If you were already watching NFL games in 1986, you may remember being amazed by the new "high tech" instant replay feature that was introduced that year. What a difference 27 years can make. Today, the NFL is either using or considering adopting new technologies that will make refereeing a far more exacting job.
While to the fans watching at home new technology may appear to be used for their enjoyment, the truth is the highest tech features in the NFL may be geared more to the referees.
"We want to get the calls right," NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told Discovery News. "The use of technology is always geared toward aiding the officials who are on site. But it's important to remember we have 31 different stadiums and there are different challenges that each presents from indoor to outdoor, different lines of technology, existing stadiums and new stadiums. We spend a lot of time talking to some of the best companies in the world about this."
That may be why some of the most highly-touted new technology has yet seen the light of day in the NFL. Hawk-Eye technology, for example, is already in use in soccer, but even though the NFL has considered the system, it's not a done deal. Hawk-Eye, developed by Dr. Paul Hawkins in the UK, involves the use of multiple cameras to track the ball.
"There is a big difference between soccer and the NFL," said Dr. Kim Blair, founding director of MIT's Center for Sports Innovation. "In a lot of cases in football, the ball is hidden, where in soccer it's usually exposed. So this kind of line technology is not necessary going to work for calling plays in football."
It won't be simple to bring 21st technology onto the field, say experts. Just because certain systems have made adjudication more accurate in one sport, doesn't necessarily mean it will do the same for the NFL. That's why league officials take their time in determining what will truly make the calls more accurate. The issue is not about the availability of the technology, because it already exists. There are even virtual reality goggles that could be used by referees to make more accurate calls. The real issue has to do with whether it would enhance the game or not.
"We have studied this type of technology," said McCarthy. "But using it in the NFL is very different than using it in other sports, especially when you have 22 bodies moving, and a ball that is covered or might be covered by a body, as well as indoor (conditions) and outdoor weather and so many variables to consider."
Ball tracking technology is certainly under consideration, but definitely not for the impending 2013-14 season. In the future, embedding sensors in footballs could even be considered, but not yet.
"We don't anticipate introducing any new technology this season, but we have some of the brightest minds in tech spending a tremendous amount of time to see how we can improve what we do," McCarthy said.
The NFL has already demonstrated a real willingness to embrace technology with its recently announced five-year, $400 million partnership with Microsoft. Much of the new deal is geared toward upgrading the fans' viewing experience, especially with a new version of X-Box for interactive viewing. But down the road, McCarthy said, referees may benefit as well. This will be evident when playbooks are swapped for Microsoft Surface tablets, and high-definition replay eliminates the need for black-and-white Polaroids.
Introducing the use of new technology for the referees is really a balancing act, Blair said. "Any decision made in officiating has to pay attention to the relationship between sponsors, athletes and fans," he said. "Technology is available that could be implemented in short order, but will it take away from the spirit of the game? If the technology is not to the benefit of the fan experience and it's only for the sake of accuracy, that ignores the bigger picture. If the fans don't want to lose the human element to the calls in the game, then we have to take a step back."
McCarthy agrees. "Some people say we should move away from the chain gang for first down markers," he said. "So we've discussed using lasers to speed up the game, but others say how exciting it is when the chain gang runs out there and the referee stretches it out and you're inches away from the first down. Would that excitement be diminished if we just used a laser? We don't know that yet."
More likely are some lower-tech innovations that may show up soon, according to McCarthy. "We're open to things like some type of communication system for the officials so they don't have to run 40 yards downfield to another referee when there's a pass interference."
Meanwhile, in late 2012, the NFL and the NFL Referee Association (NFLRA) created a new technology committee, which will meet annually to consider new innovations that may make the games better and the calls more accurate.