Zebra Technologies: Powering Next Gen Stats for the Super Bowl

More than 100 million people tuned in to watch the National Football League’s Super Bowl 50. Party goers, Super Bowl commercial watchers, and the uninitiated were treated to additional insights into the actual gridiron action, which fans have come to take for granted over the past two seasons.

The data includes the speed of the players as well as the distances they traveled. It’s all part of the growing interest, and burgeoning business of sports tech.
Zebra Technologies, a company whose main business is making bar codes and tracking devices for manufacturing lines, makes the tech behind these “Next Gen Stats.”
Jill Stelfox, VP and GM of location solutions for Zebra Technologies, talks tracking moves between the stripes with Open Mobile Media….

OMM: How did you get into the game with the NFL?
Stelfox:
We did a strategy session and sat in a conference room and looked at where we had customers and where we could take what we have and do something that mattered. We wrote these criteria on the board: where you need to make decisions quickly and gain insight from tracking and information would be really important or strategic; objects move fast and have collisions. We looked at the board and thought that’s actually sports. If you’re going into sports to see if you have a great product, you must bring in the biggest, leading league in the world.
We thought we could make a difference in sports and the NFL was saying it needs to do something change the stats in its league.

OMM: How do you capture the motion?
Stelfox:
The tech is straightforward, our proprietary technology, using ultra wideband (UWB). We put 20 receivers around the oval of a football stadium and that collects the tags, they blink with battery power up to 25 times a second, we put them on the left and right shoulder so we know orientation. It takes about 120 milliseconds to register movement on the field in the computer and less than half a second to broadcast it.

OMM: Zebra beat out several rivals in a real-world competition during the 2013 season. What do you offer that your rivals don’t?
Stelfox:
I think it’s really five things: 1. The tech itself is extremely accurate to within six inches.
2. We’re able to operate in a way that doesn’t impeded the game. The chips in the shoulder pads are about the size of a nickel, about two nickels thick, and you can wash them. In a non-sports life a manufacturing assembly line is much harsher than linemen—forklifts run over tags.
3. We can scale. It’s the largest deployment of a tracking system in the world today.
4. We had people at all the sites do what we need to do; three people at each stadium for every game.
5. Our centralized command center in San Jose, you can see everything going on at the same time at every stadium.

OMM: Does any of this carry over to your inventory tracking business?
Stelfox:
A good example of something that went back the other way is Boeing. We had worked with them on the manufacturing line, getting them tools just in time. Now they saw what we’re doing with the NFL and they said you can help us in real time make decisions that our people can’t do fast enough. Every plane is painted by hand. They have folks that pain planes and we help them craft solutions to keep them much safer at work.
This same exact technology is on the harnesses worn by the guys that paint the planes. They have to be harnessed in to make the equipment work. If they move too far away from the equipment we don’t allow it to work. It’s just like seeing Xs and Os in the command center, we see the cherry pickers from our command center and know that everything is ok.

OMM: You’re in the NFL and have worked with a handful of American college teams and the NCAA football playoffs. Where might you expand your sports business?
Stelfox:
We’re looking at it college by college (in the US) and soccer, basketball and hockey.