In a sport where small margins can often mean the difference between victory and defeat, the added 1% edge can mean everything in the NFL.
The sport already enjoys its fair share of stats and data analytics, but compared to MLB and NBA, it might be accurate to say that American football isn’t quite as data-friendly just yet.
Now, however, the ever-growing partnership between the league and Amazon Web Services (AWS) could be set to transform the game – not just for fans and broadcasters, benefiting from richer statistical analytics, but also for the players themselves, with AWS technology perhaps literally set to keep them in play longer.
The digital athlete
First launched in January 2022 and expanded at the recent AWS re:Invent 2022 event attended by Best Product Prois the motive behind the NFL and AWS concept of the “digital athlete” to save the careers and possibly the lives of its players.
“It really gives us the ability to predict injuries,” 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 “an enormous amount” of data on each competitive player, before using this data to build and run models on a range of factors aimed at predicting and preventing injury.
“Ultimately, we take virtual representations of each player and run simulation models on them,” Langton notes. “You can run infinite simulation models on them to see what factors are causing injury, so we can eliminate those factors from our game and reduce that risk so players can optimize their performance.
The NFL had tremendous success with an earlier program aimed at reducing concussions in sports. However, Langton notes that the relevant game data had to be collected manually, which made getting insights quickly difficult.
The league is now working with AWS to build the infrastructure to process the massive amount of data generated by the digital athlete program to create a 360-degree virtual representation of an NFL player’s experience, which can then be used for injury prevention models.
“Not only did we want to have a cloud and a cloud computing environment to run analytics, but we wanted to build what the digital athlete is,” notes Langton.
But when it comes to the actual players themselves, how does the system work? Larry Fitzgerald had a 17-year career with the Arizona Cardinals, was selected 11 times for the Pro Bowl and now works as a broadcaster for ESPN and SiriusXM.
Far from using AWS technology to reduce NFL players to numbers in a spreadsheet, he sees the increasing use of data in the game and “digital athlete” models as essential to giving those willing to embrace it an edge to their opponents.
“I see it as a competitive advantage that some people won’t use, but I will,” he notes. “I’m a smarter athlete. If there’s a better athlete I’m playing against, maybe you’re physically better, but I’m smarter than him, I have more information, I have more knowledge… and that would negate his natural ability can do.”
Fitzgerald, who works closely with both AWS and the NFL, notes that the digital athlete program aims to “help the mind, body and soul [players] improving on the gift they have been given to play the sport they play… to the best of their ability. “
“From training regimen to input – [providing] all data that [players] can use to perform at an optimal level.”
Fitzgerald’s role as a wide receiver meant he was often on the rough end of the types of contact the NFL and AWS want to make safer. The league’s first statistical experiments began around the 2012/2013 season, after Fitzgerald had played for a decade, and he’s unsurprisingly full of praise for the effect it had on extending his career.
“Without a doubt it helped me to play for a long time,” he says. “I was trying to maximize my career as best I could, and if using analytics and understanding the information I received from our employees was going to help prolong my career, I jumped right in.”
“What’s unique about being an NFL player is that 90 percent of what we do is practice … you get to try things hundreds of times before you ever do it in the game,” he notes.
“I always wish that kind of information knew exactly where I was from year to year [knowing] what should I do to continue what I’ve been doing for the past few years… and ways I can stay effective, especially as my skills began to decline with age.”
However, Langton notes that not everyone was open to the league’s new ideas at first.
“One of the hardest things we do is change behavior… we’re talking about the world’s most elite athletes,” she notes, highlighting how some players have been hesitant to move from using lightweight helmets that could put players at risk of concussion, to heavier helmets. units that didn’t feel quite as aerodynamic.
“It’s very hard to change behavior,” she notes, “[but] we have so many different stakeholders on the team whether that be team positions, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning sports science equipment and managers… who are the conduits to the players. It’s always a challenge, but we also have a very scientific and technical rigor for it. Education is the answer, and it’s the key.”
Fitzgerald agrees, but notes that the outlook is changing as younger, more tech-savvy players enter the game — especially those who may have had higher status at better-resourced universities or colleges.
Langton notes that newer players are “much more nimble and savvy with data and information…there’s a natural appetite here, but it has to be heavily embedded in the team culture.” She adds that a greater team effort is needed. between all coaches and analysts. “You have to have a culture that believes in that, but when teams are successful and winning, they start to adopt it.”
“The healthier your player, the healthier your team will be.”
Looking ahead, it’s clear the NFL has bold goals for its data-driven digital athlete program and applications of the technology elsewhere.
Langton notes that after the initial pilot with four early adopters, all 32 NFL teams will receive the digital athlete platform next year, claiming that the system has already attracted interest from other sports, namely the English Premier League, but may also have potential use cases. in the wider medical and healthcare field.
Some of the examples she cites deal with exploring the mechanisms of injury and the human body, as well as minimizing risk and optimizing performance.
“Really, the power of the work and the impact of what we’re doing, I think we’re going to go way beyond football,” she notes. “It’s quite unique, which is why our partnership with AWS is quite unique.”
And for Fitzgerald, who also admits he benefits greatly from AWS’ statistical output in his broadcasting role (as well as his kids’ Fantasy Football league), the possibilities for the NFL’s future are endless.
He ponders the effect that better analysis has had in extending the careers of sports legends like Roger Federer, Phil Mickleson, Serena Williams, Tom Brady and LeBron James – all of whom performed at the highest level for far longer than they would have. expected in the past.
“Father Time is undefeated,” he laughs, “but you can’t tell me that a lot of these things we’re talking about today don’t help players go on longer and still play at an elite level.”