The NFL is upping its game when it comes to advanced stats by rolling out new tracking tools that can record where players are, where they’re headed, how fast they’re getting there and what route they’re taking.
It seems like the next logical step in data collection for the most lucrative professional sport in the world, where information is both precious and profitable. Professional football is a statistician’s dream, where numbers fuel coaching decisions, bets, fantasy leagues and a deep connection between fans and the game. With the newly introduced trackers, the NFL will now begin to collect data at an unprecedented level.
The league began testing the trackers last year and as of now, 31 NFL stadiums have been outfitted with sensors aimed at the field. From the upper decks, these sensors will be able to locate the trackers that the league plans to place under the shoulder pads of each player and give live-tracking movement throughout the game.
So far, the data that has been recorded in testing has been extraordinarily accurate, according to Zebra Technologies, which created the trackers. They’ve reported that the margin of error is less than six inches. For comparison, a typical GPS tracker has a margin of error of a few yards.
In addition to accuracy, the trackers are pulling in a lot of information to sift through. The NFL can tack where a player on every NFL team is from the moment he puts his should pads on, through the tunnel and out on the field at game time. Once the game is in play, the sensors measure movement, speed and route traveled. Once the data is processed, Zebra forwards the information to the NFL servers where they’re divvied out to broadcast networks and box score providers.
Right now, the tracking is most noticeable during live TV broadcasts, where players can be tracked and highlighted during instant replay. An announcer can rattle off stats like how fast a receiver ran a route or distance covered by a running back, both laterally and downhill, on a 60 yard run.
For now, the NFL is holding on to the majority of the information as a means of making sure the technology is properly integrated into the game but also to make sure it’s being used fairly. Until the league feels completely comfortable with the trackers, the data collected will mostly be used by stat geeks for analysis. But in the future, they could eventually be used as part of the league’s training regimens, strategy and injury analysis in addition to how a team game plans.
The potential is immense and while it may be a few years away from making a measurable impact on the game, it’s already something to be excited about if you’re a die hard football fan.