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What are some of the most important and interesting technological improvements in NFL history?
It's hard to believe that the Internet didn’t exist three decade ago. Or that High Definition television is something we ever lived without.
It doesn't seem that long ago that I was scoring my father’s fantasy team by hand with USA Today box scores. Today, I can reach into my pocket and swap running backs two minutes before kickoff with my smart phone and a Yahoo! app while sitting in my seat at a Titans game.
To say that technological advances have changed the way we enjoy, consume, interact, view and support our favorite sports team is a gross understatement. But new ideas and inventions have changed the game itself as well. In the NFL’s case — the most scrutinized and examined sport in America — a few specific changes in technology have drastically changed the way the game is viewed and played.
Here are the biggest (and some of our favorite) technological advances in NFL history and maybe some ideas that are right around the corner.
Obviously, this one could be grouped in with HD TV and other film-related advances that have literally helped the sport from every angle. But instant replay itself stands alone as one of the most important advances in not only how fans consume the NFL but how the outcome is determined. The NFL first implemented a partial IR system in 1986 and a full system of review in '99. It has been progressively tweaked ever since, taking away challenges in the final two minutes as well as on scoring plays and turnovers. The obvious next step that needs to take place is a centralized review system. It works for the NHL and it will work perfectly for the NFL to have one office review every call at the league offices.
Certainly, the Internet has changed life on this planet forever. But as it pertains to the NFL specifically, the Internet contributed two massive and underlying lynchpins to the NFL’s unbelievable success. Gambling and fantasy sports — which some consider to be one in the same — have propelled the NFL to new heights off the field in terms of popularity. Tracking your favorite team (or sport) with hundreds of analytical, statistical and historical websites has added to the NFL’s fan experience. So the Internet has given gamblers and fantasy junkies the ability to analyze and speculate at a higher — and more lucrative — level than ever before. Gambling and fantasy sports, like it or not, are a huge part of the NFL’s overwhelming status as the most powerful sport in this country.
DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket
My family was living in Austin, Texas, in 1994 when DirecTV first launched. The problem was we were all diehard Green Bay Packers fans. But DirecTV could offer something never before provided by cable companies. DirecTV arrived months before the ’94 NFL season began with the promise of NFL Sunday Ticket delivering every NFL game to anywhere in the nation. Needless to say, neither my father nor myself have ever used another service provider. The satellite company has constantly improved on the product, adding a mix channel and the Red Zone Channel in the mid-2000s. Sunday Ticket meant no more smoke-filled bars, expensive meals or spending Sunday afternoons away from home for millions of fans across the nation. It changed the way we watched our teams forever.
One of the biggest and most difficult aspects to running an NFL team is field upkeep. Green Bay has spent a small fortune on keeping real grass playable in the "frozen tundra" of Lambeau Field with additions like heating coils. The advent of FieldTurf and its subsequent upkeep has allowed more games to take place in poor conditions with little to no additional costs incurred. Sure, the turf costs more on the front end, but the overall gameplay got a major upgrade when NFL teams began converting to one type of field turf or another. Unlike its predecessor, AstroTurf, the advancements in FieldTurf are here to stay and have positively impacted the game in a big way. Currently 14 of the 31 NFL stadiums boast a real, natural grass-only surface.
My brother and I got a TurboGrafx-16 when we were small kids around 1990. I loved the Super Bowl by that age but didn’t know all of the players. Soon my doomed-to-fail TG-16 became a Sega Genesis due solely to one thing: EA Sports. By 1993, I was hooked on "Madden NFL Football" and would go on to waste thousands of hours of my life leading Brett Favre, Dorsey Levens and Robert Brooks to Super Bowl championships. My story isn’t all that unique for anyone born after 1980. Video games are no longer a part of my life but they are an unquestioned behemoth in modern society and have no doubt changed many kids' life when it comes to interest in the NFL or other sports.
First Down Line
This one is totally selfish in that it has had zero impact on the game itself. But few things have changed as much for the fans at home as on-screen graphics. The super-imposed first down line — officially titled “1st and Ten” — was a thing of genius when it was first used on screen during ESPN’s coverage of a Bengals-Ravens game in 1998. Since then, a line of scrimmage line has been added as well as a variety of other on-screen visuals. Down and distance, number of timeouts, game clocks, play clocks, pop-up stat trackers and more have made sitting at home as thorough an experience as there has ever been. And thus, has increased TV ratings.
Facemasks, Gloves and Helmets
Equipment advancements are far reaching and constantly changing, so it is hard to pinpoint one specific item or change that has had the most impact. The face mask wasn’t an orginal part of the NFL but once plastic helmets (an equally important advancement) were put into place, the face mask followed shortly thereafter. Wide receivers back in the 1960s and '70s never used gloves — like, say, Kellen Winslow in The Freezer Bowl. Under-pad attire has changed dramatically over time as well as wicking fabrics and cooling materials now cover the body from head to toe during practice and games. And as the NFL continues to move forward, the most important equipment improvement will be safer helmets.
Baseball and the Olympics get all of the headlines when it comes to steroid or HGH usage but many believe that football has the worst PED problem. The physicality and speed of the game packaged with the alarming growth in the size of NFL players over the last two decades creates a huge need for PEDs. Some rumors, if you believe them, say that more than half of the league would test positive for some sort of PED. Big plays, car-wreck-like collisions and ultra-fast speeds are what move the needle for the NFL and most believe this progression hasn't happened naturally. Is there a greater understanding of dietary concerns, nutritional information and proper body management today than two decades ago? Yes. But not every one has competed on a level playing field and fans too easily ignore how these young adults become hulking gladiators.
HD Television and the NFL Network
Along the same lines as Sunday Ticket and Instant Replay, the evolution of film technology has dramatically shifted the NFL experience. HD TV is a must for in-home viewing. Digital still photography is instantly transmitted from the coaching booth to the sideline after ever play. Film study for both game and draft preparation is easier and more prevalent. Skycam and various other camera angles have been added to the field to improve the overall coverage of the game. In all, the development of the audio/visual component has had a huge impact on the game. It began with the launch of NFL Films and is now carried on by a 24-hour NFL Network.
Retractable Roofs and Jumbotrons
NFL executive are searching for ways to curtail spiraling attendance numbers across the league. Two of the biggest additions to the stadium gameday experience were the first retractable roof introduced in Houston when Reliant Stadium opened in 2002 and the jumbotron. Adding in-stadium video boards is nothing new but making it a massive high-def instant replay booth for fans was critical to keeping butts in seats. And to make those seats more accommodating, being able to control the climate in the building has become a huge factor in getting people through the turnstiles.
What’s next for the NFL?
It is this gameday, in-stadium experience that fans can expect the most innovation in the near future. General managers and owners are looking at ways to keep people coming to the games and adding new bar and restaurant experiences, Wi-Fi or even on-site daycare centers will be next to show up across the league. Shuttle services, TVs in chair backs and even seats that rumble when a big-play happens could appear.
Safety also is a huge issue moving forward for the NFL. Some (dramatic) columnists like to think that the end of football is near as parents begin to realize the dangers of football for their young children. So the NFL will do everything in its power to design the safest equipment possible. Virginia Tech is already using on-field, real-time sensors that measure impacts and rate helmet safety. Expect this to move to the NFL soon, if it hasn’t already.
Along those safety lines, what if the NFL had on-site, pre-game drug testing that provided instant results? What if the NFL could test a player seconds before he stepped onto the field for warm-ups and determine if he was using something illegal? Would fans approve?
Cameras also will continue to get smaller, better and more versatile. Will there be a pylon cam? What about cameras on the referee's hat or a player’s helmet? Centralized replay appears to be coming in the very near future and fans also should expect more and better angles from the TV companies to keep coming.
Finally, what about spotting the ball? It’s the most important and most inexact science on the field today and there is no reason for it to be that way. Why not use motion sensors or imaging technology to spot the ball perfectly on every play? The refs really do an amazing job placing the ball most of the time but why not make it an exact science? The skin of the football could be composed of hundreds of sensors and the field outlaid with a grid of motion detectors, therefore the spot of the ball is perfect down to the inch.
The NFL may be weeks away from things like centralized replay but years away from exact spotting. The NFL is a big business machine that won’t stop improving because it is too lucrative to become stagnant.
This, like all of the aforementioned technological progressions, bodes well for future generations of NFL fans.