Tracking with RFID and UWB in Professional Sports

NFL Improves Player Safety and Spectator Experience with RFID and UWB

On-Field Player Tracking

Professional sports are driven by the urge for top performance and continuous optimization. American football in the NFL is no exception. For this, reliable and meaningful data and statistics are essential.

These Next Gen Stats are acquired thanks to an on-field player and ball tracking solution from Zebra Technologies. Players and footballs are tracked with active RFID tags and UWB sensors. This enables data capture in real time and its provision to NFL teams and fans.

NFL Improves Player Safety and Spectator Experience with RFID and UWB

Success Story powered by: the Think WIOT Group, Zebra Technologies and the National Football League (NFL)

The NFL is the professional US-American football league. It was founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association in Canton, Ohio. In 1922 it was renamed National Football League. With a yearly revenue of 17 billion USD as of 2021, the NFL is the world's most financially successful sports league.

32 teams play in the NFL divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC). The conferences are divided into four divisions. Each team plays three games in the preseason and 17 games in the regular season. At the end of the season, the seven best teams from each conference compete for the championship in the playoffs. The knockout- tournament concludes with the grand finale, the Super Bowl. In 2023, an estimated 200 million viewers watched the Big Game on “Super Bowl Sunday”.

The NFL teams have great interest in play-by-play data. Which player is best suited for each play? How are players performing during training and in games? Has a player fully recovered from injury? These are only some of the questions that keep coaches, players and general managers of NFL teams occupied. Additional data is also relevant for the interaction with fans. How is the quarterback of their favorite team performing in the league? How many yards did the runningback run during the last play?

The answers to these questions can be found by capturing and evaluating game data. To do this, the NFL has been relying on the on-field tracking solution Zebra MotionWorks Sport by Zebra Technologies since 2016. Zebra generates data with RFID and UWB which the NFL uses to derive over 200 statistics per play called Next Gen Stats.

In American football, the course of a game is determined by complex plays. Thanks to newly gathered data, each play can be analyzed and optimized.

American football is the most popular sport in the USA

American football is the most popular sport in the USA. Its grand finale, the Super Bowl is considered an unofficial holiday.

Sports Equipment with RFID

The RFID tags for NFL players are attached under the epaulet of the shoulder pads

Protective equipment includes helmet and faceguard, shoulder pads, gloves, as well in addition to thigh and knee pads. The RFID tags for NFL players are attached under the epaulet of the shoulder pads.

RFID tagged football
A third RFID tag on their backs ensures that data transmission is possible in this position

The Linemen take their position at the line of scrimmage. A third RFID tag on their backs ensures that data transmission is possible in this position.

The transmission of location data for Next Gen Stats takes place via active RFID tags attached to sports equipment. UWB sensors in the stadium receive the radio signals.

Up to 53 players are part of a football team. Each player is equipped with two active RFID tags, which are located under the epaulets of the shoulder pads. The tags are the size of a nickel, weigh only 3.3 grams and are just over a quarter of an inch thick. The tags are programmed to transmit real time location data at 12 Hertz per second. They remain in the equipment for the entire season and can last for up to two seasons. A battery change during the active season is not required.

Unlike other players, linemen have a total of three RFID tags. The reason: before a play, the linemen stand at the line of scrimmage in a three- or four-point-stance. In this position, they make contact with the field with either one or both hands.

Since the RFID tags are close to the ground, transmission to the receiver antennas is more difficult. The third RFID tag on the back center of the shoulder pads ensures data transmission in this position. In a single game, over 300 RFID tags are deployed.

Technology deployment is not limited to players. Referees, the pylons on the pitch and even the football itself are tracked with RFID tags. The football with the RFID tag weighs 400 grams, just like an untagged football to ensure performance isn't impacted. The flight characteristics of the ball remain unchanged.

The integrated RFID tag transmits location data during the game at 25 Hertz per second. The RFID football is a joint development of Zebra Technologies and sporting goods manufacturer Wilson Sporting Goods from Ada, Ohio.

UWB Sensors

UWB sensors with antennas are deployed in the stadium and receive the captured data from the RFID tags. It takes only 5 seconds from data reception to visualization.

Between 22 and 24 sensors with antennas are deployed in each stadium

Between 22 and 24 sensors with antennas are deployed in each stadium and aligned towards the field. The antennas are mounted in the 200 level of the stadium.

Zebra MotionWorks software

Captured location data is transmitted to the Zebra MotionWorks software. Originally an enterprise solution, the software now processes data for professional sports.

Each of the 32 NFL stadiums is equipped with 22 to 24 antennas. Low-gain, mid-gain and high-gain antennas are deployed. Antenna mounting typically occurs in the 200 level, the middle section of the stadium. From there, the sensor antennas receive the location data from the RFID tags. The maximum reading distance is 350 feet. Due to the different radiation patterns, a complete antenna coverage of the entire 120 by 53.3 yard pitch is guaranteed.

Compared to other radio technologies, UWB offers higher position accuracy. This is achieved by measuring not the signal strength but the signal propagation time between the transmitter and at least three receivers. The tag signal is received by all receivers in the stadium at different times depending on the distance.

The time difference is multiplied by the constant speed of light and the coordinates of the transmitter are calculated. The position is accurately determined to within inches.

After receiving the data with the antennas, captured data is transmitted via a shielded Ethernet cable to an end device and into the MotionWorks software. This process takes 50 milliseconds.

The software functions as an overlay which identifies every player and processes their location data. The result: a real-time visualization of player and football location data in a dashboard.

The data is then processed via buffering and filtering, and transmitted to the NFL in just 5 seconds. The MotionWorks software processes 260 data points per play. On a regular game day, 750 million data points are transmitted and turned into statistics.


RTLS for various use cases:

  • Personnel tracking
  • Vehicle, material, tool and equipment tracking
  • Material flow management and inventory replenishment

Application Fields:

Sports, Logistics, Automotive, Aerospace, Industrial Production, Healthcare

Next Gen Stats

Using Zebra data, location information is turned into meaningful football statistics for the NFL – Next Gen Stats.

Zebra enables Next Gen Stats for American Football

Next Gen Stats is an initiative started by the NFL in 2014. The aim is to achieve a technology-driven optimization of spectator experience. For this purpose, the NFL is working together with Zebra Technologies in the ninth season of the project. Every play is visualized using software. Specific values can be captured using the location data.

This includes the acceleration and de-acceleration of a player, the top speed, distance covered and the rotation and speed of the ball. As a result of the clear association of every data point with a specific team and player, novel statistics and play analyses are possible.

One example: the aggressiveness of a quarterback is measured by how many passes they play to a receiver in tight coverage. Per definition of the NFL, the defender is within a proximity of one yard when receiving the pass.

Based on location and player data it can be calculated whether the distance between offense and defense counts as tight coverage. The previously intangible value of how much pressure a defender exerts on a player in offense is clearly defined as a result of the technology solution and aggressiveness is calculated as a percentage of all passes.

Thanks to machine learning and AI algorithms, it is not only possible to calculate statistics, but also to make predictions.

The expected running distance of a player upon receiving a pass can be determined, for example. The comparison between expected and actual distance covered is possible. In addition, the statistical likelihood of a specific outcome for a play, like a touchdown, can be calculated.

Unlikely but successful plays are identifiable as game highlights using technology. These highlights can be transmitted to the broadcasting team – either for the live broadcast or the postgame.


Under tight coverage, the defense player is within reach and can easily intercept plays.

Data-Driven Professional Sports

Detailed performance data has become an indelible part of what professional football for many reasons.

NFL Teams gain significant benefits as a result of the new data and statistics. An accurate performance comparison between training and matches is possible. Prior to important game days, players could be encouraged to exert themselves less during practice. The compliance to the training goals can be monitored and coaches can easily identify the top-performing players of a team. The data evaluation is also relevant to scouts for promising new talents.

Football is a full-contact sport. Despite protective equipment, injuries like strain and sprain are common. The comparison of player performance before and after an injury can indicate a player's recovery progress.

The disparity between current and previous performance can be exactly quantified. A premature return to regular play with an injury that is not fully healed is prevented and possible secondary or long-term injury avoided. The result: player health and safety are improved.

The Next Gen Stats of the NFL serve the fans' demand for information about football. Statistics and recordings of plays are publicly available on the NFL website, and via their media partners. In addition, the NFL shares game highlights via social media.

Through various channels, fans gain access to information that simply could not be captured prior to technology utilization. The enhancement of highlights with statistics enables a better game understanding for fans, like how fast a player is or how much distance was covered to achieve again.

Over one-third of NFL teams use the tracking solution from Zebra Technologies during practice

Over one-third of NFL teams use the tracking solution from Zebra Technologies during practice and are able to compare player performance in training and on game day.

Thanks to the new data, every play can be examined by interested fans

Football fans cheer on their team and celebrate their success. Thanks to the new data, every play can be examined by interested fans.


Data Analytics Drive Modern Professional Sports

Adam Petrus explains in an interview with RFID & Wireless IoT Global how on-field player tracking with RFID, UWB and data analytics helps NFL teams maximize player performance and fan interaction.

Adam Petrus is Business Development & Sales Lead Sports & Entertainment at Zebra Technologies

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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