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The NFL is putting tracking sensors inside its footballs for the first time

The move is just a test — for now.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Grant Halverson / Getty

The NFL cares a lot about what goes inside its footballs — just ask the New England Patriots.

Which is why it’s significant that the league is thinking about making a change to the pigskin: The NFL has added a lightweight, quarter-sized sensor inside each football this preseason to measure actual game data as things unfold on the field.

The sensors, which rest just under the ball’s laces, can capture information like velocity, acceleration and distance, and send that info back to computer monitors in just half a second. The League has been using the sensors during preseason games this summer, but hasn’t yet decided if the sensors will be used in the regular season.

The NFL is putting quarter-sized sensors inside its footballs.
Kurt Wagner / Recode

The decision to “tag” these footballs may be an experiment, but data collection is not new to the NFL. The League and its 32 franchises already collect on-field data from players during every game, and many teams collect data at practices, too. And that doesn’t include the data teams collect with technology like paperless tickets or in-stadium mobile apps.

The point is for the NFL and its organizations to know every little detail, from how much players run at practice to which vendor you buy your hotdogs from inside the stadium.

In the case of game-day tracking, the NFL has hired a technology company you’ve probably never heard of: Zebra Technologies, a publicly traded tech company founded in 1969 that’s headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill., 30 miles north of Chicago. Zebra does everything from warehouse tracking for retail companies to selling industrial-sized printers.

For the NFL, though, it tracks the League’s most valuable assets: The players. Zebra created the sensors the NFL is testing with its footballs and is in its third season using similar sensors inserted into players’ shoulder pads to track their location, speed and distance traveled.

You can think of these sensors like a GPS. Small receivers placed throughout each NFL stadium issue radio waves that ping the sensors in the shoulder pads to collect information. It’s a technology known as Radio Frequency Identification, known as RFID, and the resulting data is then sent to computers monitored by Zebra employees sitting in an industrial office park in San Jose, Calif. (While Zebra’s headquarters are in Illinois, its sports tracking operations are in California.)

That info is then property of the NFL and sold to the League’s broadcast partners televising the game, like CBS and NBC. It’s also distributed to each team. Last year, Zebra captured game data for all 32 teams, but the NFL didn’t release any of it until the season was over. This year, teams will get game data within 24 hours after the game is over.

NFL game data is transferred in seconds to Zebra’s San Jose, Calif., office.
Kurt Wagner / Recode

Why does the NFL care how fast Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson runs, you might ask? Proponents of player tracking argue that in-game and training data can help keep players healthy — knowing if someone is overworked or getting fatigued late in games could help a team change up its training regimen, for example. That’s why college athletes trying to make it to the NFL are using tracking software, too.

But the data is also good business. It makes the television broadcast more appealing, which might mean more viewers. And if you add on the league’s other data collection efforts, like in-stadium apps that could help increase food and merchandise sales, you can see how the NFL hopes technology might impact its bottom line.

There are, though, still parts of the game not being measured. Zebra doesn’t put sensors in players’ helmets, for example, a logical point of interest given the rising concern around football brain injuries and their long-term effects. And even these connected footballs are just a test. It seems likely that the League will adopt them full-time eventually, but just how quickly that happens is still up in the air.

Oh, and one other thing the in-ball sensors won’t measure: Air pressure. At least not yet.

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