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Tech Ideas to Help the NFL

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The NFL projects to make $13 billion this season.  It’s time to put some of that money to work in upgrading technology in the form of more cameras on the field.

Technology in society today is amazing.  There is more technology in your cell phone (more processing power and speed) than it took to put a man on the moon.  And advances continue daily.

Sports have been reluctant to make many technological changes over time.  Most sports cite tradition and lack of evidence of advancing the game as reasons to not make changes.  Football is no different.  Helmet earpieces were introduced in the 1950’s by Paul Brown’s Cleveland team, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the NFL figured out an equitable way to do the helmet earpieces for quarterbacks, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the defense was able to have the same technology.  So, it should surprise no one that the pace of advancements in football, and sports overall, is woefully behind the pace of advancements in our general society.

However, there are 2 technologies that have been experimented with which need to be fast-tracked and made available sooner than later.  As well, there is one technology has had some TV time already in a small sense, but hasn’t been made available overall.  The one we have seen in an experimental phase is the pylon camera.  A set of wireless cameras is placed in the front end zone pylon.  Using these cameras makes it possible to see whether a player gets the football inside the pylon for a touchdown.  The pylon camera by itself isn’t completely useful without the knowledge of where the player’s body is when the ball is passing the camera.  But it was at least a step in the right direction.

Microchips

One technology that is being experimented with currently is to place a microchip in the football.  This will be able to do so many things.  For the fan, you can in real-time track the football anywhere on the field.  For the officials and in the game, you would want to be able to use this in conjunction with a goal line or end line receiver signal so you’d have instant verification that the football crossed the goal line.

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It would be like the goal signal in hockey.  As soon as the transmitter in the microchip crosses the goal line, it could be as simple as a light turning on or (if the officials still want the glory) a buzzer they would wear going off and they’d know the ball had broken the plane.  No more guessing whether the ball made it over or not.  Then the human element is still there (for the purists) – you’d have to know if a knee or elbow or some other body part was down before the signal came across.  This would be a tremendous step forward.

Currently the major hang-ups are making sure a microchip would stay secure in the ball, making it such that the players wouldn’t know there was anything in the ball (particularly QB’s), and making sure it’s tamper-proof as well as shock resistant.

Cameras

The other technology would be sideline cameras.  The Saints were possibly a victim this week of not having a good camera angle on a play when a blocked PAT was returned for a 2-point conversion by the Broncos, resulting in a 2-point win.  It appears the returner/runner stepped out of bounds on the sideline as he ran the blocked kick/recovery back to the other end zone.  However, the call on the field was that he scored and had not stepped out, and there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn that ruling.

There are currently no camera angles that pinpoint sidelines.  New technology should place fixed cameras in the stadiums that show directly down the sideline.  This isn’t as much a technology change as an additional aid for referees; similar to the technology available for tennis or soccer.  You could have multiple cameras that could triangulate where the runner is in space.  Or it could be as simple as 2 cameras beyond each end line mounted so they face directly down the sideline.  With the high definition/high resolution of today’s cameras, at least there would be the opportunity to see better.

The fallout

Football is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry.  No one is trying to overplay the fact that it is just entertainment.  But these are our entertainment dollars at work. The idea behind playing these games is for them to be fair and accurate.  No one is saying take all the human element out of the game.  I still want officials to measure for first downs and to spot the ball not based on a micro-chip, but by humans.  Sure, you could do it much more easily with the micro-chip. But people like the drama of the chains coming out to measure.  And players appreciate the break in action.

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We’re not trying to take the human element out of the game; it’s simply some thoughts to get the calls right.  While the NFL is making billions it’s also lost some viewership this season.  This would be the perfect time to introduce changes like this to help make the calls more accurate. Even if you must tweak the technology as you go. The better the product, the more people will want to see it.

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