The NFL and Data Mining: A Case Study in the Opportunities and Challenges of Big Data

September 21, 2015

Ediscovery sportsAs this year’s professional football season begins, it is useful to consider reports that the National Football League has embarked on a process for aggressive collection and use of a wide range of data, following a path opened by many other industries including transportation, healthcare, and communications.  As an active data miner, the NFL must now address many of the same legal and public policy issues associated with extensive data collection and use faced by those other industries.  The NFL now provides a fascinating case study of the opportunities and challenges associated with Big Data.

Sophisticated RFID sensors are now routinely embedded in the shoulder pads worn by NFL players.  Combined with RFID reader devices and large-volume data storage systems, it is now possible to capture and ultimately analyze substantial information regarding the precise location, activities, and performance of players wearing the equipment.  This system is now reportedly in use by three NFL teams (the 49er, Saints, and Lions) at their practice facilities and for game use at Levis Stadium, home of the 49ers.

The current data collected provides a wealth of information on player positioning, movements, and performance.  It can reportedly track precise location of players as well as the direction they are facing and their speed of motion.  Information collected by the RFID system is proving to be extremely valuable for training purposes and should also have significant value for team strategy.

The data collected from players is also of great interest to parties in addition to the NFL and the teams involved.  For example, developers of sports video and computer games are apparently eager to have access to this data to make their games even more realistic and entertaining.  Fantasy sports groups could enhance their service offerings through access to the data.  Additionally, gamblers seem eager to access the data in order to improve their betting success.

To date, the systems focus on data collected from players.  With relatively minor modifications, however, the RFID systems could be enhanced to collect data from fans as they attend games.  Sensors embedded in ticket stubs could be used to track the movements and activities of fans while they are in the stadium on game day.  Disney reportedly provides wristbands containing embedded RFID technology to some of the visitors to its theme parks.  Those systems can apparently track the location and activities of the visitors and can process payments within the parks, quickly and easily.  Similar systems could be used in football stadiums on game days.

As is the case with all large-volume data collection systems, the NFL’s Big Data efforts raise important legal and public policy issues.  Those issues include privacy of personal information and security of data and transactions.  Another key issue is the management of ownership and rights of use associated with the data.

The NFL has apparently not fully resolved its Big Data strategy.  It seems clear, however, the NFL believes that it retains control over all of the data associated with player activities collected during games as it has reportedly declined to share that data with the teams on a real-time basis for use during the games, fearing that such immediate data access by the teams could result in an adverse impact on competition.

A decision by the NFL to assert full ownership rights to data collected from games and practice sessions would likely meet resistance from a variety of other interested parties, including teams, individual players, and the media.  If the NFL ultimately moves to assert ownership over data collected from fans attending NFL games, an even broader range of parties are likely to object.

The NFL’s involvement with Big Data presents many opportunities to improve the quality and safety of professional football.  NFL data can also be commercially lucrative for the NFL, its teams, and its players.  There are, however, critical legal and public policy issues that must be addressed to ensure that the data are managed in a manner that complies with all relevant legal requirements and protects the rights of all involved parties.  The NFL will soon learn, as other data-rich industries are learning, that tapping the great potential value of Big Data is not an easy project.