When Sports and Tech Collide

November 16, 2015 by Trevor Gamblin

Over the past two decades, communication devices and the age of computers have transformed the way we view and study sports, and it's not stopping any time soon.

Over the past two decades communication devices and the age of computers have transformed the way we view and study sports, and it's not stopping any time soon.

If you're an avid NFL fan like myself, you've probably come to take for granted technologies such as the well-known 1st & Ten system, which has been in use since 1998 (and got its first go with a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens). It's the tech that lets us see the locations of the line of scrimmage and first down marker by projecting it on television feeds. More recently, you might have heard about some communications issues (conspiracy!) at Gilette Stadium, where opposing teams routinely claim to hear the Patriots' radio broadcast through the headsets and helmets they'd otherwise use to gameplan against their opponents. So to what extent does the advancement of electronics (and wireless technology in particular) find its way into American football, and sports in general? I'll cover a handful of examples here, mostly from football, but also hockey.

American Football - Wireless/RF Technology

In the NFL there is one particularly iconic use of radio electronics to support the game (in contrast to the reported communications issues mentioned earlier). One player on offense and one on defense are allowed to wear helmets outfitted with radios, which allow them to receive voice from the coaching staff on the sidelines. This is usually assigned to the players on the field who call audibles and pre-snap adjustments - always the quarterback on offense, and usually (but not always) one of the middle linebackers on defense. These helmets are clearly marked with a green circle on the back:


Perhaps more impressive than a radio for a player or two to hear from the coach is a development from Zebra Technologies allowing real-time tracking of players via RFID chips implanted into shoulderpads. These chips allow the NFL to track player movement and provide us stats on speed and distance travelled over the course of a game. Now that the system is installed in every NFL stadium, you can expect that more advanced metrics on situational and overall player performance will become available soon.

American Football - Other Technology

RF tech certainly isn't the only place where American football (and the NFL in particular) has been taking advantage of complex equipment. Another great example is their extensive use of camera technology to bring viewers angles and zoom levels that would otherwise only be available in video games. One such way they do this is with the so-called Skycam device, which you'll probably recognize as that odd apparatus hanging from multiple long cables over the field. Wikipedia actually has a pretty good description of the different system components, but essentially it consists of a central computer and HD camera housing controlled by some very robust reels that allow it to pan and "fly" back and forth across the field. I'm told there's a similar device in use in football/soccer.

Another example of camera use to aid in the game is the Pylon Cam, which appears very useful as a way to verify goal-line play success or failure, among other things. Although the presence of a dog pile will certainly continue to make it difficult for officials to tell if the ball actually entered the endzone before the runner was down, the Pylon Cam will certainly add an extra angle to analyze such plays from (because who doesn't loathe having their team lose a game over a bad call?).

FInally, it should be no surprise that the use of drones by officials and fans should be a growing topic. While we haven't seen much of this yet, there have been a few instances where sports fans have been responsible for controversy and discussions on safety. With the FAA's recent and future rulings on the use of drone technology (and the potential for a licensing system to be implemented in the near future), we're sure to see more autonomy in the equipment sporting venues use to bring us a complete experience.

Hockey Technology

I'll admit that even though I am Canadian, I don't know that much about hockey, so I'll keep this brief. Like Zebra Technologies and the NFL with their player tracking tech, the NHL has made an effort to track both player and puck movements. The first attempt was a tool called FoxTrax, which was used between 1996 and 1998, with mixed reviews. The glowing puck was largely considered to be an eyesore against the white color of the rink. More recently, the NHL has again implemented a means to track the puck but also the players, providing essentially the same effect as that done by Zebra above (although the football still doesn't contain sensors in that case).

The inside of a FoxTrax puck, image taken from

The most interesting aspect of all of these developments is the potential for advanced analytics, whether for the purposes of competition, health or betting. It's hard to speculate the end result of their reach, but everything from fantasy sports to in-game strategy will likely see new trends as teams and fans have access to so much more information regarding their favorite players. It seems pretty reasonable to me that something like this could even settle debates regarding MVP voting and the "greatest player" arguments in the NFL, NHL and elsewhere.