When the San Antonio Commanders take the field Saturday as the Alliance of American Football kicks off its inaugural season, the players suiting up at the Alamodome will have chips on their shoulders – computer chips, that is.
Each player’s shoulder pads will be outfitted with technology to track movement throughout the game and send in-game statistics in real time – milliseconds after the play concludes – to fans using a smartphone app to play fantasy football or bet on the action. Chips also will be implanted in the footballs, creating a video game-like rendering of the actual gameplay. Users can watch the digital avatars mirror the play a whole 30 seconds before satellites send the moving images to TV screens.
“On Day 1, when you download our app … play to play you’ll be able to guess, ‘Is it going to be a run or pass or a kick? Are they going to throw left, right, center? Are they going to get a first down? Are they going to get a touchdown?” said Charlie Ebersol, the league’s CEO. “And in each one of those iterations you’re getting it at exactly the same times as the person in the stadium … That has never happened before.”
The technology is so cutting-edge, Ebersol said, that it will be streaming in data from the game 34 times faster than statistics were coming in from Super Bowl LIII last weekend. The Alliance is just as much a technology company as it is a football league, he said. The 36-year-old son of a former producer of National Football League broadcasts knows how “impossible” it can be to launch a successful football league. After all, his father Dick co-founded the XFL, an alternative to the NFL, that folded after just one season.
Through a combination of machine learning, analytics, and artificial intelligence tools, the league has created a software platform that will automatically determine the teams’ formations using the data from the computer chips installed in players’ shoulder pads, Ebersol said. The AAF smartphone app will clue fans in on what play could be coming next. Because the offense is lined up in an I formation and the defense has trotted out three linemen and four linebackers, there’s a high likelihood the next play could be a run to the right, the app might predict.
“The idea of launching a football league and having a football league business exist on its own and succeed on its own is incredibly challenging and probably almost impossible to do,” Ebersol said. “So you have to have a business model that’s going to offer you other paths to success and also justifies the immense amount of money you’re going to spend putting a football league on.
“So by making this a tech-first business where the technology was ultimately going to be worth hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, we can turn around and say, ‘Look we’re going to invest heavily in football because putting quality football on the field is the first and most important thing.’”
The Alliance raised its original rounds of venture capital from firms that typically fund tech startups. Its more than 45 engineers in the Bay Area have been working to develop the league’s proprietary technology, which could be parlayed into a product that features beyond the bounds of the Alliance gridiron. The AAF is betting on its technology platform finding its way to other leagues and sporting institutions, such as the NCAA and NFL, Ebersol said.
Commanders running back Aaron Green, who admitted the players haven’t been looped in on the specifics of how the technology is going to be deployed, said he wouldn’t be surprised if leagues in other sports like basketball take a similar tack – broadening the fantasy-gaming experience and delivering more real-time analytics on the players.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Green said. “I think that it’s really going to blow up, and more leagues are going to do it.”
The robust game data is aimed not only at deepening fan engagement through fantasy play and live betting, but also at providing a more objective snapshot of the players’ performance. Players are even incentivized with bonuses for the fantasy points they rack up, and their wearable devices will provide a wealth of data to NFL scouts who may offer them a fatter contract than the AAF, which pays its players about $75,000 for the 10-game season.
“It’s an opportunity for all of us on this team,” said linebacker Tyrone Holmes. “We’re trying to either get back to the NFL or just get back to playing football for right now. People will hopefully latch on to that underdog-type story or somebody striving to accomplish something.”
Off the field, players get financially rewarded for the number of their jerseys sold and their connection with fans on social media. The league will track hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, for example, and award players who help build the league’s brand with virtual “coins” – the more coins they accumulate throughout the season, the higher their cash bonus, Ebersol said.
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez met recently with Commanders General Manager Daryl Johnston, a football legend in his own right who won Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Perez joked that the in-app features perhaps will not come naturally to him and his fellow senior citizens, but he looks forward to a novel and dynamic game-day experience.
“Clearly they have put a lot of time and thought into the fan experience,” Perez said. “You put that all together and hopefully an awesome team that can win, and I’m looking forward to a season of high expectations.”