New technologies are ready to assist NFL referees

A tough call on first down, a matter of inches, potentially determines the Patriots’ fate in a crucial game. The referee tunes out the stadium chaos, puts on a pair of goggles, and enters virtual reality. He sees the field as a three-dimensional grid. He focuses on the yellow line indicating the distance needed for a first down. From his vantage point, the line slices through the tip of the ball. The referee signals a first down, backed by the kind of computer-generated accuracy that thrills engineers and silences critics.

This is not the NFL of the future. This is, technologically speaking, the NFL that is possible today.

With a little time and money, anything fans see on NFL broadcasts, such as the yellow first down line, can be adapted to official use. From an engineering perspective, there is no shortage of options for new officiating technology, including virtual reality goggles, sensors implanted in footballs, cameras that chart every on-field movement, and intelligent equipment that relays data about players.

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“Technology isn’t really the hurdle,” said Kim Blair, founding director of MIT’s Center for Sports Innovation. “You wouldn’t necessarily have to invent anything hard like new sensors or new data communications protocol.”

That may come as frustrating news to Patriots fans, players, and coaches, as well as other NFL followers. Earlier this season, when a last-second Baltimore Ravens field goal attempt sailed over an upright and replacement referees called it good, the Patriots suffered their second loss of the season and questioned the ruling.

As controversy swirled, Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating for the NFL, tweeted that the play was not reviewable because “you cannot determine when exactly the ball is directly over the pole.”

But according to engineers, precise, three-dimensional object tracking is done every day and it’s easy to set up.

A few high-speed cameras carefully positioned around the end zones and some ball-tracking software can get the job done for field goals, making it the easiest NFL scoring play for technology to handle. In fact, NFL broadcast graphics created by Sportvision already provide three-dimensional field goal tracking for television viewers.

At this stage, introducing additional technology for NFL officials is more a business problem than anything else. It takes financial incentives and, ideally, league backing to turn entertainment, military, aerospace, and other technologies into systems suitable for sports. And the cost-benefit analysis for everyone involved hinges upon how officiating technology affects the character of the game.

“We’re always interested in the possibility of technology improving our game, including officiating,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. “We will continue to look at ways that any type of technology can make our game better.”

The new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association provides for a Technology Committee. The committee will meet at least once a year and “discuss effective ways for the NFL Officiating Department and Game Officials to utilize technology for the transfer of video.”

While the NFL’s Competition Committee serves as gatekeeper for new technology and all final decisions about implementation still rest with NFL owners, the Technology Committee gives officials a greater voice in what is needed on the field and what might work best.

“There are 121 guys who are NFL officials, and some of them, in their other walks of life, are exposed to lots of different technologies,” said NFLRA president Scott Green. “There may be something that we see in our other life that we think might have some beneficial applications.

“We just want to be able to talk to the league about it. It also gives us a heads-up on ideas the league may be hearing about.”

Sensors for soccer

Soccer provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when a sport isn’t receptive to officiating technology.

At the 2010 World Cup, a referee denied a goal that hit the crossbar and bounced behind the goal line. He did not have the benefit of television replays that showed it wasn’t even a close call. It was an egregious and embarrassing error.

Confronted by frustrated fans and players, FIFA, international soccer’s notoriously conservative governing body, reexamined the use of goal-line technology that would signal when a player scored.

Following that World Cup, FIFA established standards for goal-line technology it would license, and it put out an open call for proposals. This summer, after testing several approaches, FIFA approved the Hawk-Eye and GoalRef systems.

Developed in Great Britain, Hawk-Eye uses high-speed cameras to detect when a ball crosses the goal line, almost identical to the systems it employs in tennis and cricket. GoalRef, as described by its Germany-based creators, uses an invisible magnetic curtain that hangs behind the crossbar and the goal line. When a ball embedded with sensors passes through the invisible curtain, the system signals a goal. Its creators liken GoalRef to electronic theft protection in stores. In stadiums with goal-line technology, referees will wear wristwatches that vibrate and receive a text message when the ball crosses the line.

“The variety of companies that showed an interest in goal-line technology in soccer ranged from somebody inventing things in his garden shed to large multinational companies who have spun out from military technology, from ballistics tracking systems,” said Dr. Andy Harland, director of the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in Great Britain, who counseled some of the companies that submitted proposals.

“FIFA ended up getting some of the finest minds from around the world focusing their attention on how we can solve the problem of goal-line technology in soccer. What is clear to me is that no sport has the capacity to solve all of its problems within the sport.”

Nettlesome nuances

While Hawk-Eye and GoalRef demonstrate that reliable goal-line technology is possible for soccer, developing goal-line technology for football is a more complicated and potentially more costly problem.

The NFL has looked at sensors in footballs to assist with goal-line calls for years, but Aiello said, “There just hasn’t been a solution that anyone feels works.”

In the NFL, body parts cross the goal line repeatedly and can conceal the ball on a scoring play. Plus, a player must have possession when he crosses the line, and technology struggles with subjective decisions such as ball control.

“When we’re getting into more complex things like determining ball possession, I think we’re a ways away from technology being able to make some of those calls and get it right,” said Blair, who is also director of the Cooper Perkins sports engineering group. “The nuances of the NFL game can make it difficult.”

As a result, any new NFL officiating technology likely will address more straightforward aspects of the game. Green anticipates that officials will communicate wirelessly in the not-too-distant future, eliminating the wait while referees sprint downfield to huddle with their crew members.

Off the field, video technology is a valuable training tool, allowing officials to review a greater volume of calls and player tendencies between games. Green hopes there will be continued technology upgrades in the training department.

When asked if the NFL would consider technological assistance for calling first downs and marking the line of scrimmage, Aiello said, “As technology evolves, we’ll certainly be looking at it and we’re open to it. Innovation is one of our core values.”

That said, the NFL believes its current use of instant replay is particularly effective, helping officials with the toughest calls while generally not distracting from the game.

When it comes to the NFL and other popular sports, engineers, league officials, and referees agree that new technology succeeds only when it improves both the accuracy of calls and the game experience for fans.

“If the game becomes too mechanistic, if there’s no room for interpretation, then suddenly there’s no room for supporters,” said Harland.

Also, if technology disrupts the flow of the game, it doesn’t succeed.

When the NFL adapted instant replay from broadcasts to official use in 1986, the technology initially fell flat with fans because it caused lengthy delays.

“Technology can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be overbearing and intrude on what makes the game great,” said Green, who has been an NFL official for 22 years. “You don’t want to be watching some guy in a spacesuit running around, trying to look through goggles and make decisions.

“It’s still a game played by humans and coached by humans and officiated by humans. There’s a certain element that’s never going to be perfect.

“You can work to make improvements, but you don’t want to take away from what makes it the most popular sport in America. Putting on goggles and running around the field seems pretty extreme to me.”

Weighing the costs

Developing graphics for everything from NFL to NASCAR to Olympic broadcasts, Sportvision frequently figures out what works from a sports perspective and from an entertainment perspective. To come up with the right visual enhancements, the company asks three basic questions: Is a particular type of play important? Does it happen a lot? Is it hard to see?

If the answer to all three is yes, then Sportvision believes a graphic highlighting the play will add value for viewers. That thinking has produced yellow first-down lines, player route trails, and pass and kick tracking in the NFL.

And the three questions might offer leagues an effective way to focus searches for new technology.

Sportvision CEO Hank Adams said any of the company’s broadcast graphics could be adapted to assist officials. From the technology standpoint, it’s mainly a matter of mapping out game-day logistics.

Still, from working with the NFL and other leagues, Adams knows that once technology becomes a tool for deciding contests, once the drama associated with sports involves computers and sensors, it goes beyond logistics.

“To some technologists, it’s about, ‘We can do this, so they should,’ ” said Adams. “Fans feel the same way.

“I can tell you, technologically, it’s feasible. But this isn’t a no-brainer. If you’re a league, there are other considerations. Do the fans in the stands get to see it? Does it slow down the game? The league has other considerations than yes or no. It’s about, what is the impact on the integrity of the game and the cost, economically and in terms of entertainment?”

Blair estimates the cost of developing football goal-line technology could range from $200,000 to $900,000. The wide range reflects the number of variables, from the type of software used to the type of protection needed to safeguard the system from contact with players to the preferred method of data transmission.

Adams said, “It’s probably more than a couple million [dollars] by the time you’re all said and done with logistics, production facilities, communication, testing, and technology development.”

FIFA offers a business model for how officiating technology can be developed in a relatively short time at relatively little expense. After FIFA reexamined what role technology should play in soccer, it took less than two years to approve goal-line systems.

And companies paid the initial costs, gambling on getting what could be a lucrative license.

Now, it’s up to individual leagues and competitions to determine whether they will use the technology.

The English Premier League and upcoming major international tournaments, including the 2014 World Cup, plan to employ it.

With more and more technology available to broadcasters and viewers, additional officiating technology probably will appear in the NFL and other leagues sooner rather than later.

“Broadcasters and fans have more technology tools, and that gives them more information than the actual referees on the field,” said Harland. “You undermine the credibility of the game when every single person can see what the decision needs to be except the guy standing in the middle of the field having to make that decision.

“That is a very dangerous position to be in.”