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The Use of Technology in Modern Football (and Life) Is A Matter of Perspective

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James Marsters with a teletype machine and acoustic coupler in 1971. 

(Originally published in American Football Monthly Magazine)

“[B]asically, I knew nothing. There were films, lectures and endless drills on fundamentals”. Ken Anderson, former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback (1971-86) commenting on his rookie year

In the old days, coaches basically draw up plays on a chalkboard, the players wrote down notes feverishly in their big three ring notebooks, and if a team happened to have a film projector, they used it occasionally.

However, like with just about everything, things change.  The days of Sid Gillman clipping football footage from film reels that played in movie theatres while he worked as an usher in the 1930’s or Paul Brown and Bill Walsh viewing some grainy film of a college player taken by a spectator have given way to professional recruiting and scouting services, desktop video, iPads and many other technological innovations.  For many years, teams at all levels were slow to adapt technologies for use in their operations.  The reasons varied from being too bulky, too costly or the uncertainty of how to use it.

Gradually as technology improved and the costs were reduced plus dealing with a more tech savvy population, the attitude towards it has shifted to a more positive aspect.  The players of today having been mostly born around the mid 1980’s or later are finely attuned to the daily use of technology and enjoy the rapid advances that are made in terms of applications, features, and upgrades.  They basically expect it!

When determining whether to use a specific technology as part of your team operations, you should ask some basic questions such as “Will I use this on a regular basis?”, “Is the cost for using this product or service justified or is it just a gimmicky thing to have around?” or “How are the company’s customer service, tech support, and overall management?” The old question of “What is the best product?” isn’t so simple anymore.

There are a variety of sports technology companies such as DragonFly Athletics, DVSport, and XOS Digital that each offer their own unique products and fill certain niches in the marketplace.  Over the past year, iPads have been adopted more often for digital playbooks.  Initially beginning in an experimental phase with the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011, about half of the NFL teams now use them.  Some of the companies that make iPad apps for the NFL are Global Apptitude LLC, PlayerLync LLC and DragonFly Athletics LLC.

According to Kirk Miller, Founder and CEO of DragonFly, the company’s initial vision was to find a way to exchange video with other teams or the conference that could eliminate the need for a courier or being put on an airplane.  Thus the team could have the video ready by Saturday night or Sunday instead of mid-week. Initiallly the challenges were “Can we do this through the internet?  Can we transfer content that has large data requirements and to do it reliably?” After the intiial prototype was promising, the company landed contracts with several colleges including Alabama and LSU.  “Most other technology companies focus on viewing and editing of video and coaching analysis.  Our purpose is primarily management and distribution of video to different organizations.  Security is good in part because it is not a consumer network. It is an internal network between coaches.  It is not available to the general public.”

Since the company started in 2006, the clients have included teams from a variety of sports and conferences, half a dozen NFL teams and a number of media organizations such as the Big Ten Network and CBS Sports.

XOS Digital’s Matt Marda, Executive Vice President of Product Strategy and Marketing comments that XOS’s focus since its founding in 1999 has shifted from doing some analysis work for the Orlando Magic to focusing on software development for a variety of purposes from software for recruiting, Playbook Applications and its ThunderCloud product which enables media asset management to be utlized via a cloud network.  “We have focused mostly on top of the line, NFL and Division I teams use it. It is used by coaches for video analysis, tag data, and to scout self and opponents. We would like to work down market to high school, smaller colleges with products that are cost effective and could further our reach.” Mr. Marda states that the company attends several conferences yearly such as the AFCA and Collegiate Sports Video Association (CSVA) and has a field team that does training on-site including set-up, webinars and tech support services.

The advances in video production hardware had led to innovations such as digital cameras and disk based camcorders via flash memory cards as opposed the traditional method of shooting on tape.  The advantages cited using this method have been the ease of being able to search for clips and it results in a more streamlined post production effort as footage is imported for editing and viewing.

This in turn directly affects how the post-production process is handled.  One of the major advances over the past 20 years has been the utilization of Non-linear editing systems for both the consumer and professional market.  The first true non-linear editor, the CMX 600, was introduced in 1971 by CMX Systems. However, due to the limited storage space of desktop computers of the time and applications that could be utlized, the move to non-linear editing didn’t really start to gain traction until the 1990’s as both the hardware and software improved to the point where it was feasible to do editing in this manner.

The concept behind Non-linear editing is all assets are available as files on video servers or hard disks, while Linear editing is tied to the need to sequentially view film or hear tape.  Non-linear editing enables direct access to any video frame in a digital video clip, without needing to play or scrub/shuttle through adjacent footage to reach it.  When ingesting audio or video feeds, metadata are attached to the clip. Those metadata can be attached automatically (timecode, take number, name of the clip) or manually (players names or down and distance).  For example at the end of the game, the coach could ask the video production people to retrieve all the clips related to a certain player or a particular quarter and it could be available in as little as five minutes.

The forerunner of the modem and modern text messaging was the acoustic coupler and TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf).  Developed in 1964 by James Marsters and Robert H. Weitbrecht as a way to enable deaf and hearing impaired people to communicate, it wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that these methods would become used on a mainstream basis.  While chat slang such as BRB or OIC are associated with modern internet and text message usage, this is simply a carry-over from deaf and hearing impaired people who were using these devices.

Jackie Morgan, Director of Marketing for Ultratec, Inc. which has made products for deaf and hearing impaired people since 1978 thinks the widespread use of technology that was originally intended for deaf and hearing impaired people has been wonderful.  “It has been good to see that a technology that was intended to solve a specific problem now has widespread use and application.”

The main advantage of using modern technology is that simply today’s players have basically grown up with it their whole lives and are receptible to it.  It should help with communication and being able to complete tasks in less time.  Technology, like weightlifting, practices, and nutrition are methods to help increase your chances of reaching your ultimate goal.  However using technology does have its drawbacks.

Andre Gispert, Assistant Video Coordinator at Florida International who also previously coached at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and Southern Virginia University, states that handling video and multimedia operations for a sports team can come with many challenges especially at the college level.  Often times, equipment purchases and upgrades can be complicated and involve a number of departments.  Communications involving third parties can at times be an issue especially over what kind of computers or video equipment are to be purchased.

“Protocol is approved by the IT department and sometimes can be a nightmare. They can decide who gets a laptop for editing. Who gets editing equipment and cameras.  They may not deal with the coaches directly.” Gispert said.

The biggest downside is the sense of disorientation and inability to concentrate when you have so many things competing for your attention.  The constant feeling of being rushed to complete tasks and fear of failure if you don’t get your tasks done instantly can in fact causes a downward spiral in quality and the quality particularly as it relates to relationships between people.  There is also the sense that just having technology itself will make your performance better.  There are no gimmicks or secret methods for winning more games or winning championships.  Keeping the horse before the cart is still the most important principle.

While the major selling point of technology like most products is the style, substance is still more important in the long term.  But they in and of themselves are not substitutes for the basics like preparation, execution and teamwork.  After all, while General Neyland, Bear Bryant and Don Shula didn’t exactly have these technologies, but they didn’t fare too badly.

Written by chrisforliberty

June 4, 2013 at 2:28 am

Posted in General, Media