RFID: The Revolution in American Football - Directly from the Wembley Stadium!

NFL teams profit from real-time information based on an active RFID solution by Zebra Technologies, in order to take them on the road to victory

The Kansas City Chiefs welcome the Detroit Lions to what is referred to as a home match, and Zebra Technologies allowed international journalists of the British BBC, the French newspaper “Le Parisien”, and the British online IT magazine “The register”, as well as “RFID im Blick” to have an insight into the functionality of what the NFL describes as “Next Gen Stats” / Real-time statistics, based on an active RFID application, visualise all the movements involved in the game and provide the foundation for optimised decisions / The visitors’ sports experience is lifted to a new level (Photo: RFID im Blick) (PresseBox) ( Lüneburg, )
NFL teams profit from real-time information based on an active RFID solution by Zebra Technologies, in order to take them on the road to victory

An RFID solution that allows the capture and identification of individual players, as well as the visualisation of the plays in real-time during the match – which has been a wish not only of numerous club and association officials, coaches, and players, but also referees, and spectators. Zebra Technologies have now turned this dream into a reality. In the 2015 season, the solution from Zebra was installed at all 31 NFL stadiums in the US, the Wembley Stadium for the International Series, and the Aloha Stadium in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. During more than 330 matches, from the pre-season to the Super Bowl in February 2016, all movements will be recorded.

”RFID im Blick“ on-site visit at the International Series of the NFL at Wembley StadiumReal-time information makes decisions better

Hardly any other sports is more characterised by strategy and tactical finesse as well as pre-planned plays and their disciplined execution than American football. Therefore, game statistics have always been of high importance to coaches who are setting the strategy. Which player ran how far, at what speed, during which play? This crucial information can be match-deciding. In cooperation with the US-American Football Association NFL, Zebra developed a solution based on active RFID which allows the coaches to gather information on their team in real-time. This solution helps the decision-making of coaches, but also of officials during the match. “This technology makes it possible to capture every movement of the individual players and also of the officials – in real-time. In future, the data generated should help the coaching team, in particular the head coach, to make better decisions during the match and to adapt the strategy to recent developments,” explains Jill Stellfox, Vice President and General Manger of Location Solutions at Zebra.

RFID on the pitch

Two RFID transponders are integrated into each of the players’ shoulder pads. Depending on the match, transponders are also equipped to between four and seven officials, the down markers of the 10 yard line, and the eight end zone markers, which measure the pitch. All the transponders communicate with the 20 receivers that are installed in the stadium. Having a battery life of more than one year and a robust design, the transponders easily survive an entire season without damage. The transponders' locations can be determined from up to 180 meters distance with an accuracy of around ten centimetres.

From speed to calories burned

All of the following data is captured with the Zebra solution: the position of the players, their average running speed, their maximum speed, calorie consumption, as well as the distance they covered during the match – everything in real-time. The running distance and the speed of the individual players are measured by means of triangulation of the signals arriving at the receivers. Software developed by Zebra collects and processes all the data in order to create player profiles. Even during the match, Zebra employees model the information and make the player profiles available on the NFL servers. It takes less than four seconds from the recording of the data in the stadium until it is visualised and users can view it using the official NFL smartphone app or using an app for Microsoft’s Xbox One console.

Information not only useful for the current match

As the data is available in real-time, officials can use it to exactly identify and mark the current line of scrimmage. Moreover, coaches can immediately analyse the information and make decisions based on it. However, the data is not only useful for live use: scouts, coaches, and managers can utilise the information on the players after the match. For example, it allows the adaptation of training schedules and sessions, and analysis of the facts and figures for transfer considerations. On top of that, all statistics are available in real-time to the spectators in the stadium.

Playing with the match data

The information is available to everyone via the internet using smartphones, tablets or PCs. In addition to watching the match live on TV, this creates a new way for fans to experience and understand what is happening on the pitch. The statistics are also used for the Fantasy Football game, which is very popular in the US: users create their own virtual football team based on real players and real match data, aiming to win their fantasy league.

In future: tags inside the football

For now, only the players, officials, down markers, and end zones markers are RFID-tagged, but not (yet) the football itself. Therefore, RFID specialist Zebra is evaluating ways to tag the football. However, the realisation remains technically challenging for Zebra: on one hand, the tags have to be seamlessly integrated below the outer shell of the ball. On the other hand, the signal needs to be protected from disruptions caused by the ball being thrown, from shocks, or from hitting a player. So precisely locating the football remains a challenge that is yet to be solved.

RFID will revolutionise professional sport

Are RFID solutions also realistic in other sports? Technology group’s specialists are convinced that the RFID system solution by Zebra will continue to revolutionise modern professional sports. The technology will find its way into other sports. Already in the year 2011, Zebra began testing the use of the technology for women’s soccer in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The big sport associations such as FIFA showing their interest would allow a totally new perspective on sporting competitions in a way similar to American football.

Demonstrating what is technologically feasible with American football

The location solution that Zebra implemented in cooperation with the NFL does not only revolutionise sports, but also shows the solution integration approach which Zebra is pushing forward in other fields too, as Ashley Ford, Vice President and Managing Director EMA, Zebra Technologies, explained in the run-up to the Wembley match: “What we call ‘Enterprise Asset Intelligence’ – AutoID technology-based RTLS – is used, for example, for tool tracking in the automotive industry as well as for the locating of medical devices in hospitals. The number of possible use cases is almost limitless – but of course nowhere as dynamically striking as for an American football match.”
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