The NFL is a sport where margins can make all the difference in winning or losing. Having an extra 1% advantage can be crucial.
Although the sport is already well-respected for its statistical and data analysis, it is possible to say that American Football may not be as data-friendly as the NBA and MLB.
The ever-growing partnership between the league (AWS) and Amazon Web Services (MLA) could transform the game. Not only for broadcasters and fans, who get richer statistical analysis, but also the players, with AWS technology potentially set to keep them in play for longer.
The Digital Athlete
First launched in January 2022. Expanded at the AWS reInvent 2022 conference attended by TechRadar ProThe NFL and AWS created the “digital athletes” to save the careers of their players.
“It really gives us an opportunity to predict injury,” notes Jennifer Langton, SVP of health and safety innovation at the NFL, “we asked, what if we could predict injuries, what if we could save an ACL, or a hamstring? What if we could predict lower extremity injuries before they happen?”
Langton explains that the program generates “a tremendous amount” of data on each league player, before using this data to build and run models on a range of factors aimed at predicting and preventing injury.
“At the end of the day, we’re taking virtual representations of every player, and doing simulation models on them,” Langton notes. “You can do infinite simulation models on them to see what factors cause injury, so that we could take those factors out of our game and mitigate that risk, so that players could optimize their performance.”
A program to reduce concussions in NFL football was a huge success. Langton says that it was difficult to quickly gain insights due to the manual collection of relevant game data.
AWS is currently helping the league to set up the infrastructure to process the vast amount of data generated by the digital athletes program. This will create a virtual 360-degree representation that represents an NFL player’s experience. This can then be used to prevent injury.
“We wanted to not just have a cloud and a cloud computing environment to do analytics, but we wanted to build what the digital athlete is,” Langton notes.
How does the system perform when it comes down to the actual players? Larry Fitzgerald was a 17-year veteran of the Arizona Cardinals and was selected for the Pro Bowl eleven more times. He now works as a broadcaster at ESPN and SiriusXM.
AWS technology is not meant to be used to reduce NFL athletes to numbers in spreadsheets, but he sees increasing data use in the game and “digital athlete models” as crucial to giving those who are willing to embrace it a competitive advantage.
“I look at it as a competitive advantage that some people are not going to utilize – but I am,” he notes. “I’m a smarter athlete. If there’s a better athlete I’m playing against, you might be physically better, but I’m smarter than him, I have more information, I’m more knowledgeable…and that might negate his natural ability.”
Fitzgerald, who works closely with both AWS and the NFL, notes that the digital athlete program looks to “help the mind, body and soul to help [players] improve on the gift they’ve been given to play the sport that they play…at the very best of their abilities.”
“From Workout program to input – [providing] Any data that [players] can utilize to be able to perform at an optimal level.”
Fitzgerald’s role of wide receiver meant that he was often on both ends of the contact that the NFL/AWS aims to make safer. After Fitzgerald had been playing for ten seasons, the league began its initial statistical experiments in 2012/2013. He is unsurprisingly grateful for the positive impact it had on his career.
He said, “Without doubt, it helped to me be able play a longer time.” “I was trying to maximize my career the best I could, and so if the use of analytics, and understanding the information I was receiving from our staff, would help prolong my career, that made me dive in immediately.”
“What’s unique about an NFL player is that 90 percent of what we do is practice…you get a chance to try out things hundreds of times before you ever do it in the game,” he notes.
“I would always want that type of information to be able to know exactly where I was at, from year to year [knowing] what do I need to do to continue to maintain what I’ve been doing over the last few years…and ways where I could continue to be effective, especially as my skill set started to diminish with age.”
Langton points out that not everyone was open to the league’s ideas at first.
“One of the hardest things we do is changing behaviors…we’re talking about the world’s most elite athletes,” she notes, highlighting how some players were wary of changing from using lightweight helmets that might be putting players at risk of concussion to heavier units that did not feel quite as aerodynamic.
“It’s very hard to change behaviors,” she notes, “[but] we have so many different stakeholders at the team, whether that’s team positions, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning sports science equipment and managers…that are the conduit to the players. It’s always a challenge, but we also have a very scientific and engineering rigor to it. Education is the answer, and it’s the key.”
Fitzgerald agrees. However, Fitzgerald notes that the outlook is changing with younger, more tech-savvy gamers entering the game, especially those who have attended colleges or universities with higher resources.
Langton notes that newer players are, “much more nimble and savvy with data and information…here’s a natural appetite, but it has to be very much embedded in the team’s culture.” She Adds that it is important to have a greater team effort from all coaches and analysts. “You have to have a culture that buys into that, but when teams are successful and winning, they start to adopt it.”
“The healthier your player, the healthier your team is going to be.”
The NFL has ambitious goals for its data-driven digital athletes program and other applications of technology.
Langton noted that all 32 NFL clubs will be receiving the digital athlete platform after the pilot with four early users. The system has also been embraced by other sports, including the English Premier League. However, Langton believes the system could also be useful in the wider medical or healthcare field.
She cites a few examples, including the examination of injury mechanisms and the human anatomy, as well as the mitigation of risk and optimization of performance.
“Really, the power of the work, and the impact of what we’re doing, I think that we’ll go well beyond football,” she notes. “It’s pretty unique, which is why our partnership with AWS is pretty unique.”
Fitzgerald also acknowledges that he is a huge beneficiary of AWS’ statistical output in broadcasting (as well his children’s Fantasy Football league), so the possibilities for the future NFL are endless.
He Consider the effect of better analysis on prolonging the careers sporting legends like Roger Federer and Phil Mickleson, Serena Williams and Tom Brady, as well as LeBron James, who all performed at the highest level for a longer time than they would have expected.
“Father time is undefeated,” he laughs, “But you can’t tell me that a lot of these things that we’re talking about today aren’t helping players go on longer, and still play at an elite level.”