RFID Drafted to Track NFL Players’ Every Move During Games

By Beth Bacheldor

The system, from Zebra Technologies, has been installed at 17 football stadiums throughout the United States.

Football fans, get ready for more—more statistics, that is. This season, while watching any National Football League (NFL) Thursday-night games, television viewers will be able to view, for example, how far each wide receiver runs, from the second the player takes possession of the ball to the minute the play ends. What's more, that distance will not be just the official forward yards as marked by the chain crews and referees—it will measure all yards accrued as he twists, dodges, side-steps, and moves up and down the field until the second the opposition stops him. All of these stats are being automatically collected by an RFID system installed at 17 football stadiums throughout the United States.

The ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID system, supplied by Zebra Technologies, includes RFID tags embedded in between the two layers of plastic that make up a player's shoulder pads, as well as tags in referees' back pockets, tags on the tops of the chains used to mark yardage, and receivers affixed to the ribbon infrastructures at the stadiums, separating the lower and upper tiers and typically holding video boards. Zebra's MotionWorks sports solution can identify the locations of players and equipment within 6 inches. The tags pulse a 6.35 GHz to 6.75 GHz UWB signal approximately 25 times per second, and have a read range of up to about 325 feet. Each tag's battery has a lifespan of approximately seven years.

Zebra Technologies began working with the NFL in December 2012. At the time, says Jill Stelfox, Zebra's general manager of location solutions, the league sought a solution to track players and was considering employing GPS, video and RFID. After a pilot was conducted last year with the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions, she says, the NFL opted to implement Zebra's MotionWorks system.

The solution will provide what the NFL calls "Next Generation Statistics," which will be delivered to NFL Network broadcasters. The MotionWorks system will capture data that traditionally must be captured manually, including downs, the amount of time expended during a huddle break and so forth. But it will also capture how fast a player runs and how far he moves during a play, as well as precise location data—all in real time—throughout the game. This information will be registered and compiled into a database, and will be used to augment television broadcasts.

What is particularly unique, Stelfox explains, is that the two tags in the shoulder pads will provide not only location data, but orientation. "One tag does the tracking, but the second does the orientation, so you'll know which way a player is facing," she states. "The tags are pulsing, and the receivers are capturing data 25 times per second, and [they] will be able to capture the right shoulder of a player rotating, so you can see that movement. So while the fans see that a wide receiver moved forward 4 yards because the chain is moved, our system will tell the fans exactly how many yards—maybe it's 8 yards—that the player moved as he stepped sideways and backwards to avoid getting tackled."

All of the collected data is stored on a hub connected to the MotionWorks server, where it is correlated with the correct player, position and team, as well as information about the specific play, the player's speed, and the location and orientation of other players involved in that play. In less than a second, the analysis is shipped to the NFL Network, and can be displayed as graphics on the broadcast within the standard two-second delay.

According to Stelfox, the initiative is about providing fans with entertainment and information. "Zebra and the NFL believe we are changing the game, and we both really mean that. Insiders on any team have always had a lot of this statistical data, but fans haven't had access to it," she says. "Now they will. They'll be able to see how much farther a wide receiver had to actually run. They'll be able to see how long the longest run was to get the smallest official forward run. And they'll be able to see how fast a player needed to run to avoid being tackled."

Zebra's solution will be installed at the 15 NFL stadiums that host Thursday Night Football games (in Atlanta, Ga.; Baltimore, Md.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, Ill.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; Green Bay, Wisc.; Houston, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; Miami, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; San Francisco, Calif.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Seattle, Wash.) as well as in Detroit, Mich., and New Orleans, La. The solution will capture information from the teams at all 32 of these locations.

The MotionWorks solution is in use at other sporting venues as well. Two NASCAR drivers are using it to track the movements of crew members and equipment during pit-stop training, for example (see RFID Revs Up Pit-Stop Training for Crews of Two NASCAR Drivers). In addition, businesses around the globe utilize the UWB system to track assets and individuals in enterprise applications.

Stelfox, however, says the NFL application may be the "coolest" implementation yet. "Our engineers tune the system at each stadium before every game," she explains. "So one day they are RF engineers, and the next they are hanging out with the quarterbacks of their favorite teams. I think this is a great way for the entire RFID industry to get a boost."