The new United States Football League, which debuted this past weekend, is betting fans want more pro football in the lull before the NFL season begins. To win that bet, the league is experimenting with technology to make games move quickly, make refereeing as accurate as possible, improve player performance and safety tracking, and improve TV broadcasting for fans (Fox is a league investor).
USFL executives and the makers of this technology hope the NFL will also notice and perhaps adopt it. The big brother league is typically tight-lipped regarding its business partnerships and future technology plans, and would not confirm any formal relationship with the fledgling league.
But Natara Holloway, the NFL’s vice president of operations and business strategy, said the league would be keeping an eye on the USFL’s development. “We support any entity that is promoting the game of football,” she said. “We are going to learn from them and see how they are playing. Part of our innovation strategy is thinking that not all answers come from the NFL.”
Here’s a look at some of the innovations the USFL is employing.
Tennis-inspired ball-sighting technology
After an official sees the ball, eight Bolt6 optical cameras around the two stadiums in Birmingham, Alabama, and the one in Canton, Ohio, which will host this year’s games, measure its placement. If the point is in question, an umpire may request that Bolt6 be used to make the call. The company said its system can do it in millimeters using light detection and range (lidar) technology.
Bolt6 ball marking information is instantly available for TV broadcast and can be animated for the stadium crowd, just like in tennis matches when Hawk-Eye Live is used to determine if a referee has made a correct call. . And yes, some Bolt6 employees used to work for Hawk-Eye.
3D player and ball tracking
Motion tracking is an old hat in the NFL: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips have been used by players since 2014, embedded in footballs since 2017, and used to help teams maintain social distancing during the pandemic. But these sensors, provided by Zebra Technologies, record player movements in just two dimensions: forward and backward and sideways.
For USFL games, 3-D sensors on players and officials and inside game balls measure verticality. The sensors can transmit data for display on TV broadcasts almost instantly, with “less than a second latency,” said Davyeon Ross, president of ShotTracker, which developed the sensors the USFL uses but works primarily in basketball and relies on Magic Johnson as an investor.
Of all the technology in the new league, Holloway said the 3-D view of player and ball movement is the most exciting development. “I think this is going to change the game for us,” she said, adding that being able to review data on player positions – whether they are high or low on a given play – can have an effect on safety, training and performing. “You will be able to change the way people are actually moving in the game.”
First-person camera angles
The USFL distinguishes its broadcasts from those of college football and the NFL by micing 16 players (eight on each side) for TV audio at each game and by attaching a camera to a player on either team and some coaches and officials in an effort to to give the public an “inside-out view” of the game, said Michael Davies, Fox’s senior vice president of technical and field operations, which shares broadcasts with NBC and its streaming service, Peacock.
But the producers are iteratively looking at the games, upping the ante from different angles. On the first weekend of the league, a first-person view drone, created for the USFL by Beverly Hills Aerials, provided footage of the game. At some point in the season, the league will test a ball that glows, visible only to viewers, as it crosses the goal line. In Week 3, the league planned to feature on TV and in the stadium weather and wind data from the WeatherStem company collected through microclimate sensors atop the posts and a vertical laser from each post to help determine if field goals were kicked. . about them were good or not.
A substitute for sticks and chains
Fox pioneered introducing a yellow first down line to viewers in 1998, but on the field, the old-school ritual of measuring first downs with two posts and a metal chain still persists, despite the executive vice president of NFL operations Troy Vincent said in February that running “out of power” was a league goal.
To that end, USFL and Fox executives confirmed that they are in talks to implement a first-down laser at all of their televised games next season. Unlike the NFL’s yellow marker, the USFL’s lime green version will also be visible on the field. Synchronized with a chip on the ball, the First Down Laser Line uses a combination of sensors, cameras and receivers positioned around a stadium and under the pitch to measure the ball’s location to within a sixteenth of an inch, according to the inventor Alan Amron, who added that his system could automate the first down decision or allow an official to make the call by asking a watch-like device about the down, distance, ball and player location.
The laser line effort is a more than decade-long project that Amron and broadcaster Pat Summerall, who died in 2013, pitched to NFL executives. After all, no idea is new.