Sports

Firn ’16: The NFL’s technology problem

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, October 9, 2015

As the NFL grows ever popular and cements its status as an American cultural icon, the league is constantly looking to improve its product on and off the field. Anything that captures eyeballs and brings in revenue is on the table. We’ve seen equipment changes in the wake of player safety controversies and administrative changes in the wake of disciplinary controversies. We’ve seen rules altered, brands transformed and new markets explored. We’ve got football in London and football on Thursdays. Extra points finally matter. Los Angeles may even finally get back its piece of the action.

As measured in dollars and cents, the league’s strategy appears to be working — profitability and viewership are through the roof and show no signs of slowing down. Football is as quintessentially American these days as obesity and apple pie.

But even as the competition committee tweaks the rule book and the marketers unveil new color schemes, the NFL has surprisingly resisted integrating new technologies onto the field of play. The teams are doing it. They have to — fierce competition rewards and demands any competitive edge. Tablets and headsets have replaced binders and printouts on the sidelines.

But for whatever reason, the NFL has lagged behind. In an age defined by mindboggling technological capabilities, the league is missing out on concrete opportunities to improve the fan and player experience.

Instead of changing the rules, the NFL should change the technology. Of course, controlling costs is always a chief concern, but many potential changes are strikingly simple. For starters, each stadium should project a laser beam to mark the location of a first down directly on the field of play. Television viewers have this luxury; so should players and attendees. Cheap, convenient and easy.

There are others. Put mics on the players and include sounds of the game in each broadcast (of course, with a delay to control for obscenities). Take a few referees off the field and put them in a video booth. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick argued vehemently this past offseason for the installation of goal line cameras in every stadium to enhance video replay. Shockingly, he was met with steadfast resistance from the owners on the basis of cost. Surely America’s richest sports league can afford to invest in the quality of its officiating. If not, can’t it at least reposition a few of the 30 cameras at every stadium?

If the league ever changes its reactive tune and places itself on the forefront of technological applications, it could dream even bigger. Installing a microchip tracking device in footballs could determine exactly where on the field a ball is at the time a player is downed. A team of engineers at Carnegie Mellon developed such a “smart football” that it says can be produced for as little as $10. Clearly, this technology has a place in the NFL — in 2011, ESPN’s K.C. Joyner found that referees incorrectly spot the ball 7.1 percent of the time. In one game alone, spots were off by at least a yard on 12 instances. This level of imprecision is astonishing. In a game of inches, it’s also quite problematic. Watching officials bring out the chains and measure to the millimeter is as comical as it is ridiculous, considering that the spot itself is as arbitrary as a guess.

Technology has three potential roles in the game of football: making it easier for players to play, for officials to officiate and for fans to access the game. None of these three channels has been even close to optimized. But the broader point goes beyond the impact of technology. The NFL needs to start investing its billions in the game itself instead of pocketing its tax-free dollars and fiddling with inconsequential rules. Each NFL owner is incentivized to invest his share of league profits in the team’s local monopoly. The Cowboys boast a 160-foot jumbotron that weighs 1.2 million pounds, but the league can’t afford a couple of cameras on the goal line? If the owners were as willing to plow back revenues into the league as they are to invest in their own teams, everyone would benefit. A rising tide lifts all team-chartered planes.

Let me be clear — there’s nothing wrong with football. America is addicted to the sport, and no amount of tinkering seems likely to change that. But it’s naive for us to think that the game is now as good as it ever will be. I’m a Patriots fan. I’d love to see my team equipped with the latest and greatest facilities. But I’m also an NFL fan, and in the name of increased competition, better fan experience and an overall higher quality football product, I’d rather see the league invest in itself.

Mike Firn ’16 is a classic millennial. Contact him at michael_firn@brown.edu.

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