to the public or to coaches and teams until next season at the earliest. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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