The XFL pulled together vendors across sports technology earlier this month and asked them to do something unusual: work together.
At the X Lab, a showcase in Austin during the Spring League on the weekends of Apr. 6 and April 13, the XFL pulled together nearly two-dozen vendors across athlete management, tracking, and operations to imagine how it might be able to use technology to enhance the game of football.
The new league, which plans to launch in February 2020, has been in the midst of a significant amount of research and development, including an ongoing exploration of rules changes. In December at an earlier R&D session, the league worked with two Mississippi junior colleges to test gameplay and rule modifications. In February, it teamed up with Your Call Football to test new rules under consideration.
The X Lab was the XFL’s first dedicated showcase of technology. It was intended to help the XFL to strategize how it might leverage tech to improve operations, gameplay, fan experience, and athlete health and safety.
“We’ve been refining what we think the XFL is going to be since last year, and we’ve been using opportunities along the way when we have access to players of different calibers to test how that might look on the field,” said Iain Paine, the XFL’s head of football systems. “In our partnership with the Spring League, we were utilizing their access to the players to test some aspects of how technology could potentially improve our chances of getting the best possible game on the field.”
The Spring League game between East and North in Austin, Texas on April 11, 2019. (Cooper Neill for XFL)
Eighteen vendors, including some that are direct competitors, flew down to Austin at the XFL’s invitation. Under athlete performance monitoring and management, the XFL brought in Catapult Sports, Kitman Labs, Kinduct, Fusion Sport, and Edge10. Under tracking and wearables, the league included Catapult again, together with Kinexon Sports, Wimu.Pro, and TitanGPS. The XFL brought in 080 Motion, InBody, Physmodo, Swift, Hawkin Dynamics, Assess2Perform, and Fit3D to study biomechanics and motion capture technologies. And for business and communications services, it looked at GSC, Riedel Communications, and CoachComm.
They were told they’d be showing off their technology and would be asked to collaborate with their rivals. The league hoped to challenge the companies to think beyond their typical purview and to reimagine how their technologies might add value now and into the future.
The league has not yet announced partnerships with any of those companies. XFL executives say they’re now working through the weekend’s insights with hopes of making decisions on technology, strategy, and partners. Not every technology will be implemented for the inaugural season, though some may be.
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The X Lab was spearheaded by both the XFL and its league consultant, Gains Group. Running the event at the Spring League offered access to NFL-caliber athletes. Also present were six XFL coaches, including Dallas Coach Bob Stoops and St. Louis Coach Jon Hayes, who observed the athletes, looked through the data, surveyed technology, and worked with the league and vendors.
Perhaps one of the biggest immediate takeaways from the X Lab showcase is that it enabled the league to see for itself what works and what doesn’t. The XFL was pleasantly surprised, for example, at how well GPS trackers worked having heard from elsewhere that they weren’t as accurate as newer tracking tools like ultra-wideband.
“The reputation of GPS is it’s a lot less accurate because it relies on satellites many miles away, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of details that tracking a player with GPS was able to yield for us,” Paine said. “This [event] was successful in terms of understanding what’s possible.”
The Spring League game between North and West in Austin, Texas on April 6, 2019. (Courtesy of the XFL)
Beyond just understanding the possible, the XFL also pushed vendors to imagine the not-yet-possible. To understand how they might do more by collaborating, and how a technology designed for one thing could find use for another.
“One of things we learned is that we want to be really efficient with our use of technology and use things for multiple purposes,” said Steve Gera, chief executive of the Gains Group. “In measuring the way football players move, we’re trying to get past just seeing how far they traveled in a period of practice. We wanted to use the sensors that an athlete was wearing to see ‘How does a football player really move?’ Coaches talk about burst, power, how fast someone is going in and out of cuts. We’re trying to find ways to drill down into that and put more of a measurement onto that.
“We asked vendors ‘How do we tell a better story about the XFL using the data that you have?’ How can you enhance the story of the XFL, not just from an R&D perspective, but also in telling the story of our coaches and our players.”