NFL Roundup: Zebra Technologies Makes a Big Play in Pro Sports with Embedded Sensors in Jerseys

by Shahroze Husain | 10/22/2015

With the 2015 NFL season underway, coaches, analysts, and fantasy football fans are hungry for the latest and most accurate stats for making vital decisions on and off the field. The NFL looks to have found an answer. Enter Motionworks by Zebra Technologies’ Sports Solutions Division. Created by the company’s Location Solutions group, Motionworks is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking system which aims to bring better accuracy and insight into player performances than ever before. RFID systems have traditionally been used to track and trace items throughout the supply chain to enhance overall operational efficiencies but now the NFL and Zebra are tapping into this technology to create a better Football experience.

Image Source: Zebra Technologies

Zebra’s Motionworks system is an Active RFID Real Time Locate System (RTLS) which uses tags and receivers to track the players’ performances. Players have two tags embedded under their shoulder pads, which emit a unique electromagnetic wave frequency in order to differentiate each player on the field. The frequencies are collected by multiple receivers to triangulate each player position and then stored in datahubs. The data is instantly analyzed using an advanced algorithm and presented to users who are able to see player location and on-field performance in real time. NFL and Zebra present the data as Next Gen Stats, which includes performance analytics like player speed profiles, fitness graphs, play by play running routes, and more. Motionworks RFID player tracking system uses multiple unique RFID tags that are processed simultaneously and quickly by the receivers with very little energy and do not require tags to be in the line of sight allowing uninterrupted data collection. The system is used by all 32 NFL teams and is implemented across 31 stadiums, including London’s Wembley stadium, where six teams are set to play during the 2015 season.

Image Source: Zebra Technologies

We would not be surprised to see Zebra extend its reach with the Motionworks solution to other major sports and leagues, with stat-intensive sports such as Soccer and Basketball likely targets. Current alternatives to this solution in the market include Opta and Matrics. Used by Barclays Premier League in England, the World Rugby Cup, the Copa America, and the T20 Cricket league, Opta relies on global collection centers where local experts analyze video footage and information to provide up-to date stats of players and games. Opta’s data is used by some of the biggest media, channels, betting sites, teams and brands. The other big analytics provider is Matrics which is officially used by FIFA. Matrics utilizes three HD cameras to recognize all the players, referees and soccer ball on the field. The system tracks the coordinates of the objects between the three cameras and the data is relayed to the work center where analysts analyze the data and footage. Both Opta and Matrics mainly provide halftime analysis and post-game analysis due to camera based solutions requiring analysts to view video footage first and then recording statistics. In contrast, for Motionworks there is no lag between the data collected from the tags and the stats being broadcast. Looking ahead, Zebra plans to release tags in 2015 that will contain both RFID and Bluetooth communication technology enabling the integration of physiological sensing technologies such as heart monitors with real-time data transmission.

Motionworks differs from these camera-based systems in that it does not require cameras for analysis and its software can be overlayed on video to show real-time stats. This RFID technology brings a new dimension to the game with instant data communication and accuracy. Currently Zebra Technologies offers potential Motionworks clients a number of additional services including implementation and optimization of all hardware, gameday operations and maintenance to ensure 100% system performance, and analytics using its Time-Difference of Arrival algorithm (TDOA) application. This algorithm records the time of arrival of a distinct RFID signal from a player’s tag at separate receivers around the stadium. It then uses the time references of the signals to calculate the location, speed and direction of travel of the player throughout plays in real-time.

VDC believes Zebra Technologies can work with solution partners and sports governing bodies to offer its data collection and analysis platform to a broad range of application environments including:

  • Educational Institutions –Provide the Motionworks tracking solutions to schools, colleges and universities to be used by their respective sports teams and to organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Schools can use Motionworks like the NFL to track player performances in practice and in games and use the data for team and player improvement.   
  • Media and Broadcasters –media outlets, print media and sporting magazines can approach Zebra for its analytics platform to gain access to data feed services and widgets.
  • Gaming– with betting and the fantasy sports market growing, gaming organizations can use Zebra’s Motionworks analytics platforms to access accurate player stats and live data feed which they can use and integrate into their sites.

In addition, with its expertise in autoID and data capture solutions Zebra has the potential to engage the growing consumer market for fitness wearables and smart watches in the future by developing tracking sensors for athletic apparels and consumer devices such as the Fitbit and Jawbone Up. Consumer devices such as the Fitbit are popularly used for tracking health-related information such as sleep cycles, heart rate and steps travelled. Some models utilize NFC technology to communicate data quickly over to other NFC-enabled devices. NFC technology is a subset of RFID and operates via the same frequency as High Frequency RFID tags and readers. According to a recent interview by Zebra CEO Anders Gustaffson, the company has held discussions with athletic clothing manufacturers about potential partnerships to bring sensing and tracking technologies to their apparel lines. There is an opportunity for the company to partner with manufacturers such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor to produce smart clothing and wearables through the development of tracking technology which can measure movements and communicate between smart apparels and devices anywhere without the need for dedicated receivers. In its current iteration, Zebra's Motionworks technology is restricted to usage in a defined space (it requires both receivers and tags to measure movement), which it makes it unsuitable for consumer wearables that can measure movement anywhere and transmit data via Bluetooth and/or NFC. However, VDC believes this market represents a tremendous opportunity for Zebra going forward.

Ultimately, Motionworks looks to be the next big step in sports analytics and Zebra Technologies’ entrance into the sports industry displays the company’s versatility as a data capture solutions provider. The company has already expanded to sports beyond the NFL including Nascar and Soccer and has plans to add more to the mix.

(With Richa Gupta, Senior Analyst)

View the 2017 AutoID & Data Capture Research Outline to learn more.


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