The NFL Is Harnessing Big Data and It’s Awesome

A football player running into some servers

In many industries, digitalization has been ongoing. The use of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence has ushered in innovative and creative progress. But one industry that was slower to adopt these practices involved the sports world–and the NFL in particular. However, that has dramatically changed in the last several years. Today, NFL data analytics are among the most robust and impressive around with no end in sight. Not only is NFL football data being used to improve player performance and safety, but it’s also being used to enhance the entire experience for everyone involved.

Roughly two decades ago the movie Moneyball was released, depicting the impact analytics had on Major League Baseball. It was around this same time period when the NFL began to explore its options here as well. Faced with player safety issues involving concussions, solutions were needed. As it turns out, NFL data analytics has provided that answer and so much more. Through partnerships with companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS), NFL football data is driving all sorts of incredible changes. And in a spirit of continuous improvement, these digitalization efforts are welcomed by not only players and coaches but fans as well.

(It’s no secret that Bold Business CEO Ed Kopko is a baseball fan, so of course we’re going to write about baseball–read it here!)

“The league understands the need to fully embrace that what data analytics and the digitalization of the world really involves has to be brought in-house for us to take full advantage of it.” – Paul Ballew, NFL chief data and analytics officer

NFL’s Decision to Embrace Digitalization

While the NFL has been using data to guide rule changes since 2002, it’s not fair to say it adopted digitalization then. In fact, real efforts to utilize NFL football data to drive change occurred much later. The key turning point occurred in 2019 when the NFL formed a partnership with AWS. With this partnership, the league invested heavily in a cloud-based approach to use machine learning, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. Since then, the use of NFL data analytics to promote positive change has exploded. In fact, in terms of concussions alone, the league has seen a 25% reduction each year since 2017 as a result of data-driven choices. And this is just one area where tremendous improvements have been made.

Certainly, publicity over player safety fueled the use of NFL football data to find solutions. But there were many other incentives beyond this. Being a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, the NFL and team owners wanted to make smart investments. This involved making better choices about draft selections as well as how to coach and train them. Similarly, with significant increases in the fan-base, NFL data analytics was needed to optimize its entertainment experience. And with a boom in fantasy football and gambling, high-level NFL football data was needed to drive informed choices. Combined, these were the forces that drive the NFL to finally pursue NFL data analytics. And it has since done so in a major way.

“Data helps every part of the game experience, including giving on-air commentators far more factual information and predictive insight than anyone would have thought possible even a few years ago.” – Vasi Philomin, AWS Vice President of Machine Learning and AI Services

NFL Data Analytics and Players

While NFL football data is used for a variety of things now, one of the major uses involves player advancements. The use of football equipment sensors and video data analysis has provided many insights. These have led to markedly improved helmets, which are nearly completely adopted by current league players. But the NFL has taken things further. Along with AWS, it has created the Digital Athlete, which is an NFL player simulation. These virtual representations provide insights about the effects of weather, field conditions, and equipment choices on performance and injury risk. Based on these findings, the NFL then adjusts rules and implements other mitigation strategies. In fact, these data analytics facilitate individualize training plans and even guide coaching techniques.

Someone harnessing NFL football data
NFL data analytics doesn’t mean any nerds will be setting foot on the grid iron, but it does mean improvements!

While the Digital Athlete has significantly improved player performance and safety, it’s not the only innovation. Another tool, Amazon’s Sagemaker, is a fully managed machine learning program that incorporates NFL football data. Based on individual player information, Sagemaker identifies which coaching techniques might be needed. This allows specific NFL teams and coaches to adopt different approaches that can reduce injuries and enhance player abilities. Combined these two tools have led to new ways in which the league and teams approach training and oversight. The use of NFL data analytics in this way a few years ago would have been unheard of.

“The wealth of analysis the NFL is working to produce, through the Big Data Bowl and other efforts, simply makes for a safer, more exciting game.” – Vasi Philomin

NFL Football Data and Fans

While NFL football data is driving positive change within the sport, it’s also doing so outside of it as well. The most notable achievement in this regard has been the development of Next Gen Stats. This is a machine learning, advanced analytics platform that leverages both historical data and real-time stats. In the process, it offers fans a much more robust game experience and has even added new stats to the menu. Specifically, recent ones added based in Next Gen Stat insights include completion probability and expected return yards. The NFL even hosts the Big Data Bowl annually with AWS in an effort to identify new ideas. Through crowd-sourced competition, data scientists offer new ways to enhance fan experiences even further through statistics.

Of course, Next Gen Stats offers more than just enhanced fan experience. They have also developed a Next Gen Stats Draft Model to aid NFL coaches evaluate college player prospects. Detailed NFL data analytics are performed using inputs like size, on-field success, athleticism, and position to predict success. Next Gen Stats also aid broadcasters during NFL games offer much deeper and detailed insights and predictions. Through customized and interactive dashboards, commentators have much greater access to NFL football data. This further enhances the fan experience in the process.

Making Up for Lost Time

As you can see, the NFL data analytics and digital platforms have come a long way in a short time. NFL football data is now driving advances in every aspect of the game and the business. Though sports may have been late to the digitalization game, there’s little doubt the NFL and other leagues are rapidly catching up. And it’s an investment that looks to be good for everyone from owners, to players, to broadcasters, to fans.


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