The NFL is nothing if not tops in adopting new technology. At least, they consider themselves to be near the top. Yet the idea of using GPS as a means to monitor a football player’s performance and health is only starting to make its way around the league. At the moment, a number of individual teams are eyeing the new technology and, sooner rather than later, the league itself might get involved. Revenue being the alpha and omega of the NFL’s existence, the league likely has its own ulterior motives for seeing a complete adoption of GPS.
The reason? In a nutshell, better performance means healthier players, and healthier players play longer. And players that play longer might give the league what it wants: an 18-game season.
The idea of monitoring athletes with GPS, or a Global Positioning System, has been around for a few years and over 400 sports leagues around the world are already using the technology to some degree or another. Most of the Australian Rugby League, half of the English Premier League, and a number of NBA teams have jumped on board. Australian-based Catapult Sports, the world’s largest maker of the devices, sees American sports as the next great frontier. The NHL has starting looking into the technology, the NCAA national champion Florida State Seminoles have been experimenting with it and, as of now, 12 NFL teams have officially started incorporating it into their practices.
A football player wearing a GPS device is like a race car feeding data back to its crew. If the car is running low on gas, its tires starting to wear out, or the driver’s instincts are starting to falter, the crew knows in real-time, just as an NFL coach can watch for signs a player needs to slow down or be taken out of a practice. Performance factors like the force of hits a player suffers, fatigue over a period of time, strength and conditioning results, the amount of ground a player covers and on and on can suddenly be quantified. And within all this data is the means to possibly prevent, or at least delay, player injuries.
In a league as lousy with injuries as the NFL, anything that might keep its players healthy is worth its weight in gold. And since Roger Goodell has never been one to hide his intention to put as much football on television as possible, there are both sincere and ulterior motives to use technologies like GPS to keep everybody around. Depending on one’s level of cynicism, it is possible to imagine the league sincerely cares about the health of its players. But it is also undeniable the league profits from players staying on the field as long as they can during a season.
Despite the league’s fantastic popularity, the problem of what to do with injured players is desperately important for any long-term survival plans. The looming lawsuits by former players are as serious as the NFL’s ever had to face, and there is no guarantee it will come out in their favor. There is also been a significant drop in youth league participation- a 9.5 percent drop between 2010 and 2012- meaning parents are very concerned about the concussion. The league claims new advances in helmet design will protect from concussions, but it remains to be seen if the kids will be allowed to come back.
GPS will become an integral part of the effort to minimize injuries and keep the league as lawsuit free as possible. Fortunately, teams using GPS have already seen results. The Florida State program says certain injuries have been reduced by almost 90 percent and over in Australia, the major Aussie-rules football leagues claim an almost 50 percent decrease. There is no reason to think the NFL can’t see comparable results in upcoming years.
The question Roger Goodell is undoubtedly asking himself is what to do with all these future healthy players. Adding two more teams to the playoffs is not even a hypothetical; by 2015 or 2016, it will be a reality. What comes after is the big question. The league has recently denied it, but their ulterior motive, their fondest wish if players can play longer, is to expand the season to 18 games. The NFL’s Player Association has repeatedly fought it, but if the league agrees to eliminate a few pre-season games and dangle enough money, the Association will likely give in. Bloated or not, the league will get its 18 games.
So GPS seems to be a promising technology, not just for professionals but athletes in general. For NFL players, though, it could end up being a both a blessing and a curse. Healthy enough to keep playing but worn down by so much more time on the field, they might end up thinking nothing has really changed.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyelf