B2B Sports Tech Will Contribute to the Big Plays on Super Bowl Sunday

January 28, 2020 Scott Wallask

When the San Francisco 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs at Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020, the eyes of the world will be on the National Football League's big day in Miami.

Yes, elite athletes, trainers, and coaches made this match-up possible. However, behind the scenes, enterprise technology was an extra player on and off the field, proving that the tech stack serves as an important business backbone for modern football franchises. In particular, cloud computing, data analytics, and machine learning products have led to improved playing and coaching.

“The same technology used in factories, warehouses, and retail stores to track and trace the movements of people, inventory, and material maintenance management is now empowering the NFL to implement a best-in-class player and ball tracking system that is helping teams capture their edge,” TechRadar wrote

NFL football on the 50 yard line

Let’s open the playbook and look at three big ways that sports tech helps the Super Bowl contenders.

1. Data Analytics of Player Performance

The NFL places an emphasis on cloud-based machine learning and other technological innovation to develop player statistics, some in real time. The league’s big partner in this endeavor is AWS, which provides a series of products that form the foundation of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Next Gen Stats provides game-day info to teams, fans, and broadcasters.

Here’s how the system works, briefly:

  • Capturing the data starts by placing radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags from Zebra Technologies on players’ shoulder pads and the footballs themselves. AWS products such as Amazon S3 storage and the Amazon EMR big data platform capture and store information transmitted from the wearable technology.
  • Processors built on Amazon EC2 web services and EMR analyze the data, and then machine learning algorithms on Amazon SageMaker make predictions based on data patterns from the field.
  • Amazon API Gateway sends the stats to team and media tools via APIs. “The machine learning models are then deployed in real time during games to generate outputs such as formations, routes, and events,” according to AWS.

While fans don’t have access to what the coaches see or their decision-making, some Next Gen Stats are available for the public to view online. For example, the stats page revealed that San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert was the fastest ball carrier during the recent NFL conference playoff weekend, clocking in at a top speed of 21.87 miles per hour. Mostert is likely to get the pigskin again during the Super Bowl given that he scored four touchdowns in San Francisco's NFC Conference win over the Green Bay Packers.

Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill was ranked as the second most improbable play of the conference playoffs, as Next Gen Stats indicated the pass had only a 35.3% probability of completion.

2. Improving Execution on the Field

Sure, old school fans and players may have chuckled when some NFL teams started ditching the clipboards in favor of tablets, but now Microsoft Surfaces are a common technology seen on the sidelines.

These beefed-up versions of the Surface are designed to endure inclement weather conditions, hold a charge for an entire game, and endure occasional abuse (such as New England Patriots head Coach Bill Belichick throwing his Surface in early 2019). Coaches and players use the tablets to view opposing teams’ formations during a game, although the traditional option of hardcopy photo printouts is still available. 

Meanwhile, some teams -- including the Seattle Seahawks -- use the Microsoft Surface Hub to help players view videos after they do their own training tests, such as jumps, according to GeekWire.

3. Tracking Player Injuries and Recovery

Concussions and other injuries have received a lot of attention in recent years, as it’s clear pro football exacts a long-lasting toll on the bodies of the athletes. The risk of concussions in contact sports, particularly football, has caused some parents and young athletes to rethink participation, according to the Barrow Neurological Institute.

“Nearly a third of teens say they have decided not to participate in a sport because of concussion fears -- a 50% increase in three years,” the institute wrote in an August 2019 post.

AWS and the NFL recently announced a new aspect of their partnership: Use machine learning and tracking technology to treat concussed or hurt players, and perhaps even predict physical problems before they occur, all in the name of improved player safety.

“Amazon’s AWS cloud services will use its software to analyze large volumes of player health data the league is already collecting,” Forbes reported. “It will also scan video images with the objective of helping teams treat injuries and rehabilitate players more effectively.”

Further, AWS and the NFL want to create a “digital athlete” -- in other words, a computer simulation of a player using various data sources. “By simulating different situations within a game environment, the NFL aims to foster a better understanding of how to treat and rehabilitate injuries in the near-term, and eventually predict and intervene to prevent injuries in the future,” AWS said

All Companies -- Not Just Football Teams -- Can Use this Tech

On the Monday after the Super Bowl, the football players will be done staring down their opponents, but business technology end-users and software vendors will still need to tackle the week’s new work. 

Remember the role sports tech played for the Chiefs and 49ers, and draw some inspiration. Many companies already successfully use cloud computing and data analytics. As for machine learning, while there is plenty of hype, sports teams and other industries (medical research comes to mind) have shown promising applications of this technology.

It behooves any company that is knee-deep in data to evaluate machine learning, particularly via cloud systems, as a possible tool for uncovering patterns and trends.

Whether it’s analyzing a drive on the field, making it easier to prospect a new customer, or starting the annual sales kickoff with reliable data, at its best technology can bring organizations closer to the goal line. That’s something to cheer about well beyond Super Bowl Sunday.

About the Author

Scott Wallask

Scott Wallask is a director of content at ZoomInfo and Datanyze. He has more than 25 years of storytelling and editing experience, and previously oversaw a series of enterprise tech news sites. Before that, he spent 12 years covering hospital safety topics. He holds a BA degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston.

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