Analytics enhancements provide new visualizations and stats to teams and fans.

Zebra Expands NFL Solution with RFID Tracking of Footballs

On October 1st 2017, the NFL’s New Orleans Saints met the Miami Dolphins in London. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw for 268 yards, including a game-deciding 12-yard shovel pass to Alvin Kamara. But how is this game data obtained? At the side-lines of the London match, John Pollard, Vice President of Business Development for Zebra Sports, explained how RFID technology and analytics from Zebra Technologies help deliver a deeper understanding of the game for teams and fans alike – and how additional RFID tags in footballs can unlock further vital game data.

“RFID im Blick” reported from Wembley Stadium, London

Daniel Dombach
Daniel Dombach
Director EMEA Industry Solutions
Düsseldorf, Germany
Thorsten Lutz
Thorsten Lutz
Solutions Engineering Manager, DACH
Idstein, Germany

RFID-tagged footballs expand solution for 2017/2018 season

In collaboration with Wilson Sporting Goods, supplier of the Official Game Football of the NFL, Zebra has developed a RFID tagged football which will be employed in every game during the 2017 NFL season. This enables the collection of real-time location, speed, and rotation data for the balls.

Working with the NFL and Wilson, Zebra successfully tested the tagged football during all last year’s preseason and Thursday Night Football games. “The miniaturized RFID tag integrated into the balls only weighs about 4 grams. The balls’ throwing behaviour is not affected by the addition of RFID technology,” John Pollard, Vice President of Business Development, Zebra Sports, states.

RFID technology can settle rules disputes through precise, real-time data

As part of “Next Gen Stats”, data from the instrumented Wilson footballs has the potential to be leveraged on media platforms, such as NFL.com and in-game telecasts, to enhance the fan experience. Beyond media platform use, the NFL’s Competition Committee will evaluate the football data to determine how the NFL Clubs can best leverage the data in the future.

Precise location data for the football and all players opens up numerous applications: With the integrated RFID tag by Zebra, the NFL can determine whether a ball has been caught or fumbled, whether it has crossed a score line, and support referees with their rulings. Right now, the referees have to rely on their eyes and video playback to make a decision on the playing field. In the future, rules disputes such as these could be settled instantly and without controversy.

“The data provided by Zebra and the NFL will allow fans to gain an even deeper understanding of the game by accessing new visualizations, stats and fantasy football recommendations never available before. We are steadily optimising the RFID solution and our analysis tools.” - John Pollard, Vice President of Business Development, Zebra Sports

Active RFID tags in players’ gear transmits performance data

The RFID tag in the football complements the RFID tags in all players’ sporting equipment. To enable data collection during NFL games, Zebra attached RFID tags in player equipment to track their movements and provide enlightening and interesting information. Since 2015, each player’s shoulder pads contain two or three (for the down linemen) active RFID tags.

“Players rarely notice the RFID tags in their gear. We worked hand in hand with the league to miniaturize the tags so most players of them do not even know they are there. But of course many players appreciate the data generated by the technology in order to optimise their play. Especially when they can actually measure how fast they are running on certain plays”, John Pollard explains. “There is one RFID tag on each shoulder, plus an optional RFID tag on the upper back for linemen’s uniforms. The linemen start crouching down, which can make the shoulder-mounted RFID tags harder to read.” The batteries powering the active tags last for one year.

Zebra analysts process RFID telemetry and pass it on to the NFL

Since the 2015/2016 season, all NFL stadiums, including the international series’ stadiums such as Wembley Stadium, have been equipped with RFID readers. At each game, two Zebra analysts are present and process the gathered RFID data in real-time, preselecting and filtering it before passing it on to the NFL. This includes data to be used during the television broadcast of the game itself, data to be used by the teams for optimising their plays and training routines, as well as statistics data for online platforms and fan participation games.

Statistics data provided to fans is deeper than ever before

In addition of the expansion of the RFID solution to the footballs themselves, Zebra Technologies has also announced analytics enhancements. John Pollard reports on the announcement: “The data provided by Zebra and the NFL will allow fans to gain an even deeper understanding of the game by accessing new visualizations, stats and fantasy football recommendations never available before. We are steadily optimising the RFID solution and our analysis tools. During our cooperation with the NFL, its teams, and of course its fans, we have learned a great deal about what data and analysis they are most interested in. This leads to refining the solution further.”

Tracking solution and analytics are being considered by FIFA and basketball leagues

American Football is not the only possible area of application for precise sports telemetry data. “Virtually all professional sports can benefit from precise data analytics and performance tracking. Active RFID can deliver data that helps clear up rules disputes, improves broadcasts through additional statistics, support teams in improving their performance, and provides more information and entertainment to fans,” John Pollard summarizes. “Therefore, we are in contact with sports leagues and associations around the world. Zebra is in talks with FIFA, a basketball league, and others who wish to unlock the full benefits of sports data analysis.”


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