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Technology tracks players’ speed on football field

When NFL players begin the new season on Thursday, most of them will wear two quarter-size sensors that will 
track their speed, distance, and other information during the course of a play. Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Stew Milne/USA Today Sports

When NFL players begin the new season on Thursday, most of them will wear two quarter-size sensors that will track their speed, distance, and other information during the course of a play.

Has Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski lost a step since his knee injury?
Does Darrelle Revis really cover opposing wide receivers tighter than any other defensive back?

Soon, topics like these may no longer be just fodder for barroom debates. New technology being deployed by the NFL this season aims to answer questions about player performance with hard data on every move they make on the field.

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When NFL players begin the new season on Thursday, most of them will wear two quarter-size sensors, one under each shoulder pad, that will track their speed, distance, and other information during the course of a play.

That data will be available to TV broadcasters so they can provide a more detailed explanation of how a key moment in the game unfolded, such as documenting the faster speed of a receiver who beats a defender to the ball.

“We’re thinking about how your broadcast could be enhanced with information about the mobility of players,” said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer. “We’ve got to work through all the specifics of what we show to whom, and when. What’s the right level of data? But it’s definitely an exciting time.”

The system was developed by Zebra Technologies, of Lincolnshire, Ill.

Gillette Stadium, home to the New England Patriots, is among the arenas that will have the tracking network installed for this year’s season. Only 17 stadiums will have the technology for now, including all that will host a Thursday night football game broadcast by the league’s cable network.

The sensors will send a constant stream of signals wirelessly to receivers mounted inside the stadiums. Each player’s speed, acceleration, and distance traveled in real time will be recorded. So instead of relying only on their eyes, fans can know for certain whether Gronk is still faster off the line of scrimmage than the defenders assigned to him, or measure how closely Revis sticks to his man — and compare both players to their peers at the same position.

All of the broadcast networks that air NFL games will have access to the data, but several have said they are not sure if and when they would use it as part of their on-air graphics, saying they need time to determine how more statistics could augment — not clutter — their telecasts.

The player data also could be integrated into the many mobile applications that teams and commercial developers have made for fans to use during games, or added to the replays shown on a stadium’s jumbotron. And the data could even serve as a scouting and evaluation tool for coaches.

Some NFL teams already use GPS chips in practice, to monitor workloads for players returning from injuries, for example. The Patriots declined to say whether they use such player tracking technology.

For in-game use by all players, the NFL determined through testing that Zebra’s radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is more reliable than GPS, which was subject to signal problems on a busy sporting field.

Live player tracking is just one of several high-tech experiments by the Patriots and the NFL to add convenience, information, and even sex appeal to the viewing experience. Among the new features on the Patriots Gameday app this year is a live video stream devoted exclusively to the team’s cheerleaders.

“I know that 365 days a year, [the cheerleader page] is one of the top two most-visited sections on our website,” said Fred Kirsch, Patriots vice president of content. “Let’s see if the same thing applies to people coming to the game.”

The Patriots Gameday app is fully functional only on Gillette Stadium’s Wi-Fi network. It already includes video streams from the sideline, end zone, and other angles, as well as access to the popular RedZone channel, which shows live plays from other NFL games when teams are in scoring range. The idea is to give fans at the game some of the channel-flipping, closeup-viewing comforts they enjoy when watching from their sofas.

In addition, the app can provide such information as whether the bathrooms have lines, thanks to carefully positioned smart cameras.

Fans in select sections can also use the app to order food and beverages from their seats, and then be alerted when they can pick up the grub at special express lines.

The team reports about 65,000 people have downloaded the app, almost enough to fill the stadium.

Even fans who have not downloaded the app could be on the receiving end of digital communications from the Patriots this season. Kirsch said that the club will experiment with Apple’s iBeacon technology, which uses low-power transmitters installed at the stadium that can detect and communicate with any Bluetooth-enabled Apple device within range. Fans entering through the ticket gate could see their iPhones light up with invitations to try the latest concession fare or to take advantage of discounts offered at the pro shop.

At some point this season, Patriots fans might even use their mobile devices as tickets, said Jessica Gelman, the team’s vice president of customer marketing and strategy. The Revolution soccer club, also owned by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, has been piloting a mobile ticketing program this season.

Ironically, one of the biggest barriers to a mobile ticketing rollout at Patriots games is all the other battery-draining reasons the team is giving fans to use on their smartphones.

“If you’re outside tailgating, watching video of another game, and you get to the gate and your phone is dead, that’s a problem,” Gelman said. “So we’re investing heavily in charging stations this year.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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