NFL taps into big data and IoT technology

Last weekend saw the return of the NFL to the US, with the opening round of fixtures in the 2015 season. But this year, American football fans around the world will have more options than ever for following their favourite teams, after the league introduced new big data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help improve the experience.

In yet another example of how these innovations are being used across all aspects of our everyday lives, the NFL has signed an agreement with tracking company Zebra Technologies to help monitor players and deliver a huge range of new statistics on their performance.

It was reported by Fortune that while Zebra is more used to helping companies such as Boeing follow the journey of parts through its factories, the organisation will be installing sensors into the uniforms of every player and stadium across the league's 32 teams, in order to follow exactly what happens on the field.

The technology behind the system is not all that different from IoT sensors already being used in industries such as manufacturing, utilities and transport to keep track of items and workers. It means fans, broadcasters and coaches alike will be able to see information such as exactly how far a player sprints during a game and how fast they move.

While broadcasters will be able to make use of data in near real-time in their commentary, and some of the information will also be made available to fans through the NFL's website and mobile app, for the moment, the league has forbidden teams to use this data during games. It explained this is a matter of fairness, as some teams have had longer than others to get to grips with the technology and understand the potential benefits.

However, in the longer term, this data could prove to be an invaluable training resource. Michael King, director of sports products at Zebra, told Fortune the data can be used to see where players are improving. 

For instance, one of the league's new recruits this year is San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne. As a former Australian rugby league player with little prior experience of the unique demands of American football, the technology will be highly useful in helping evaluate his performance over the season. The 49ers will even be able to monitor this in practice sessions, as they are one of three sides to have their training facilities equipped with the technology. 

Coaches typically study hundreds of hours of video to find an edge over their opponents, Mr King said. With more data and statistics, the hope is that they will be able to make better decisions.

"Football is more of a chess match. This technology is huge for that."

He also suggested that the technology will help create a new era for the sport where the fans feel more connected to the players than ever before – and this will also lead to new revenue streams for the NFL. "The best fans are the most engaged fans. They will pay for subscription plans to get this data," Mr King said.