How Technology is Changing the NFL

The National Football League has come a long way.

The earliest professional football games weren’t even televised. A few decades later, the Super Bowl is the most widely viewed event in the world each year. The technology involved to pull off such a spectacle year after year is mind-boggling, but the NFL continues to innovate.

Technology and the NFL have always had a fascinating relationship. There are times when the NFL rejects new technology, only to wholeheartedly adopt it a few years later. This was the case with helmet radios. The Cleveland Browns introduced a helmet radio in 1956 to communicate plays from the sideline to the quarterback, but the innovation was banned until it was reintroduced league-wide many years later.

In other cases, the NFL is a driver of technological innovation. Viewer demand and the popularity of instant replay were major factors in the rapid adoption of high-definition television in the early 21st century. The NFL is currently pushing 3D technology to enhance the gameday experience.

Here are a few amazing technological feats that make the NFL one of the most advanced sports leagues in the world.

Incredible Video Technology

An engaging viewing experience has always been a key part of the NFL’s business model. Football fans crave great game coverage. That means having the clearest picture possible from every possible angle. An NFL broadcast uses multiple cameras from multiple angles, including unique hardware like the SkyCam and the pylon camera.

SkyCams are suspended from four cables anchored at key points around the very top of the stadium. A controller can then pilot the camera around like an incredibly stable drone. The camera can follow certain players and offer otherwise impossible views from just above the field. The only drawback? A SkyCam can be a punter’s worst enemy.

Pylon cameras are a more recent innovation. At the goal line, a millimeter can be the difference between a touchdown and a turnover. Pylon cameras are small broadcast-quality cameras in the NFL’s iconic orange endzone pylons that offer an incredible view of the goal line.

The NFL’s incredible video technology is about more than the cameras, however. Video displays in and around stadiums are also becoming more and more impressive – and essential to the game experience. The best example is the video board at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. The behemoth display, with double sideline screens each measuring 72 feet high, looms over the field and displays crystal-clear 1080p HD footage on panels the size of small buildings.

Today’s stadiums themselves are cathedrals of technology. Miles upon miles of cabling run through the bones of every NFL stadium, connecting every screen, every speaker, and every camera to control rooms. Electronic ticketing systems and stadium wifi are logistical marvels now becoming expected in a modern sporting experience.

The Digital Sideline

Technology is also affecting the game itself. The NFL is in the midst of a partnership with Microsoft that is equipping NFL sidelines with tablets. These tablets can show replays from the current game, store playbooks, and even access player medical histories and useful medical applications to aid in the treatment of injuries like concussions on the sideline.

The ability to review footage seconds after the play ends gives coaches more control over the game than ever before, and it sets up brilliant chess matches between the greatest minds in the sport.

The NFL is also experimenting with futuristic sensors in pads, helmets, and the ball itself. These sensors can measure player movements and provide live feedback to sideline personnel, commentators, and even fans; this technology is still in development, however, and may not see widespread use for a few years.

Professional football in the United States is a pioneer technology movement that opens up possibilities for other leagues around the world. Still, the Shield doesn’t embrace new technology just to boast about it; every new piece of tech has utility. In the words of NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, “It is not tech for tech’s sake. It’s tech to make the game better, safer, move faster.”

Other major sports leagues have shown a penchant for innovation as well. For example, FIFA is in the midst of testing goal line technology and video replay in leagues around the world (Major League Soccer will be testing the technology later this season). For the time being, however, the NFL continues to lead technological innovation in the sports world.