1. Mr. Petrus, what makes the tracking solution for the NFL so unique?
Zebra Technologies has succeeded in applying an RTLS solution from other fields – industrial production, warehousing, retail and healthcare – in the NFL. Each player is equipped with two active RFID tags which transmit location data at 12 Hertz per second.
UWB sensors with antennas receive these signals and transfer them into a software. This location data is the foundation for exciting new game statistics that allows NFL teams and players to maximize their performance.
2. How does Zebra ensure an error-free data transmission from the RFID tags to the UWB antennas across the entire football pitch?
The solution is adapted to the environment in the football stadium and to the game itself. Each player carries two active RFID tags, which are attached under the shoulder pads and linemen wear a third tag on their back. The reason: during a game, linemen will often position close to the ground in a three- or fourpoint- stance. The third RFID tag thus ensures data transmission even in this position. Furthermore, every venue has its own design.
This is why we survey each stadium with a total station to ensure the highest locating precision. We determine the X and Y coordinates of the antennas so they are perfectly aligned for each venue. The radiation patterns form overlapping concentric circles and are so precise, that we could track every single blade of grass on the field. We can also re-calibrate the system so that it is optimized for tracking performance on every game day, as well as for every practice.
3. How does the NFL create the necessary prerequisites for technology deployment in the stadiums?
The NFL has done a great job providing the necessary IT infrastructure, cables and fiber optics to ensure that every stadium is technologically optimized. Each venue has the required bandwidth for the different technology programs that are part of the NFL. In addition, Zebra works closely with the NFL and their IT and network teams to ensure that the latencies are not greater than what was agreed upon in the SLAs. There is customization and a specific network plan for every venue the NFL plays in.
4. Which application is used to analyze the data?
Data analytics is handled differently by every NFL team. An API is usually created between the NFL and each team. Over one third of NFL teams use the player tracking system from Zebra as their individual training tracking solution. The APIs are created so that the teams can pull the raw data into a format that will allow them to digest the information and filter out important information.
Every team has their own understanding of which data is important. A trend we see more is that sports scientists and directors of sports are working together with the coaching staff to prepare for future games or to keep players healthy. It varies individually how teams use the data. Different applications are used to analyze and interpret said data.
5. How is data security ensured?
There are a few mechanisms and features implemented in the practice solution. This ensures that individual training data is only shared with the designated teams as the NFL follows extremely rigid data privacy and protection guidelines. For example, it is impossible for the Cleveland Browns to receive the training data of the Green Bay Packers. What is very exciting from an NFL standpoint: In 2018, the NFL competition committee decided that every team in the NFL will receive game day data from every other team as well. It is up to the teams to understand the data using data analytics and gain a performance edge.
6. What are the advantages of player tracking for NFL teams?
The data enables an optimized performance. Professional athletes often regulate their diet and track fitness data and sleep. Now, on-field performance can also be evaluated in a more quantitative way. One of the neat features of the solution in this regard is the dashboard for coaches, who are able to see player performance at practice in real time on their devices using Wi-Fi. After an injury, teams can measure exactly how current performance compares to the previous top performance. Overall, the solution puts teams in an optimized position in terms of productivity, health, and performance on game day.
7. How do NFL fans benefit from the solution?
Fans are passionate about their teams. It's a dynamic and electric environment on game days and the technology opens up completely new insights into professional sports. The data allows the NFL to tell new, exciting stories about plays and games. The fans are taking all of this in and can really appreciate what they see on the field – the fastest player and their ability to change direction for example. Betting and fantasy football are also enjoyed by fans. Next Gen Stats can influence how fans place their bets or determine their line-ups at the end of the day.
8. What is the benefit of Next Gen Stats for the manufacturers of sports equipment?
The NFL can pool data about collisions, the speed of players, and injuries. With this data, the NFL can work together with equipment manufacturers to ensure that helmets and shoulder pads keep the players safe. This is more of a byproduct of the solution and the Next Gen Stats.
9. To which application fields could the solution be extended to in the future?
Hockey is another ideal use case for the tracking solution. Tracking with wearables could also work in the NBA or for soccer. Major League Baseball is also an option. From Zebra's standpoint, football has been a great starting point for the development of player tracking solutions, because of the tag's form factor and where it is attached on the player. The players do not even realize the tag is there, and that's a beautiful thing, because it does impact their performance.
There is also an interest to bring in more vital data from a health and safety standpoint. Zebra's program does not capture the vitals of an athlete. However, in coordination with other technology, it is something that could be integrated into the solution. This includes the use of heart rate monitors that can capture data to help evaluate a player's performance in critical game moments. As the game evolves, and when we look at player safety initiatives, this would be something ideal for the NFL to pursue.