Wearable RFID is Changing the Nature of NFL Statistics

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In football, and in sports in general, statistics can represent truth, power, and victory. Those who know how to use data collection and analysis to their advantage can leverage these tools to gain an edge on the competition.

In its never-ending quest for new and better statistics, the NFL now is equipping its players with wearable radio frequency identification (RFID) devices that track their movements during games. The technology is generating a completely new level of player statistics that are changing the way the game is measured, coached and appreciated by fans.

Tested during the 2014 season and deployed generally this year, the NFL is using a system based on RFID for motion tracking. Every player is equipped with two of nickel-sized RFID tags embedded in their shoulder pads. The tags ping receivers that have been installed in each of the NFL’s 31 stadiums, sending information on player location motion and direction via ultra-wideband wireless. The system transmits player motion 12 times per second, and with a location accuracy of 6 inches.

During the 2014 season, information and statistics gathered by the system were showcased during television broadcasts, notably on Thursday Night Football.

Thursday Night Football presented information from the system as NFL Next-Gen Stats, showing replays tracking the movement of players on the screen, and delivering statistics like speed, grouping, and formation. The system also delivered new statistics like separation—i.e. exactly how far a receiver or running back has gotten in front of the defensive players.

For the game announcers, this information allows them to make more sophisticated and detailed observations on games. The announcers can change their commentary from simply making a general statement about the player's speed to stating the exact top speed of the athlete during a play and comparing his velocity to others in the sport.

For everyone involved in NFL football, the arrival of wearable RFID tags and Next-Gen Stats is changing the game.

The impact of this whole new layer of statistics also can impact how players are scouted, coached and evaluated.

A shift in statistical focus can have a dramatic impact on any sport. For example, the Oakland Athletics baseball team famously determined that an underappreciated statistic—on-base percentage—was more indicative of player success than well-established metrics such as batting average.

In the NFL, a new statistic, such as a receiver’s maximum top speed during actual games may turn out to be a better measure of success than an older metric, such as how fast the player can run the 40-yard dash.

The NFL is also cognizant of how this information can enhance the fan experience. NFL.com now features a Next-Gen Stats section, with experts using the tool to analyze the most exciting plays of the week.

A deeper level of information can be found on the NFL on Windows app, which shows detailed Next-Gen Stats on the positions, and movements of every player alongside actual video of key plays. The app now is holding a contest called Next Gen Pick ‘Em, which allow fans to compete for a trip to the Super Bowl by selecting which player will post the best Next-Gen Stats. The NFL has indicated that this may just be the beginning, with future offerings in digital, mobile, and gaming that employ the new statistics.

Outside of the NFL, the exploding popularity of daily fantasy football could be further boosted by moving beyond rating players only by old metrics—such as yards running and receiving—and incorporating Next-Gen Stats.

For everyone involved in NFL football, the arrival of wearable RFID tags and Next-Gen Stats is changing the game.

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