American Footballer

Sports tech: American football gets tough on player protection

Image credit: Nike, getty images

Donald Trump says the National Football League has gone soft. Yet it’s the sport’s money men who want to protect their star assets.

When a woman fainted at a Republican Presidential rally in Florida on 14 October, Donald Trump was impressed that she almost immediately regained her composure. The Donald couldn’t resist using the situation to have a dig at one of his favourite bugbears, though - the NFL.

“See, we don’t go by these new and very much softer NFL rules,” he quipped. “Concussion, oh! Got a little ding on the head, no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season. Our people are tough.”

It’s not the first time Trump has taken a pop at the NFL. In January, at a Republican rally in Reno, Nevada, he declared that American football was boring as well as soft.

This time, Trump recalled the good old days when American football legends like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke played, or knocked the hell out of each other, while incidentally chasing an oval ball around a grass pitch. Trump complained that these days, American football referees flag for a foul as soon as there’s any physical contact between players.

‘Vote for me to make the nation tough again’. That’s Trump’s real message.

Some of the physicality has been taken out of the NFL over the last 20 years, but this is not down to lily-livered lefties and their health and safety manuals. It’s because billionaire owners and NFL bigwigs think that doing so is good for business.

The average NFL franchise is worth $2.34bn. Between them last year, the 32 franchises turned over $13bn in revenue. According to Forbes, the 10 richest NFL owners are worth $66bn combined. Seattle Seahawks’ Paul Allen tops the list with a personal fortune of $18.9bn. Stan Kroenke of the LA Rams and Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins are joint second with $7.4bn.

For men like this, today’s NFL players aren’t just sporting heroes, they’re corporate assets. Butkus never earned more than $50,000 a season during the 1960s and early 70s; this year, Carolina Panthers gave their quarterback, Cam Newton, a $103.8m contract extension. On average, NFL players earned $2.1m apiece last year, and the total wage bill for all 32 teams was $3.6bn. 

An NFL owner paying that much money wants the player fit and healthy on the pitch, performing at their best. He also wants them winning games and trophies, attracting fans, sponsors and increasing revenues. What owners don’t want is their stars in hospital with a broken leg, or worse still, a concussion.

Head injuries and concussion have always been a part of the NFL. Yet sadly for Trump and the other old-school ‘dogs of war’ fans, lawsuits have not.

Many former NFL players have been diagnosed with, or shown symptoms of, motor neuron disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had a severe blow or repeated blows to the head.

In 2014, the NFL paid out $1bn in an out-of-court settlement to thousands of former players. The League was also accused by a Congressional investigation of seeking to inappropriately influence a government research programme into American football and brain disease. More recently, the NFL announced that it would spend over $100m on concussion research. The League already spent $30m on this, back in 2012.

Moving the goalposts

For Thursday night live games this season, NFL decision-makers have put microchips in the ball. Bosses want to find new ways of making extra field point goals more difficult and as a result, more exciting for fans. The best way to do this, they believe, is to track the ball.
The half-ounce radio frequency identity (RFID) module, developed by Zebra Technologies, is placed under the laces of the ball. It contains an accelerometer and GPS. During the game, sensors placed around each stadium ping the chips to determine the location, speed, spin and trajectory of the ball.
The information goes back to Zebra analysts within half a second and they use an algorithm to work out statistics. NFL decision makers then monitor these statistics during the season and can draw conclusions about how best to move the goalposts to achieve the more exciting field goal scenarios they think fans want.
These Zebra chips are already put in NFL players’ shoulder pads to track player movements during games. TV cameras tend to focus on the quarterback, following the ball downfield only after he’s thrown it. The part of the game where receivers and defenders outmanoeuvre each other to get into a position to either allow or block the quarterback’s throws goes largely unseen.
The microchips send 25 signals per second and can work out a player’s location within six inches (15cm), at any point. Zebra analysts correlate this data and the NFL can send it out to franchise coaches, broadcasters and journalists and fans, to give them deeper insights into what goes on during a game.

When Trump was growing up, big strong men battled it out on the football field for points, trophies and the machismo bragging rights. Today, the NFL is as much about revenues as results.

Last year, NFL clubs made $1.2bn from sponsorship deals. The NFL itself secured a $20.4bn deal with three US TV companies to broadcast games. The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, earned $34.1m in 2014.

However, there’s a lot of competition for sponsorship dollars these days. Because of this, what happens on the sport field is far too important to leave to unpredictable and uncontrollable things like a contest of skill between players.

Like any other modern day sport with a big market, NFL matches are regulated, packaged and delivered to enable players and teams to produce the sort of spectacle that the money men at the top think will rake in the cash. Technology enables the bosses to do this better than ever before.

These days, fans who go to the stadium on match day want something more than a seat in the rafters and a hot dog at half-time. All major NFL venues have Wi-Fi. When play stops for time outs, half-time, an injury, or a set piece, clubs and the NFL send statistics, replays and sponsors messages straight to fans’ personal devices. The bombardment starts during the pre-match build-up and continues long after play finishes.

The Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium, which opened at the start of the 2016 season, has 1300 wireless points built into handrails in the stands. The ground also has 2000 flat screens around the ground and two massive video screens at each end of the pitch. Premium ticket holders get information about other live NFL games sent directly to screens in their area and in an interactive museum, fans can take part in virtual reality training drills and game scenarios.

That’s just the fans inside the ground. To maximise revenues, sports bosses try to reach fans and potential fans 24 hours a day, wherever that person may be. Just like any good marketing man or religious guru, these big shots want their product to become part of that person’s daily routine.

Over 111 million tuned in to CBS to watch last year’s Super Bowl, the NFL’s grand final, between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. Over 200 million viewers watched NFL games in 2014, but not everyone watches sport on TV.

This season, Twitter is streaming 10 live Thursday night NFL games. Over two million watched September’s clash between New England Patriots and Houston Texans. The NFL is also the first sport league to have its own Snapchat Discover Channel. Snapchat produces stories for every game.

Yet there’s more to the NFL’s engagement with its fans than just watching games. An official NFL app enables fans to predict what might happen during the game, before it happens. An Xbox app provides fans at home with a real time pitch side view of their favourite games. Whistle Sports sends official NFL-branded content to 257 million people. That’s skills competitions, trick shots, impersonations of top stars, short comedy films and workout videos.

Several NFL franchises have partnered with Swyft media to offer branded content through iMessage apps. Pro-football Hall of Famer Cris Carter runs pre and post-match analysis on Periscope, Twitter’s live streaming app. Some NFL stars have signed up to Starliink, a video app that allows fans to speak directly to famous people.

Other sports have taken fan engagement even further. NASCAR drivers for instance, use social media to stay in contact with fans during the actual race, if there’s a delay, say, for a crash or bad weather.

During Formula E races, where drivers use electric cars, fans can vote for their favourite driver. The most popular driver then gets a temporary power boost of 100kJ, which can boost their car between 180 and 200kW, depending on the length of time they want to use the extra power.

Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag openly admits that this contest is no longer purely about the skill of the participant and the performance of the car. Sounds more like sports entertainment than sport. Like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment.)

The results of WWE wrestling matches are pre-determined for maximum entertainment value. Yet last year, WWE turned over $658m, so from a corporate perspective, who cares whether it’s a proper sporting contest?

Actually, Trump once made a string of appearances for the WWE. At one point he fought wrestling boss Vince McMahon in a match where the loser would get his head shaved. Obviously Trump knew in advance that he would win the match and that his trademark hairdo would be safe.

At time of writing, with Hillary Clinton eight points ahead in the polls, Trump might wish that the US Presidential election was being run under WWE rules.

Editorial note: this article was written before the results of the US election were known

High-tech head protection

Over the years, the NFL has encouraged the development of new technologies to lessen the risk of concussions during games. This includes helmets that attach to the player’s shoulder with a material that stays rigid under sudden impact and skull caps that use sensors to gather head-impact data during a collision.

There’s also a helmet that absorbs impact forces like a car bumper. Engineers and neurosurgeons from helmet development company VICIS and the University of Washington have used technology from the automotive industry to design a multi-​layered flexible helmet called the Zero 1.

The helmet has four layers. An outer shell, made from bendable plastic, gives way on impact and then returns to its original form. Two inner layers enable the helmet to fit an individual player’s head shape. Lastly, a core layer acts like a shock absorber to protect the player against head-on and glancing impacts.

The core layer consists of columns made from a resilient polymer that bends in any direction when compressed. The columns vary in length and thickness around the helmet and upon impact, they move from an ‘I’ into a ‘C’ shape and then back into shape in milliseconds. According to VICIS, this slows down the acceleration before the blow reaches the player’s head, reducing the force from the blow by between 20 and 50 per cent.

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