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How Technology Has Changed Football

NFL Football Image

Super Bowl 52 is upon us. As the best players in the NFL get ready for their final game of the season, we’re looking at how technology has changed America’s game. Though television technology has radically changed the viewer’s experience throughout the years, we focus on the experience on the field and how on-the-field technological innovations have changed the way that NFL games are played.

Helmet Audio

One of the most impactful technologies for the game of football has been the in-helmet audio that allows coaches to relay plays to quarterbacks and defensive captains. While radio technology has existed for many years, it wasn’t until 1956 that two inventors, John Campbell and George Sarles, came up with the idea for in-helmet radio and took it to Paul Brown, then coach of the Cleveland Browns. Up until that point, quarterbacks received plays only through substitutions and through hand signals. When Brown secretly used the technology in an exhibition game against the Detroit Lions, he could relay plays without using so many substitutions and could keep his main starters in the game for longer.

Eventually, the commissioner banned the in-helmet technology because it created an unfair advantage for the Browns. It wasn’t until 1994, when the NFL wanted to cut down on the play clock to speed up games, that the league finally approved the use of in-helmet technology for all teams. Its use for the defense was introduced league-wide as recently as 2008.

Instant Replay

Another game changer was instant replay, the game footage that helps referees make decisions about the accuracy of game calls. The technology was used in NFL games as early as 1986, but its use was clunky and slowed down games. The league therefore stopped using the technology before the 1993 season. In 1999, instant replay technology finally caught up with the need, and the NFL reintroduced it for game use. Now coaches can frequently challenge referee calls, and overturned verdicts can have large impacts on the trajectory of each game.

Sideline Play Review

Another recent technological change affects the way that players and coaches are allowed to review their past plays and formations. As late as 2013, NFL coaches were obliged to receive faxed black and white images of their formations from above to determine where a play went wrong or where the defense was aligned correctly. NFL rules stated that the images could not be in color and could not be accessed on tablets or computer screens. That changed in 2014, when the NFL introduced its own line of tablets made specifically for the sidelines. These tablets provide high-resolution color images that coaches and players can zoom and draw on. To prevent any cheating, however, they cannot access the Internet or install any additional technology that might provide a competitive advantage.

Apparel Fabrics

In addition to on-the-field technology improvements, it makes sense that there would be alterations in player apparel as well. According to Popular Mechanics, the shift in NFL uniform technology occurred in 1997. The Denver Broncos created a new uniform with a stretchy side panel to promote better movement. Now the entire uniform stretches, and the innovations have not stopped at the fabric’s elasticity. Many current uniforms are engineered to be cooling, sweat wicking, and harder to grasp—bad news for defenders looking to stop ball carriers in any way possible. This change favors the offense and leads to higher-scoring (and, some say, more entertaining) games.

Viewer Technology

Though we have mostly focused on on-the-field technologies, there are a few notable ways that the way we view football has changed.

TV Technology:  TV and Internet technology has broadened the reach of the NFL both domestically and abroad. Fans can keep up with their favorite teams and players with the click of a button. They can even put themselves into the experience with Fantasy Football teams and other fan competitions.

First Down Line:  In addition to having a broader reach, watching football has become more accessible to less-knowledgeable fans. An example is the computer-drawn line that denotes the first down line on your TV screen. It doesn’t exist on the field, but this ever-present line helps even experienced viewers judge whether a player has reached the first down marker.

Video Scoreboards:  The experience inside the stadium has also changed. Not only can fans now see replays in high-definition, players and coaches can use these high-def screens to review plays as well.

Future Technologies

So, what’s next? How will technology continue to change the game in 2018? Here are three ways that football will change this year:

RFID transmitters:  The NFL, Zebra, and Wilson have been collaborating on Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) tags in footballs and in player apparel since 2014. Data points collected during games can both get fans excited to learn more about the players they know and love and provide valuable information about how successful players move and interact on the field. In 2017, Wilson introduced RFID-tagged balls into every NFL game, capturing location and performance data 25 times per second during every play, according to the NFL.

The data points or “Next Gen Stats” listed above could be the next step to providing viewers with a more immersive and augmented reality football experience. With knowledge about how each player moves and interacts on the field, the NFL can provide a more informative and exciting experience for viewers. Maybe sometime in the near future we will experience professional football as a 3D, immersive experience. Then we can all experience how technology has changed the way the game is played.

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