The new United States Football League, which debuted last weekend, is betting that 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 officiating as accurate as possible, improve player performance and safety tracking and enhance the TV broadcast for fans (Fox is an investor in the league).
USFL executives and the makers of that technology are hoping that the NFL will also take notice, and maybe 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 upstart league.
But Natara Holloway, the NFL’s vice president of business operations and strategy, said the league would have an eye on the USFL’s development. “We lean on any entity that is promoting the game of football,” she said. “We will learn from them and observe how they’re playing the game. Part of our innovation strategy is thinking not all answers are coming from the NFL”
Here’s a look at some of the innovations the USFL is employing.
Ball-spotting tech that takes its cues from tennis
After an official spots the ball, eight optical cameras from Bolt6 around the two Birmingham, Ala., stadiums and the one in Canton, Ohio, that will host this year’s games measure its placement. If the spot is in question, a referee can request Bolt6 be used to make the call. The company said its system can do so within millimeters using light detection and ranging (lidar) technology.
Bolt6’s ball-spotting information is instantly available to the 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 judge made a correct call. And yes, some of Bolt6’s staff used to work for Hawk-Eye.
3-D tracking of players and the ball
Movement tracking is old hat in the NFL: Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips have been worn by players since 2014, have been embedded in footballs since 2017, and have been used to help teams maintain social distancing during the pandemic. But those sensors, supplied by Zebra Technologies, register players’ moves in only two dimensions: forward and backward, and side to side.
For USFL games, 3-D sensors on players and officials and inside the game balls measure verticality. The sensors can transmit data for display on TV broadcasts nearly instantly, with a “sub-second latency,” said Davyeon Ross, president of ShotTracker, which developed the sensors the USFL uses but works primarily in basketball and counts Magic Johnson as an investor.
Of all the upstart league’s tech, Holloway said the 3-D view of player and ball movement is the most exciting development. “I think that’s going to be a game changer for us,” she said, adding that being able to review data on players’ stances — whether they’re high or low on a particular play — could have an effect on safety, training and performing. “You’re going to be able to change the way that people are actually moving in the game.”
First-person camera angles
The USFL distinguishes its broadcasts from those in college football and the NFL by miking up 16 players (eight per side) for TV audio on every play, and by strapping a camera to one player from either team and to some coaches and officials, in an effort to give audiences an “inside-out view” of the game, said Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations for Fox, which shares broadcasts with NBC and its streaming service, Peacock.
But producers are looking iteratively at the games, upping the ante on different angles. In the league’s first weekend, a first-person view drone, created for the USFL by Beverly Hills Aerials, provided game footage. Sometime in the season, the league will test a ball that glows, visible to only TV viewers, as it crosses the goal line. By Week 3, the league planned to introduce showing on TV and in the stadium weather and wind data from the company WeatherStem collected through microclimate sensors on top of the goal posts, and a vertical laser from each goal post to help determine if field goals kicked over them were good or not.
A replacement for the sticks-and-chains
Fox pioneered presenting a yellow first-down line to TV 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 NFL’s executive vice president of operations, Troy Vincent, having said in February that going “chainless” was a league goal.
To that end, executives from the USFL and Fox have confirmed that they are in discussions to implement a first-down laser in all their televised games next season. Unlike the NFL’s yellow marker, the USFL’s lime green version will also be visible on the field. Synced with a chip in the ball, the First Down Laser Line uses a combination of sensors, cameras and receivers positioned around a stadium and under the field to measure ball spotting within a sixteenth of an inch, according to the inventor Alan Amron, who added that his system can either automate the first-down decision or enable an official to make the call by asking a watch-like device about down, distance, ball and player location.
The laser line effort is a more than a decade old project that Amron and the broadcaster Pat Summerall, who died in 2013, pitched to NFL executives. No idea is new, after all.