Game On: Passive RFID at Play for Sports Memorabilia

Published: July 8, 2024
  • A professional sport league, asking to be unnamed, is piloting an RFID solution to track jerseys as they are worn by players during games.
  • In the long term, Zebra sees passive RFID as a critical part of uniform and equipment identification for memorabilia authentication in addition to safety applications.

The role of UHF RFID technology in professional sports has been growing into unique applications, often behind the scenes, even as a more prominent technology: active ultra-wideband (UWB) system has been impacting the way football fans experience a game.

The UWB system from Zebra Technologies collects and manages the data for the National Football League’s (NFL) Next Gen Stats. But passive RFID is also all over the field during professional sports competitions.

In fact, said Zebra Technologies’ customer success director Randy Dunn, passive UHF RFID provides automated data about inventory, but also player safety, as the low cost, battery-free tags are being applied to uniforms and equipment.

Most recently, Zebra is working with another professional sports league, (which the company declined to name), to pilot UHF RFID as unique identification technology to track players’ jerseys during a game. The pilot includes Zebra’s RFID readers to capture tag IDs.

RFID Tags Tracking NFL Merchandise

In the long term, Zebra envisions sports memorabilia authentication (like jerseys or balls) to be a growth market with extraordinary promise, according to Dunn.

Already, RFID tags are embedded into everything from cleats to shoulder pads to helmets for the NFL. The data not only provides inventory management for those items, but it enables intelligence into player safety.

The RFID number of each tagged item can be linked to a player. Once players step out of the locker room and onto the field, these tags are interrogated by readers which forward tag data to a central digital inventory management system. This data is collected for every player, for every practice and every game, the NFL reported.

With the data that pairs a tagged uniform or equipment with a specific player, at a specific time, the NFL can understand what a player was wearing for protection as they went into practice or a game.

Building a Safety History for Equipment

That data helps team management determine the safety and lifespan of equipment, based on how they are used. For instance, certain cleats may be worn more often when players sustain ankle injuries. Other injuries could be connected with other equipment as well, to determine what is the best way to protect the safety of a player.

Use cases go beyond safety, however, once an RFID tag is embedded in clothing and equipment. Dunn pointed out that RFID technology is widely used in retail, not just for inventory, but to provide brand authentication. That’s an application that transfers well into sports memorabilia, Dunn said.

“If you look at the world of sports collectors, there is a lot of interest in buying authenticated merchandise,” he said.

Singling Out the Jersey from Record Breaking Play

Collectors are finding ways to leverage technology to uniquely identify something a player uses or wears during important plays. For example, if a baseball player joined the 500 home run club during a specific game, the bat he was using or the jersey he was wearing would rise exponentially in value.

“It would be a much more valuable jersey if you could authenticate with serialized long range, non-line-of-sight data to say that’s actually the jersey he was wearing when he hit the home run,” Dunn said. “Imagine how much a collector would be interested in that?”

Since RFID is already being used to authenticate high value merchandise, it could be easily translated into a solution for sports memorabilia authentication.

Replacing Holograms with More Security

Traditionally the core technology around authenticating collector items is the hologram sticker. However, Dunn pointed out that counterfeiters have been able to replicate a hologram, which makes the technology less effective.

“What you can’t counterfeit is the serialized [RFID] sensor that is sewn into a garment,” Dunn said. Each tag has a unique ID encoded on it, with some level of encryption and it can provide secure traceability of that garment. If an RFID tag is read as a player is assigned a uniform, then again as they go into the field of play and as they leave it, each read creates a data point.

These data points then assure a buyer that they have the right shirt or ball or bat. “It’s really important for that marketplace to be precise and products to be validated and authenticated in order to command top dollar,” Dunn said.

“This notion of RFID in sports is taking the technology to a whole new place to authenticate whatever is meaningful to either the team, the league or the collector,” he added.

UWB Continues Expansion for NFL

In the meantime, the use of UWB has expanded to every U.S. professional football stadium, and the data in the Next Gen Stats are impacting the game watching experience.

Each time U.S. professional football teams play in another country, the UWB anchors that locate tagged players and balls in real-time, are being installed in those locations. That includes Tottenham Hotspur and Wembley stadiums in London, Allianz Arena in Munich and Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Active UWB technology for NFL location management in games and training is so prevalent that today apparel manufacturers are often sewing a dedicated pocket in practice jerseys that are worn without shoulder pads—to accommodate the active, battery-powered tag. In that way UWB tags can be easily affixed to each player so that their movements can be precisely tracked as they play.

In the meantime, passive UHF RFID is making its own play for its role in the sports market.

When asked if he could also envision the technology enabling more game-based memorabilia merchandising, Dunn made his forecast: “I agree.”

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