Will Big Data create an entirely new NFL?

In light of the NFL season opener tomorrow night, I thought it’d be interesting to ponder technology’s role in football. Not today. In 2028.

Historically, the NFL is slow to adopt tech. They banned in-helmet microphones for 40 years. And even now, it comes with a slew of rules.

The NFL is slow to adopt tech because they fear it could jeopardize the integrity of the sport. Any change must improve the game, work reliably, and it cannot favor one team over another. 

This is why I struggle to see the NFL ever implementing the GoRout Heads-Up Display (HUD) in helmets. But it’s a possibility, nonetheless. Similar to how fighter pilots have a lot of their data and readings displayed digitally on their visor, GoRout imagines a helmet visor that displays play calls and other information. In other words, it’s an augmented reality display for players.

Today, the product is designed for the practice field only. By 2028, though, this could be more along the lines of an Iron-Man-like display. I imagine a play going like so:

  • The quarterback is under center, analyzing the field. His HUD takes into account the stances of linebackers and the secondary, suggesting which ones are going to blitz. He’s then given the optimal audible to call – a running play.
  • The running back takes the hand-off and instantly his HUD updates to show which gap is the likeliest to open up based on an analysis of all his blockers. He hits that gap and breaks one out to the sideline.
  • The wide receiver, who is now blocking downfield to extend the run, sees in the corner of his HUD a real-time video from the running back’s point-of-view – thus the wide receiver knows which way to block. He moves his body between the cornerback and running back and the running back breaks one 65-yards for a touchdown.

This is just an example scenario from the Offense’s perspective where a Heads-Up Display could be invaluable to their strategy. Let’s not forget that the Defense has access to the same tools and will likely be using it to throw off the Offense. Ironically, the introduction of computers to football will actually make game strategy more complex.

The defining factor for this to become a reality in ten years is DATA. After one week of games, the NFL (in conjunction with Amazon’s Next Gen Stats platform) receives nearly 3TB of data which it distributes to teams. But this is all after-the-fact.

For HUDs to become a piece of equipment on every player’s head, the data must become real-time. The average NFL play lasts just 4 seconds. This means data must be collected, sorted, and analyzed… then turned into actionable insights and displayed in the player’s interface in fractions of seconds. If any hiccup happens along the way, if even one second of buffering occurs, the play has passed and the data is useless. In other words, this is a huge challenge for computer scientists.

Also, let’s remember that the NFL’s guidelines for tech usage are extremely stringent. For instance, if one sideline’s microphone communication with their quarterback stops working, then the other team is required to stop using theirs.

Nonetheless, Amazon is getting their reps in with the Next Gen Stats program (interesting video). By placing RFID chips in the shoulder pads of every player, they’re able to track each player’s movement patterns and turn it into insight – this is where the 3TB of data comes from.

The Next Gen Stats program over the next five years aims to impact the game in three ways:

  • Evaluating player performance during games.
  • Providing analysts, broadcasters, and announcers with data to break down plays and add insight for the viewer.
  • Introduce novel statistics to fantasy sports and dedicated fans.

If the program exceeds expectations, are then I’m sure that the NFL will continue to call upon Amazon to modernize the technology present in the sport. Maybe someday they’ll even bring Amazon Alexa (a more advanced version than today of course) into the helmet of every player.

Anyways, no fan wants to see football become a computer vs. computer sport, losing its nuances and turning players into puppets. Yet, we also don’t want to see football fall behind the times. The solution: methodically utilize some of the cool instruments that technology has to offer. Who knows, we might just mess around and create a better sport.

Will Big Data create an entirely new NFL?