Official NFL footballs are crafted by hand by a company in Chicago called Wilson Sporting Goods. The footballs that are made there typically range from 11 to 11.5 inches in length and weigh anywhere between 14 and 15 ounces on average. Originally, animal bladders lined the outside, occasionally from the inside of a pig, giving the traditional American football the long-standing nickname of a “pigskin.” Now a days, they consist of cowhide leather or vulcanized rubber with laces that are stitched to the top adding mass. This causes the oblong spheres to be naturally lopsided. This is fixed by inserting extra weight to the opposite side of the football balancing it out. Knowing this, a clever hacker will realize that the balancing spot is a perfect place to subtly add a motion tracking transmitter like this one. Doing so makes it possible to the track not only the position of the ball on the field, but its precise location in 3D space!
Since each football is unique, variations between one ball to another exist. This means that embedding a circuit into a football only modifies the equipment slightly, which is a good thing because sports fanatics tend to be very opinionated about whether or not technology should influence the game. So long as the transmitter and loop antenna added to the air bladder doesn’t pass that threshold of about an ounce (or so) difference in weight, then the football itself really isn’t affected much.
The research for this project was developed and tested at the NC State and Carnegie Mellon Universities with the help of funding from Disney (who owns ESPN). Using magnetic fields was chosen instead of other ball tracking systems that are camera-based because it would allow the computer to recognize the football when pile ups occur. Unlike soccer, the footballs in the NFL are usually hidden from view.
The question now is “will the NFL accept this type of system?” They already have integrated instant replay to the game; and as of the 2014 season, teams have Microsoft tablets on the sideline which are used by coaches and referees for in-between play analytics. Yet, the game still uses the same old ‘stick and chain’ method that was initiated in 1907 to measure downs. Implementing it in high schools or colleges would serve as a prototype. From there, the researchers could try to get into pre-season games before attempting nationwide integration. But will fans like it? Will it take away from the game? It’s up to you to decide.