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RFID in Sports: Athlete Performance & Event Tracking

RFID Technology in the NFL

RFID in sports has been a literal game changer.

It wasn’t all that long ago when any inventory of commonly used athlete performance and event results tracking equipment included popsicle sticks.

High school cross country runners would cross the finish line and receive a popsicle stick with a number on it: their place among the finishers. Alongside the person handing out the sticks was someone else noting the time the runner finished: “#5: 18:21…. #41: 20:02… #137: 23:10…” The runners would then hand the popsicle sticks to someone else, who would record the athlete’s name, placing and school. The meet staff would then convene to connect all these data points to determine which team won, and post the final individual results and team scores. Waiting to find out how everyone did and who won sometimes took longer than the race itself. Not to mention, half a million cross country runners per year, each doing 4-6 races, add in a large number of low tech (well, at the time, industry-standard) college races… that’s a lot of popsicle sticks.

Today, even the most low budget races use RFID chips to track runners’ times and finish places. A chip or band tied onto the shoelaces or built into the back of their number bib communicates with mats laid across the start and finish lines. These combine for accurate and instant results, with the times reported relative to both the starter’s gun and when each athlete actually crossed the start line.

RFID personnel tracking enables instant, accurate results at scale for high school cross country races with a few hundred athletes to international marathons with 40,000 participants. Throughout the sports performance world, this combination of attributes – instant, accurate, scalable along every dimension – have made RFID technology almost as ubiquitous as sticks, balls and barbells.

RFID personnel tracking for the highest-level movements

Race directors working on a scale of miles and minutes only need one data point resolvable to seconds, maybe tenths of a second. Sports performance coaches, on the other hand, study their athletes moving in all directions over fractions of a meter, so they need sampling rates in the hundredths of a second.

The National Football League was the first major sports league to track player movements using RFID. Since RFID tags can be placed on a runner’s shoe or shirt without impacting their performance, it was quite easy to embed them on a football player.

Each player had an RFID tag nestled into his shoulder pad. The tag communicated with RFID sensors placed around the stadium, producing 3-dimensional positional data hundreds of times per second, which comes together in movement traces that can be visualized and analyzed in real-time by the play-calling coaches and scrutinized for hours by the sports science staff after the game. As quick and agile as the players are with every cut, spin and jump, the sensors catch it all.

RFID sensors can handle anything sport throws or swings at them

The size of RFID sensors gives them an advantage over GPS sensors used in sports training and performance. Particularly in a high impact sport like football, you don’t want anything that could break upon impact or bruise the player. The ability to embed an RFID sensor in a pad eased the technology’s adoption in the NFL.

Another advantage of RFID over GPS is that RFID can work indoors or outdoors. Teams that use GPS sensors don’t need to set up any equipment in their facility – the satellites are always there. But those sensors are only usable if the game is outdoors. What about indoor training facilities or covered stadiums? And what about indoor sports?

All of these factors converge in the National Hockey League: a high-paced, high contact, indoor (except for the Winter Classic) sport.

The NHL announced their RFID tracking ambitions in January 2019. Not only would they be tracking the players, they’d be tracking the puck. Think about it: an RFID sensor can be placed in a chunk of frozen vulcanized rubber that gets slapped around continuously, sometimes being whacked so hard it travels over 90 miles per hour before colliding with a metal goal post or pane of Plexiglass or high-density plastic boards. And yet it’s so inexpensive that teams can go through several pucks each game, allowing any RFID-enhanced puck that goes out of play to go home with the lucky fan who snags it.

Sport performance insights from RFID personnel tracking data

Like so many other areas in Big Data, the more time practitioners spend with RFID-generated sports performance data, the more applications they find.

When the NFL introduced RFID personnel tracking in 2016, they emphasized the player performance and development aspects.

Head coaches talked about how they could better devise and call plays based on the precise insights they could have about a player. If you know a player’s ability to change directions decreases significantly with fatigue, you’re not going to call a play that requires him to sprint 20 meters and make a double-cut inside late in the fourth-quarter, especially if the real-time data is telling your sports science team that he’s already starting to lag a bit.

The sports scientists and performance coaches, then, saw the potential for more individualized training. They would know an athlete’s areas for improvement over the course of a season and from game to game; they would be alerted to any changes that may indicate an increased risk of injury; and they could validate their approach by continuously monitoring his performance. The data also gave them a new route to gaining athlete buy-in: they can show the athlete precisely why they are doing something, starting with in-game data highlighting where and how he could be better.

The NFL also saw a shared component to the RFID tracking data. By making a certain amount of data open to all teams, coaches can better prepare for their opponents and improve their in-game strategies. Looking into the future, they saw the potential for a more data-driven draft day if colleges started adopting and sharing this data.

The National Hockey League sees similar RFID applications on the performance side, and adds an enhanced fan experience to it. They are experimenting with streaming options where each fan can choose what data to display during the game: a box above each player’s head showing his speed or total distance skated, the speed of each pass or shot, or custom leaderboards for whatever you want to know.

Bringing RFID personnel tracking into more sports

The sports world offers one of the most comprehensive use cases for RFID tracking technology. RFID technology touches nearly every aspect of the industry’s operations, from improving the parking experience for the fans to tracking consumer behavior within the arena to teaching a player to make a 60-degree cut one-tenth of a second faster to letting a fan at home display on her screen what she wants to know about her favorite player.

Lots of things you can’t do with popsicle sticks.

Are you a sports industry professional? WW&L is ready to talk about whatever you think RFID can do for your team and organization. Call or e-mail us today to see how we can help you gather the data to earn a few more points or dollars next season.