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Zebra Technologies – Improving Sport Science

Zebra Technologies – Improving Sport Science
Photo: http://insidethepylon.com/nfl/2018/01/30/player-tracking-technology-and-the-nfl.

By Robert Herron, MA, CSCS*D, ACSM-CEP |

Technology is everywhere, and the game of American football is no exception. 

Last week I caught up with John Pollard, Zebra Sports Vice President of Business Development, at the 70th Annual Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The Senior Bowl is an invitation-only college all-star game that serves as an opportunity for NFL scouts to evaluate players transitioning from the college to the professional league, prior to the NFL’s annual draft. Zebra MotionWorks™ technology, the NFL’s official on-field player-tracking provider, is entering its second year as a Senior Bowl partner.

Sport analytics has expanded to include player-movement metrics within games and practices. While some companies use GPS or visual tracking, Zebra MotionWorks™ uses individual radio frequencies (RFID) to plot players on the field with, basically an “X” and “Y” coordinate. 

Zebra captures a signal from small trackers in the shoulder pads – the size of two nickels stacked on top of each other – with sensors surrounding the field of play. Each tracker has a unique radio signal that is used to track location continuously at 12 Hz (12 measures per second). These signals provide location measures that are accurate to within 6 inches, a substantial improvement when compared to the potential error from other tracking systems. 

Using this data, teams can monitor how fast a player was moving or how much separation a receiver had from a defensive back. Who is running the farthest during practice? How big was the hole that a running back ran through? Or, which defensive back breaks on the ball fastest? Zebra’s data can answer that!

More recently, the data have also been used of-the-field, to improve the television-viewer experience. Visual graphics from NFL’s Next Gen Stats, utilizes Zebra’s MotionWorks™ to show a player’s top speed or track how far a player actually ran to zig-zag around defenders and reach the first-down marker.  

Zebra® technology was also embedded inside the football itself, and has been tracked as part of a pilot program to validate the technology’s use in ball-tracking applications. The sensors in the ball are molded in the bladder and can measure how fast the ball is moving and rotation. Additionally, the ball signal can be used with player data to calculate one’s distance from the ball.

“We couldn’t be more excited about the experience that we have had here (at the Senior Bowl),” Pollard said. “The opportunity to, not only track a game, but a series of practices – and then make those metrics available to the professional evaluators is outstanding. We are continuing to expand our involvement with the Reese’s Senior Bowl and are excited to have some of our equipment at this year’s Fan Experience event.”

Pollard also added that Zebra® is interested in expanding its footprint to sports other than American football. This unique technology certainly has the potential to provide never-before-seen data to coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, sports medicine personnel, and sports-entertainment broadcasters with which they can better serve athletes and fans.     

Robert Herron is a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. Herron is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with distinction from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS*D) and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CEP). 


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