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Yes, the football has a chip in it. Plus other sports technology you may not know about

bengals vs the cowboys
Michael Ainsworth
/
AP
The Dallas Cowboys line up against the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL Football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

During the Jan. 15 Bengals-Ravens wild-card game, the NFL confirmed in a Twitter thread what many fans had been wondering: there is a computer chip in the ball.

The chip is only accurate to six inches so ball measurement decisions are left up to the chain gang. There are a lot of other analytics coaches can get from the chipped ball and players who wear RFID tags.

Zebra Technologies makes the RFID tracking software NFL teams and universities use.

Here’s how players are tracked

Zebra’s Adam Petrus explains every NFL stadium has a set of receivers that are calibrated and pointed at the field. Each player wears at least two RFID tags under his shoulder pads. Linemen wear three.

“We’re able to track their movement from the very end of the back line to the end of the end zone. And so every movement is picked up by our active RFID system and we’re able to then, in real time, collect that data,” he says.

In case you were wondering, the RFID tag is the size of a nickel, has an “almost indestructible casing,” and lasts about two years.

Every player, even on the sidelines, is wearing the chips in case they go in the game.

What data is collected and where does it go?

For the football, expect stats like revolutions per minute and rotation. For the players: running back acceleration; the speed at which wide receivers are making cuts; and the time it takes the quarterback to release the football.

Petrus says the data is not being streamed live for teams.

“The NFL is collecting all this data and then post-game they generate a report. It used to be that each team would receive their own data, now the NFL allows every team to have every team’s data.”

With so many analytics, when will teams be ready for AI to call the plays?

Sportico reporter Jacob Feldman wonders if artificial intelligence could have helped the Los Angeles Chargers on Jan. 15. The team blew a 27-point lead and lost to the Jaguars 31-30 in their wild-card game.

His article, “NFL Analytics Eyes The AI Revolution,” suggests AI start with easier stuff like deciding whether to go for it on 4th and 1.

He asked former member of the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys analytics departments, Kevin Meers, if using AI to quickly analyze data and crunch out an answer for coaches would be a possibility.

“It feels like we are very, very, very, very, very, far away from that in football,” Meers told Feldman, because there are so many variables. The computer would have to know which way to tell players to run. What if somebody was injured and couldn’t go at full speed? And people are people with different emotional states.

Feldman says a more likely use for AI in football would be deciding which players to draft by comparing their numbers with NFL stats, or a sport with fewer variables like golf or tennis.

Prime Video Sports’ analytics expert Sam Schwartzstein told Feldman, “When I was using analytics to create the XFL rulebook, 95 percent of my job wasn’t actually data science. It was sales. There’s a barrier in how people from a data science standpoint communicate with people from a softer skills standpoint.”

Schwartzstein is encouraged with programs like the new chatbot, ChatGPT, that could help bridge the gap.

Ann Thompson has years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology