The NFL announced on Thursday they will install Zebra Technologies' real-time location system (RTLS) for sports in 17 stadiums during the 2014 NFL season. There will be zebra receivers installed in stadium that will communicate with radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters placed inside the shoulder pads of each player to capture precise location measurements, in real-time, during the game. The technology will collect data such as position, speed, and distance that will be registered and compiled into a database.
The NFL is installing this for the 15 stadiums that host Thursday Night Football, as well as in Detroit and New Orleans. The San Francisco 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving, but their "Thursday Night Football" game is actually going to be Week 16 when they host the San Diego Chargers on Saturday. I realize Saturday is not Thursday, but it is still being branded as such. Don't think too hard about it, otherwise it will give you a headache.
The NFL will use these to help boost the fan experience at games, as well as provide information that announcers can use. But I have to think this will be something that can further the work of football analytics. NFL teams won't get access to the in-game information in 2014, as the league will be using his season to measure the sustainability and integrity of the data.
One area where this could eventually lead is more accurate information about ball placement. At this point, the data is accurate to within six inches. That means they can't use it to figure out whether the ball got into the end zone, or was enough for a first down. However, it would seem to move us a step closer to having a more objective look at this kind of information. One day, debates over whether a running back got into the end zone will not exist. Sure it takes away some of the raging, but it will create a game that is a little bit more accurate, and removes certain elements of human error.