Two weeks into the NFL season and constant scandal has forced everyone to forget that this is the year the NFL will be forever changed. Not by the new anti-abuse, drug or DUI punishments, or the relinquishment of absolute power by league commissioner Goodell, but by the datafication of NFL players themselves -- this year players will wear Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips embedded into their uniforms for the first time.
Datification quantifies life; things that we typically think of as immeasurable: the beauty of a sunset, why some people are more successful, or what makes one brand reach a tipping point while others fail. Some of the effects of this on the NFL will be obvious: players can improve their performance, coaches will change game plans, owners will sell new products and services, and fanatical fans will be more engaged. But these just scratch the surface.
Here are the top five ways datafication will make the game fundamentally different than the game you used to know:
- The power of an offensive player will become simple physics. Football is really a game of physics; how one object hits another and how each dissipates energy -- which player wins when the two collide. This happens all over the field each play. Dominant players possess an intangible magic. Datafication makes it possible to tell which players have inherent body motions, tendencies, and musculature that helps them win these battles more often. Teams will draft and develop an offensive line based upon their mathematical ability to dissipate and deflect energy; they will utilize runners with the ability to absorb energy while still maintaining forward or vertical momentum.
- The magic of a shut down corner will be simple geometry. Pass defenders and run stoppers make instinctive split second decisions about which angles they take, when they cut inside, or when they leap for the ball. Datafication will remove the magic and allow coaches to create and train their secondary and safeties to simply play the odds. The team that does the mathematically correct things more often will win.
- Dataficiation of student players. These changes in the NFL will have a far more reaching impact. Young players in pee-wee system will be taught motion dynamics and body positions. Training techniques will incorporate the disciple of the martial arts, not just raw violence. Scholarships and nearly every other aspect of how future players are evaluated and courted by college and NFL programs will be based upon a comparison of each individual's performance data and biometric statistics to that of league leading players. Parents will soon be buying RFID readers as part of their kids yearly football equipment.
- Robot referees. Referees are also being datafied. Long-time fans know that most bad or missed calls are a result of the referee being in the wrong place at the critical moment. Datafication makes it possible to analyze where each referee was relative to the ball when good or bad calls were made -- forcing them to adopt better positioning. There will be a steep drop in both bad calls and the need for momentum-killing instant replay timeouts.
- Increase in fan attendance. Improvement in televisions, better instant replay, and fantasy football have all reduced fan attendance. The first two give the home viewer a better experience than anything that could be duplicated on jumbotrons -- at a much lower cost than going to the game. Fantasy football keeps fans out of the stands because they are actually more involved in their fantasy team than their real team. In-stadium analytics will be able to offer a superior experience to those who attend. Stadiums will hold back some of the data so that private, in-stadium feeds create a richer experience -- think Levi's Stadium with its 1,200 wifi access points.
There is one huge downside to the datafication of NFL football. 49er technologists have already reported a drop in fan engagement. It's sad that the game so many people rely upon to take them away from their daily life will be pulling them right back into it: face down, nose planted on a 4-inch screen while some of the best athletes in the world play one of the most dynamic games in the world. But the data itself will be pretty cool.
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