Football is America’s most popular sport. The 2021 season averaged 17.1 million viewers per game, according to the National Football League (NFL). By contrast, Major League Baseball’s 2021 All-Star Game drew less than half that number — 8.32 million viewers, Sports Illustrated reports.
But football isn’t just beloved. It’s also brutal. In 2021 alone, the NFL says players endured 187 concussions, 71 ACL tears and 128 MCL tears. In fact, up to 68% of NFL players may be injured in a typical season, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation.
The NFL isn’t blind to football’s perilous nature. And at the core of its strategy is data.
“We have a data acquisition team … to help us evaluate the value of new data sources,” NFL Chief Data and Analytics Officer Paul Ballew said in a 2022 interview with CXOTalk. “Just because there’s more data doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s critically important to have a group that’s there supporting foundational insights.”
In the case of player health and safety, data is “a very complex, multidimensional element,” according to Ballew.
“How can we systematically reduce the probability of injury occurring in a sport that’s a contact sport?” he continued. “There is an epidemiologist’s view on this. There’s a biomechanical view of this. There’s a football operations view of this.”
A favorite refrain of football coaches everywhere comes to mind: Every play counts. It rings especially true for the NFL operations department, which analyzes about 43,000 snaps every season with the help of cutting-edge technology that’s evolving the game while also making it safer.
NFL RFID Tracking Advancements
One of the NFL’s most important partners is Zebra Technologies. As the league’s tracking provider, it tags footballs, players and referees with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to better understand movement and action on the field.
According to Popular Mechanics, players wear two RFID tags between their shoulder pad layers. Down linemen, such as defensive tackles or ends, get an extra tag in the middle of their back. Each tag emits an electromagnetic signal to receivers throughout the stadium, monitoring how players and the ball move. While player tags are 12 hertz, tags on balls are more than twice that – 25 hertz. The sensors gather performance metrics such as speed, distance traveled, orientation and acceleration, according to Therese Van Ryne, senior director of external communications at Zebra Technologies. They also gather ball velocity, rotation, distance and height.
Data is analyzed at a centralized operations center for the purpose of highlighting certain plays or attributes across broadcasts and enhancing betting books. This data is also used to address player safety.
Zebra MotionWorks Sport helps more than a third of NFL clubs keep tabs on team health, particularly when a player returns from injury.
“The coaching staff can compare the player’s maximum sustained speed or maximum acceleration pre- and post-injury, informing whether the player is ready to return to the field or if they need more time to rehabilitate,” Van Ryne said.
“Zebra’s practice solution delivers live data while practice is happening to track progress in real time, while post-practice data provides valuable information for player analysis and evaluation.”
Getting A-Head with NFL Player Data
One of the benefits of NFL RFID tracking is the ability to change the rules as the sport evolves. Consider kickoffs and punts, which are among the most violent moments of a game thanks to collisions at speeds as high as 20 miles per hour. The league studied how players moved across the field during these plays and saw trends it could fix.
Specifically, the NFL in 2018 eliminated a running start for players covering kicks and prohibited two-man wedge blocks on kickoff returns. These changes reduced concussions by 38% compared to the three prior seasons.
NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent has called the punt “the most dangerous play in football,” so the league spends significant time trying to improve it. That means looking at everything, from certain players – the gunner and the long snapper often take unnecessary hits – to the field surface as players fly around.
As more is learned about the long-term effects of concussions and hits to the head, the league is especially focused on cranial safety. That’s the mindset behind the NFL Helmet Challenge, which awarded grants for the development of unique helmets. One company, KOLLIDE, uses a liner made of 3D-printed pads and a mesh structure surrounded by a collapsible shell to lessen the impact that reaches a player’s head.
“We were able to calibrate this mesh so it can absorb and redirect the energy,” said Franck Le Navéaux, KOLLIDE research coordinator.
“It gives some flexibility and can really be conformable during an impact.”
The NFL has also expanded its use of mouthguards with built-in sensors that track kinematic data, such as the speed, force, location and severity of impacts. These mouthguards monitor player health and potentially prevent injuries.
“Sometimes a player will avoid reporting an injury to continue playing,” said Stavros Zavrakas, an IT industry veteran and founder of Orthogonality.
“If a player receives an impact beyond the safety threshold, an alert is sent to the coach to remove the player from the field and analyze the situation.”
Preparing Off the Field
The NFL has used Amazon Web Services since 2017 as its official cloud computing and machine learning provider to develop the NFL Next Gen Stats platform, capturing real-time location data, speed and acceleration for every player. While AWS data is often shown on broadcasts to demonstrate player separation or the height of a jump, it’s being used off the field for safety.
AWS is training deep learning models to track helmets, identifying and classifying certain types of events and collisions that detect when and why concussions happen. The NFL stores that aggregated and anonymized data in a data lake, which it calls a “multi-layer cloud-based architecture that will allow for re-use of data and provide the foundation for future innovation in protective equipment.” The league believes its computer vision models can extend to other common injuries, such as knee, ankle and foot injuries.
Together, the NFL and AWS have developed the Digital Athlete, a virtual rendering of an NFL player. Using AI and machine learning, the Digital Athlete’s algorithms run countless simulations of in-game scenarios, trying to understand why injuries occur and if they’re preventable. Teams can develop unique training and recovery plans and run mid-game, real-time risk analysis for injury.
Because players also take their sleep seriously, the NFL has an official sleep and wellness partner, Sleep Number, which offers technology like foot warming, custom elevation positions and a unique sleep score based on how soundly a player sleeps.
Athletes explore all options, however, and don’t rest until they find their perfect mattress. Hot sleepers, for instance, appreciate GhostBed, which features a 3D gel polymer layer that absorbs heat and drives it away. An app collects data such as sleep stage tracking and breaths per minute, while intelligent sensors automatically adjust body pressure as athletes rest.
“Recovery is essential in any high-endurance sport like football,” said Brian Hawkins, marketing manager at GhostBed.
“Quality deep sleep can help with muscle recovery and improve your productivity, memory and mood.”
From sleep to movement, it’s clear that football players are becoming more in tune with their bodies – and that the NFL is becoming more in tune with data. And because healthy players can spend their time on the field instead of on the bench, that’s as good for the game as it is for athletes.