SBJ/February 27-March 5, 2017/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL expanding use of football data chips



The NFL is moving forward with inserting a tracking chip in footballs for all games in the 2017 season, which will greatly add to player performance statistics.

The move is not designed to aid first down and touchdown calls, however, and the data won’t be showing up on TV screens during the season.

The competition committee reviewed the proposal this month with no dissent. “Last year the chip was in the football for a limited number of games,” Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons president and chairman of the competition committee, wrote in an email. “This year, the proposal from the Next Gen Stats group is to allow the chip in the footballs for all games and to determine the use of the data [after the] season.”

Next Gen Stats refers to Next Generation Statistics, the data that has emerged from tracking technology in place on players and now footballs.

Since 2014, the league has tracked player movement through chips in their shoulder pads. Teams can see their own player tracking data the week after games, but not that of players from other clubs.

The system is designed to ease fears that clubs would engage in a digital arms race and that those with the most resources to analyze their opponents would prevail, but it has left advocates of the data flustered, feeling that the information is not being used properly if they can’t see data from all the clubs.

Data from the ball tracking — the distance the ball travels on a given play, the location of defenders relative to the ball when it is thrown or caught, and the ball’s proximity to the goal posts on a field goal or PAT attempt — will not be distributed in any form until after the season, meaning teams will get no use from the chips in the balls during the 2017 season.

The data has uses beyond just team player analysis. For its part, the league will study the additional data from kicks to decide whether to shrink the uprights to make field goals more difficult. Some league broadcasters have incorporated the stats into their production, though perhaps not as widely as envisioned when the stats first emerged, and the league expects the stats to be used by fantasy football providers.

The NFL has a contract with radio frequency device maker Zebra Technologies, which last year placed the chip in the ball for some of the preseason and all Thursday night football games. Zebra worked with manufacturer Wilson to ensure the ball did not perform differently with the chip inside it, said Eric Petrosinelli, Zebra’s general manager for sports.

All that aside, tracking the ball will better complete the Next Gen Stats, Petrosinelli said, which so far has offered data like player speed and acceleration. Connecting player movement with where the ball is can help a team, he said. For example, a team can see how a blocker performed and how close to the quarterback he is consistently when the ball is released.

Other uses are specific to the quarterback, including how hard and how far he throws, he said.

“The quarterback is a team’s most expensive player but there hasn’t been any data on his arm,” Petrosinelli said.

The league declined to make available for comment Vishal Shah, the NFL’s senior vice president of digital media and business development and who runs the Next Gen Stats project.

Asked whether owners need to vote on the expansion of the tracking device for balls to all games, McKay responded he did not believe so, though it would be in the competition committee report that clubs receive before the owners’ annual meeting next month.

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