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RFID Helps NFL's Competition Committee

The National Football League is looking at data from ultra-wideband transponders in footballs to help decide whether to narrow the width of its goalposts.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 31, 2016

On Sunday morning, I was watching the Washington Redskins play the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium, in London. The game went to overtime but I had to go out, so I tuned in and listened to the end of the game in my car. The two announcers were discussing a missed extra point by the Bengals, which was the reason the game was tied. They were talking about how moving the extra point back 10 yards had had some impact on the game, and that the league was considering other changes, including narrowing the distances between the goal posts.

What they said next is what really caught my attention. But before I get into that, let me briefly explain the issue for our readers who are not fans of American football. After a team scores a touchdown (worth six points), they have an opportunity to kick an extra point or try to score again from near the goal line for two additional points. The kick used to be from a distance of 20 yards (18 meters) but was moved back to 33 yards (30 meters) last year.

The goal posts through which the ball must travel are located 18.5 feet apart. The announcers reported that the NFL competition committee was considering narrowing that distance. One said that they could test it during preseason next year, while the other claimed they don't have to do this. They have "chips" in the ball, which provide sufficient data to see what percentage of kicks would have missed if the posts were narrowed by 1 foot, 2 feet and so on.

The NFL put ultra-wideband (UWB) transponders first in players' shoulder pads to provide accurate real-time location data (see RFID Drafted to Track NFL Players' Every Move During Games). Then, this year, the league put transponders in the footballs (see The NFL RFID-Tags Its Footballs). UWB technology offers the most precise location tracking, so if the NFL measures the locations of balls as they pass through the existing uprights, they could determine how many of those good kicks would have been wide if the posts were narrowed.

What I love about this is the ability to do the kind of big-data modeling that is often talked about but rarely performed in the real world. The competition committee could decide that the best thing for the game would be if 10 percent or 15 percent of extra points are missed, and then determine the appropriate width that would achieve that outcome. They could also model what the change would mean for field goals throughout the year.

RFID technology has the potential to provide the same kind of modeling capabilities to companies. Currently, retailers that test moving fixtures around their stores struggle to collect good data. Was a particular pair of jeans purchased off the rack at the front of the store, or off the shelf in the back? They just don't know because the bar code on both is the same. With RFID, each serial number is unique and can be mapped to a specific location, so it is much easier to determine where an item was picked up.

Manufacturers are also performing modeling. To use a simple example, Airbus has put UWB tags on workers to track their movements through one of its assembly facilities. Airbus's Carlo Nizam, speaking at RFID Journal LIVE! 2015, showed a slide with the routes that workers travel during the day, which revealed employees making a long trek to a tool crib. That crib was moved to a more optimal location within the facility in order to reduce the amount of time workers spend walking to and from it several times each day.

These are not earthshaking improvements for the NFL, retailers or Airbus, but they do show the kind of information that can be collected easily with RFID, and how it can be utilized to optimize operations. I have no doubt that as the technology proliferates, companies—including sports franchises—will find new and innovative ways in which to use the massive amounts of data collected and thus become more efficient, profitable and successful.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.

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