Thursday, June 2, 2016

The NFL’s Brewing Information War

When every important decision-maker in the NFL shuffled into a hotel conference room in Boca Raton, Florida, in March for the league’s annual meeting, the scene was initially predictable: Most of the head coaches wore golf shirts, and most everyone had found a way to make the meetings double as a family vacation. The atmosphere was festive, and the pools were full of league titans. It did not appear to be the setting for the opening salvo of a war over the future of the NFL, but that’s what it became.

The meeting shifted toward discussing whether coaches should be allowed to watch game film on the sidelines during contests, a practice never before allowed. According to multiple people who were in the room at the time, Ron Rivera, the head coach of the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, stood up and asked what the point of coaching was if, after preparing all week, video would be readily available on the sidelines anyway.

“Where does it end?” Rivera said this week in an interview with The Ringer. “Can you get text messages or go out there with an iPhone and figure out where to go? What are we creating? I know there are millennial players, but this is still a game created 100 years ago.”

Rivera’s stance was among the most notable scenes during a spring in which it became increasingly clear that technology’s role in football has created a divide. On one side, there are coaches who have an old-school view of the craft; on the other are the coaches, executives, and owners who anticipate the sport undergoing the same sort of data revolution that most industries experienced long ago.

The NFL could have the technological capabilities to make a sideline look like a Blade Runner reboot. But it already has a mountain of data — it’s just that the mountain is largely inaccessible. In an effort to facilitate progress, league officials in Boca Raton pitched the NFL’s latest data technology: a system that would allow franchises to view player-tracking data for all 32 teams. If implemented, the technology would enable clubs to monitor every movement on the field for the first time, yielding raw data on player performance. For example: A team concerned about a slow cornerback could actually find out how much slower he is than Antonio Brown, who, according to data shared on a 2015 Thursday Night Football broadcast, posted a maximum speed of 21.8 mph during the season.

The proposal for teams to have access to all raw player-tracking data did not make it past the league’s Competition Committee, a group of team executives, owners, and coaches, according to an NFL official. Certain coaches griped about what might happen if other teams or the public had access to this data, and the committee told team representatives that it was too much, too soon, preventing the matter from reaching the teams for a vote at the March meeting.

“In other industries it is crazy to think you are going to limit innovation just to protect the people who aren’t ready,” said Brian Kopp, president of North America for Catapult Sports, which says it has deals with 19 NFL teams to provide practice data, but not game data. “Let’s make it all equally competitive, which is: You don’t figure it out, you start losing and you lose your job.”

Rivera, who’s coached the Panthers since 2011 and serves on a subcommittee of the NFL Competition Committee, said that introducing too much technology could “take the essence” out of the sport.

“I want to get beat on the field. I don’t want to get beat because someone used a tool or technology — that is not coaching at that point,” Rivera said. “I work all week, I’m preparing and kicking your ass. All of the sudden you see a piece of live video and you figure out, ‘Oh crap, that’s what he’s doing.’ And how fair is that?”

Two seasons ago, some NFL players began wearing two tiny chips in their shoulder pads during games. The program expanded to all players this past season, when Zebra Technologies, the company that produces the chips, also outfitted every stadium with receivers that decipher all movements on the field, measuring everything from player speed to how open a pass-catcher manages to get on a given play.

If you’re suddenly worried that you’re the only one missing out on crucial pieces of football analysis, rest assured, you’re not: Aside from a few nuggets sprinkled into television broadcasts, fans don’t have access to most league-wide data. More alarmingly, teams don’t have access to any league-wide data during the season, and, according to league officials, didn’t even get their own data from the 2015 season until three weeks ago.

Though football enthusiasts often praise the NFL for being forward-thinking, it has actually lagged behind other professional leagues amid an otherwise widespread analytics revolution, with a player-tracking section on and MLB allowing the public to access its PITCHf/x data for research and modeling purposes. While NFL teams have hired analysts for front-office roles and external parties have created websites aimed at tracking advanced statistics for fans and media, when league employees actually started to pitch head coaches on “Next Gen” statistics and technological advancements about four years ago, they were stunned at the reception.

by Kevin Clark, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Getty