Are you ready for some football? If yes, then sit back and enjoy. If your answer is no and your excitement level is more like 4th down and 26, you may not know about the various remarkable tech advancements that have developed throughout the history of the NFL. From audience experience to in-game strategic adjustments; just about every facet of the game has been tweaked using improvements in technology. Some of them are well known and others are more behind the scenes. One thing that’s for sure is the NFL has had to consistently look inward and outward to incorporate innovations of technology into its product, helping them become the behemoth industry it is today.
To kick things off (sorry) – In 1956, the first radio headset was used in an NFL game by the Cleveland Browns, allowing their coaching staff to relay play calling to the quarterback via radio signal, instead of delivering plays to the QB with substituting players. The Browns were able to do this for only three games that season until the NFL banned its use league-wide. It wasn’t until 1994 that the NFL allowed radio headsets to be used for play calling again. The evolution of the radio certainly had come a long way in that period of time and propelled technology’s role in the NFL to new heights in the years that followed.
From a viewer’s perspective, the TV presentation of the game has undergone many enhancements visually. Key among these was instant replay, which wasn’t used until 1986 as seen here in the first game of its implementation between the Bears and the Browns. The impact of instant replay changed the outcome of this game and has continued to be a critical feature in the NFL ever since.
It’s wild to think that the debut of the “magic yellow line” on the TV was twenty years ago this month. It appeared first on ESPN Sunday Night Football during a forgettable game between the Bengals and Ravens. This yellow line shows the television audience just how far the player needs to pop his arms out of socket to reach the first down line, so his team can live another set of downs. Some new fans think the line is somehow actually on the field, which I’ve heard more than once in my lifetime. It turns out that this visual perk for fans required some incredible engineering to make it possible. This video breaks it all down quite nicely.
Perhaps the biggest technological development the game has seen turns out to be literally a game changer. Since 2014, the NFL signed a contract with Microsoft to use their Surface Pro tablets on the sidelines. It’s hard to imagine anything that has made the game easier on the coaches and players other than this recent addition. The tablet allows coaches to analyze coverage packages after a play, as a handy all-in-one instruction tool for the players. This has revitalized in-game adjustments and strategy within the game. Compared to this, the old way simply seems prehistoric. There used to be a printer on each sideline that would print black and white images of team formations. With this old method, there could be no instant replays to show the players of the actual play in discussion, no editing the play with a stylus, and the list goes on.
Okay, now the hot topic elephant in the room – player safety. With all the talk around concussions in the game, most fans don’t know about the new helmets developed by the Seattle based company VICIS. This video is definitely worth a watch, unlike the new personal foul penalties you’ll be seeing all season for helmet tackles. Perhaps helmet tech will get to a point where they can actually have kickoffs like they used to and Ronnie Lott-esque tackles again. Until then, fears of safety in the game will most likely cause youth participation to drop and the effect of this will surely be quantifiable in popularity and viewership in the long run. It’s a tricky situation for the NFL to be in as a business entity and a dilemma that probably needs a high-tech solution for their product to remain the most popular sport in America.