Networked gadgets and gizmos embedded in every day items – collectively known as the Internet of Things – are beginning to permeate our way of life. In your very own kitchen, a smart, networked refrigerator that identified items could give you suggestions on what you could cook or what was your calorie intake for the past week. The more data, the better the network effect and there might be no better place to reap the most rewards from the Internet of Things than sports. We’re just beginning to discover how networked devices could change sports, for better or worse, and the first baby steps have been taken by the NFL.

Image: Imperial College London

Image: Imperial College London

Teaming up with Zebra Technologies, a company that focuses on tracking and machine to machine technology, the NFL has now equipping more than 2,000 players with tags and 18 of the league’s 31 stadiums with receivers. Each player receives two such tags, one embedded in each shoulder pad. The tag is basically a RFID sensor about the size of a quarter which can relay back to the receiver data like the  player’s field position, speed, distance traveled and acceleration – all in real time.

How the embedded sensors look like in each shoulder pad. Image:  Zebra Technologies

How the embedded sensors look like in each shoulder pad. Image: Zebra Technologies

Imagine what this means. For each player broadcasters, coaches, managers and spectators can now have access to the most comprehensive analytics possible. Think of an instant replay of any event on the pitch, only you not only have visual information – you have real, dependable numbers that tell you how well you play or how hard you suck. To top it over, all of this will be available under a NFL 2015 app for Xbox One and Windows 10. Every stats you ever dreamed of, when you want them, where you want them. All at your finger tips. You can tell I’m excited, because although I’m not the biggest fan of football, I can see the transformative potential of this kind of technology.

“We’ve always had these traditional NFL stats,” says Matt Swensson, senior director of Emerging Products and Technology at the NFL. “The league has been very interested in trying to broaden that and bring new statistics to the fans. Along the way, there’s been more realization about how the data can be leveraged to make workflow more efficient around the game.”

“This type of initiative really opens the doors to do more things at the venue,” Swensson adds. “At the Pro Bowl last year, we had a display up that showed what players were on the field. By putting up what players were on the field in real time, it really gave fans more information.”

You’d think some players might mind this, but apparently they’re all very excited about it. Any good athlete wants to know what to do to improve. For now, this data is helpful as an addition to replays for the coaches and players. But the tech might prove a game changer when it’s sorted out in such a way that the manager gets some amazing insight while the game is playing. That’s not ready yet, but when it does it could change NFL forever or any game for that matter.

“Initially, it’s really more of the post-game,” Swensson says. “Right now, we have a lot of stuff going on on the sidelines. It could just be too much of a distraction during the game. It might be a place we get down the line, but right now it’s not what we’re trying to solve for.”

“We’ve just scratched the surface of what we can do with the data,” Swensson says. “Every week there’s another thought about how we can expand upon the information we’ve pulled together.”

“The possibilities are truly endless,” adds Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager, Location Solutions, Zebra Technologies. “The players love this kind of tracking technology because of that. They’re professional athletes by every stretch of the imagination. They want more data about themselves — how they can stay hydrated better, perform better. Anything that can help them do that, they really want.

So far, 17,000 plays of NextGen Stats were measured totally 1.7 billion sets of XY player coordinates. But like Swensson says, we’re just scratching the surface. Does sabermetrics ring any bells? SABR is an acronym which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research, whose mission is to analyze in-game baseball performance through the unbiased evidence of numbers. It all started in the 1960s when researchers and die-hard baseball enthusiast Earnshaw Cook published the seminal Percentage Baseball. The book, widely discarded by baseball executives and criticized by many from baseball writers to fans, discussed the value of such things as relief pitchers, the sacrifice bunt and the traditional batting order using mathematical evidence. At the time, those involved in baseball whether speaking of managers or players themselves discounted these nerdy fallacies. They knew baseball better. Then the story which became famous as Moneyball happened – how Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics used sabermetrics to build a winning team on the cheap. Now, every ambitious team employs their own analyst, otherwise you’re left at a big competitive disadvantage.

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Of course, there are a lot of sabermetrics for football too. It’s the real-time – the now – that will provide the extra slack.

Check out  NFL.com which will integrate all the data on its website.

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