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The NFL RFID-Tags Its Footballs
The National Football League's Competition Committee is reviewing the results of a preseason pilot of Zebra UWB RFID tags embedded in balls, as an extension of an existing system that tracks players' movements during games.
This summer, Zebra and the NFL worked with ball provider Wilson Sporting Goods to embed a specially designed Zebra UWB tag into each ball. The tag is about the size of a quarter, Petrosinelli says, and was customized by Zebra for this project. While the shoulder-pad tags worn by players weigh about 8 grams (0.28 ounce) apiece, the ball tag weighs less than 4 grams (0.14 ounce), for instance. It is being embedded in the ball's material behind the lacing, he adds, and is invisible to players.
A football's UWB tag transmits a signal multiple times per second in the 6.35 GHz and 6.75 GHz frequency bands. Receivers installed throughout a stadium can read those signals from as far away as 325 feet. The battery built into each tag has a lifespan of at least the full season, according to the company.
In 2013, Petrosinelli says, when the NFL first began investigating technology to improve its visibility into player and team performance, the league sought a vendor and solution that would enable scalability beyond simply tracking players' movements. Tracking the ball, he explains, "has always been part of the innovation track."
Zebra's solutions provide operational visibility, Petrosinelli reports. While the NFL was already gaining visibility into players' movements, Petrosinelli notes that "the ball is the most important object in the game." The ball-tracking solution enables the league to put further context into that data by knowing the ball's location in relation to each player at any given time. For instance, if a player accelerates while the ball is in the air, the NFL has a greater understanding of what he is doing and why.
The NFL is also looking into the possibility of using the tags to determine ball movements during field-goal kicks, Swensson says. In this case, the league has been considering whether goal posts should be narrowed due to the high percentage of successful field goals that have been kicked during recent seasons.
Initially, however, the league's Competition Committee is reviewing how well the RFID-tagged footballs worked, whether they created any degradation in player or ball performance, and what kind of data they provided.
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