How Player Tracking and Analytics Will Change the NFL

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Make no qualms about it; advanced analytics are becoming an integral part of the professional sports landscape. While they have been around and in use for decades, the idea of using advanced analytics to aide in decision-making, scouting, coaching, and evaluating athletes at the professional level never truly took off until Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game was published in 2003. In case you are unfamiliar with the story, the book’s author, Michael Lewis, details how the Oakland Athletics and General Manager Billy Beane (pictured above), built a competitive team with one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball using an analytical approach known as Sabermetrics. Several additional MLB franchises have adopted similar approaches in recent years – all with varying degrees of success – and baseball is far from the only professional sport that has capitalized on the benefits of using advanced analytics.

More recently, advanced analytics have grown to be a major part of the National Basketball Association, as well. Despite the concept being met with some criticism, at the present time, 27 out of the 30 teams in the NBA have an analytics department, as does the league itself. Although they haven’t had the same kind of win/loss effect on the basketball court as they’ve had on the baseball diamond, there is no denying that analytics are changing the future of the NBA as we know it right in front of our eyes.

Major League Baseball may have started the phenomenon, and the NBA may have expanded the concept by making it an essential part of their game. However, it’s the National Football League that will be rolling out a new technology during the 2015 season that could take analytics to a whole new level.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After performing a test run on the technology during the 2014 season, the NFL will now be using in-game tracking equipment to collect data that will allow them to calculate and track where players are, where they’re going, how fast they’re getting there, and the routes and angles they are taking to get there. Every player in the league will have a tiny sensor tag attached to their shoulder pads that will send signals on all of their movements to receiving sensors that will be located all over every stadium in the league. The resulting data will do everything from improve the overall fan experience before, during, and after game broadcasts, and serve as an invaluable tool for coaches and team personnel executives.

The technology is still a work in progress, and the data won’t actually be available to NFL teams in 2015, but according to former NFL wide receiver David Anderson, who now works as an executive for Second Spectrum, a sports data analytics company in Los Angeles, California, it still has the ability to be game-changing.

“Coaches, scouts, and even fans will be able to easily look at the overall skillsets of players at every position on the field. For example, this will be a great tool for evaluating how well wide receivers can get off of press coverage. Is ‘Player A’ running 5-6 yards laterally to get two yards upfield? Things like this do show up on film, but now we will be able to actually quantify them.”

Anderson continued,

“I absolutely think this a good thing for the game of football, and honestly, I can’t find any negatives here. It shouldn’t result in any lost fans, but at the same time, it also has the potential to attract a different, more math-minded type of fan to the game. On top of that, the league will also be able to use this stuff to improve player safety while also making the game more entertaining and fan-friendly.”

So, where will fans be able to see this technology in 2015? For the most part, it will be available during television broadcasts during instant replays to show players’ routes on specific plays. On place where NFL fans will not find this technology implemented is on the recently released videogame Madden 16. As Madden Gameplay Designer and former NFL offensive lineman Clint Oldenburg put it, “It’s really cool stuff, next-gen types of stats. We (EA Sports) met with the NFL about how to use it in Madden, but it was actually too advanced to be fun in the video game world.”

We may not get to see the full effect of the NFL’s new player tracking analytics technology in 2015, but this is definitely something worth keeping an eye on for NFL fans going forward.