The NFL has been testing an emerging technology for tracking players' movements, which could result in a computer chip inside footballs so viewers could see every down measured virtually, the NFL confirmed to ESPN.com on Thursday.
Four companies were allowed to install cameras in a handful of NFL stadiums this season -- concluding with the Pro Bowl last Sunday in Miami -- where each play of the game was optically tracked and the data sent to servers. The information was processed in real time, allowing for mapping the time players spent on the field as well as their overall speed, among other things.
"This is a priority for us," said Hans Schroeder, vice president of digital media for the NFL. "What exactly that means for next [season], we're still trying to work through that."
The NFL Players Association told ESPN.com on Friday that it was not aware any testing had occurred.
"We'd like to know," said George Atallah, the assistant executive director for internal affairs for the NFLPA. "We believe that any data that's collected on players should be shared with the players."
While placing computer chips in footballs is not on the immediate horizon, the NFL is actively allowing companies to determine a way to track every play, including the location of the ball and where players specifically step out of bounds.
Schroeder declined to cite a specific timeline for when the NFL will decide which company it will contract with (it could be more than one), and when this technology will be available to fans, officials, players and referees. But he said fans could start to see some of the technology as early as next fall, perhaps on NFL.com and maybe even on the games the NFL Network telecasts. The goal would eventually bring it to every game played throughout the season. Schroeder also said broadcast partners eventually would be able to use the technology.
"We're pretty excited about what opportunities may be in the near term to enhance our game broadcast [and] to enhance what we do online in our game center-type products on NFL.com," Schroeder said. "To the extent what we do with our Madden game and game simulation, we see a number of opportunities in the near term as it relates to media-type, fan-based approaches.
"In the longer term, did the ball cross the goal line? Did he get his feet in bounds? Those are probably going to be the next phase down the road or two phases down the road just because the levels of precision and detection are so much greater."
If the NFL incorporates this next year, one of the possible changes fans would see online is tracking plays. For instance, if Peyton Manning throws a 50-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne, a three-dimensional graphic representation of the play, including where each player was on the field when the play happened, is possible. The goal would be to show that on telecasts, too.
ESPN, which has a contract with the NFL to show games, was not involved in the testing.
"We are working with vendors on developing player tracking," an ESPN spokeswoman said. "As per Disney vendor policy we do not comment on vendor partners."
According to a source, the four companies allowed to test this fall are PVI, SportVision, STATS LLC, and Cairos Technologies AG. (ESPN has business relationships with PVI, SportVision and STATS LLC.)
Schroeder said the companies were allowed to install optical cameras in "three to four NFL stadiums." PVI set up four cameras in each stadium, capturing 30 frames of action per second, said Sam McCleery, the company's executive vice president of sales and marketing.
That data were routed to PVI's computers, which turned the information around in real time. McCleery said the possibilities are endless for what the data could tell you.
"It will be able to tell you who was the fastest player without the ball," he said, "once they catch the ball, how does his speed change? Is it higher? Which wide receivers are really accelerating off the line of scrimmage?"
McCleery said PVI has been testing its technology with the NHL, installing cameras at Madison Square Garden. McCleery said there are a lot of parallels between hockey and football. For example, he said PVI's cameras can determine which player on the ice is the strongest at any given time. McCleery calls it the "strength index," which is calculated by time spent on the ice, the distance covered, and the average speed. The technology tracks every second of the game, so when a player's strength starts to dip, say after 90 seconds, coaches could know when its best to make a line change.
McCleery said PVI has provided the Rangers' coaching staff a chart which measures how each player is performing every night.
NHL spokesman Frank Brown said PVI, a division of Cablevision, has worked with the Rangers, which it owns, and that the NHL has also experimented with other vendors but that no official agreement has been reached. Brown called it "a rich area we are exploring."
McCleery said in the future, debates like which player is faster or stronger could be resolved with technology.
"It's taking a subjective comment about a player," he said, "and applying metrics to it."
All four major sports in this country are involved with various stages of technology testing. A spokesman for the NBA confirmed it worked with STATS last spring during the NBA Finals in testing player tracking, and said the league is exploring options about the future of the technology.
Major League Baseball could be the closest to going public with its new data. Last summer, the New York Times reported that SportVision -- which invented the yellow first-down line seen on football telecasts -- had been testing its system at the San Francisco Giants' ballpark and that cameras were to be installed in all 30 ballparks by 2010. A MLB spokesman declined comment.
Finding a way to successfully develop the technology for football is proving more difficult. The NFL faces problems because of the size and spacing of players, and because the ball often disappears from camera view, what's referred to in the industry as "occlusion." So far, the technology companies have been unable to develop a fool-proof system that doesn't require a manual back-up of the technology. Until they do, the NFL is withholding judgment.
"There are some additional hurdles we have to figure out how to address, that other sports don't," Schroeder said. "And I think this year we sort of recognize that this is becoming more and more important, and a great opportunity to make better products for our fans and for our [telecast] partners. So we started to put our toe in the water to see what that solution may look like for us going forward."
Brian Kopp, vice president for strategy and development at STATS, declined to comment. Jeff Jonas, executive vice president and general manager of football and emerging sports at SportVision, said he couldn't comment on anything related to football, but added that given the company's background, it "continues to be motivated to be involved in discussions" about providing the emerging technology. Officials at Cairos, a German-based company, could not be reached for comment.
Schroeder said the NFL has not struck a deal with any company -- and said it is open to entertaining others -- but it appears the league is moving closer to instituting player tracking. Schroeder said the ability to accurately measure down and distance, especially whether the ball crossed the goal line, could be a few years away.
One of the solutions for tracking the ball could be using a computer chip wired with a radio frequency, called RFID, a technology used in department store security tags and by the U.S. military to track wounded soldiers. But, according to David Wyld, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who specializes in RFID, that would require receptors implanted underneath the field. If there was bad weather that caused the field to be torn up, or if other frequencies interfered with the signal, then the technology could fail.
"It's a fascinating proposition," Wyld said, "nobody has been able to do it yet."
In 2005, Cairos partnered with Adidas and placed an RFID chip in soccer balls. FIFA and the IFAB worked with Cairos but the technology never proved effective 100 percent of the time. That didn't prevent both soccer bodies from approaching another company, Hawk-eye Innovations, the company which provides tennis replays, to compete with Cairos to develop a fool-proof system for goal-line calls in soccer.
In tennis, Hawk-eye uses cameras to capture where the balls land, then provides a 3-D graphic to show whether they hit the line. In the spring of 2008, FIFA and the IFAB decided to suddenly halt testing with both Cairos and Hawk-eye, saying the technology was insufficient. Hawk-eye denied that.
"Some people think technology is good for sports, others don't," Hawk-eye founder, Dr. Paul Hawkins, told the Associated Press. "It's a moral question, not a technical one. The shame is not that they (the IFAB) changed their mind, but that they are not honest enough to admit it. You can't say it doesn't work that's just not true."
The cameras the technology companies are using are more or less the same. What separates each company, and what might determine which one earns the contract, is the software each is developing to address the inconsistencies.
Given the history, NFL officials say they are proceeding cautiously. The league does not want to institute a technology unless it works. It is unclear if the league would have to collectively bargain anything with the NFLPA if it wants to install computer chips in the football, or use them on the players. Atallah said he was unaware if there was language in the CBA that would require the sides to negotiate.
"We want more advancement in technology," Atallah said. "We want to make the game better and safer for our players. We just feel like there needs to be more of a partnership [from the NFL] with the players in general."
Atallah said he hoped going forward the NFL would engage the NFLPA and make it a collaborative process.
Schroeder said the goal of the NFL is to always work in conjunction with the NFLPA. When and how that will occur is still unclear.
"Long-term we know where we want to get to: tracking all 22 players and [the] ball with a precision that is to the inch level is the ultimate goal," Schroeder said. "How we get there is still something we need to figure out."
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. You can reach her at email@example.com.