The old saying goes 'information is power' and when it comes to professional sports there's no truer maxim, with teams constantly looking for ways to gain the upper edge over opponents by using data and analytics to create tactics and make vital on-field decisions to notch a win.
How this is achieved has been mostly limited to scouting and video footage but the sporting world is being revolutionised with the introduction of real-time tracking technology that can provide teams unprecedented levels of data.
Zebra, a data specialist that turns information into innovation in everything from manufacturing and IoT applications, is providing its MotionWorks system – the world first real-time player tracking in sport to take the NFL into the next generation where data rules.
The NFL is one of the most tactically complex games on the planet, with coaches having to co-ordinate a gameday roster of 46 players broken up into teams of defence, offence and special teams – of which there are 11 on-field players on each. The result, to the untrained eye, is a hot mess of X's and O's, plays, running routes, zones and yardage.
To give coaches a helping hand Zebra has developed specialised RFID tags (about half the size of a Nespresso pod) that are assigned and fitted to every player's shoulder pads. With over 20 receivers around the stadium communicating with the tag the system can track and plot players down to the centimetre.
Player-specific metrics such as position, speed, acceleration, distance run and even if they were facing the right way at the right time are all logged and transmitted to coaches as well as media analysts. In the 2015 season the technology was rolled out to all 31 NFL stadiums with 2,500 players tagged and over 180 billion bytes of player position data logged.
We saw the system live in action and as players took to the field our screens filled with moving dots like a real-life game of Championship Manager. What all this information could do in the hands of Belichick, Arians, Carroll and company is mind-blowing.
Using next-gen stats to beat the competition
The benefit of all this in-depth statistics can radically change the game. It can indicate how involved a player was on each play and help coaches devise tactics depending on underperformers or if star players are struggling physically. The same goes for helping teams choose starters with coaches being able to keep track of player performance during practices, which is something trainers can work to boost intensity over the course of a season.
A Zebra spokesperson told IBTimes UK that the technology could even one day lead to a situation where offensive or defensive co-ordinators can recognise what play the opposition is about run by identifying line-up patterns and then potentially allow coaches to make split-second changes to their own play.
"The NFL is looking for the same visibility into their teams and players as an industrial operations director wants within his or her warehouse. Both need a real-time understanding of where, when and how their teams and assets are moving around their respective environments," said Jill Stelfox, Vice President and General Manager, Location Solutions, Zebra Technologies Coaches.
"Zebra's work with the NFL to gain accuracy into player movement on the field can help shape the future of sports."
But it's not just how real-time player tracking can change the way the game is played it is also blowing open a whole new way fans can watch and interact during matches. Television broadcasts and mobile apps are also fed data throughout a game so on-air analysts can show those at home how fast a player ran, how closely receivers were covered or how much pressure was put on a quarterback. Those watching via Xbox Live over the 2015 season will have had access to interactive breakdown of plays highlighting run routes and player position – something NFL fans love.
Zebra's involvement is all part of the Next Gen Stats programme, which is adding another dimension to the sport and is making waves to roll out to the likes of football, basketball, tennis and motor racing.
The 2017 Super Bowl is being played on Sunday 5 February in a clash between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons where Zebra's player tracking and Next Gen Stats will all play a part in being the most technologically-advanced championship in history.