The old sports cliche “keep your eye on the ball” is getting a modern twist by an Australian sports tech company that’s putting an eye inside the ball.

Catapult Sports is rolling out the first major trial of ball-tracking technology this spring during the Australian Football League’s pre-season NAB Cup. SmartBall uses a tiny sensor inside the ball and fist-sized GPS trackers worn by players to produce a two-dimensional model of how the players and the ball move on the field.

There are two benefits to this. First, the player-worn devices send data to the sidelines, allowing trainers to determine who is working at peak levels, who is tiring and how changes in ball possession could be affecting their levels of effort. This type of sports-science approach is old hat for Catapult, which has long supplied its OptimEye monitors to professional, college, and Olympic teams around the world.

SmartBall expands the benefits of data-tracking from health monitoring and to in-game strategy and analysis. The technology can track who’s had the ball and for how long, where it is on the field, how it got there and at what speed. By examining real-time data, coaches can see where their formations and plays work and where there are weak spots. This will allow changing tactics during the game and in practice sessions.

“There’s going to be a lot of learning this season,” Luke Millar, Catapult Sports’ global manager, said. “People know it’s an amazing tool, but they’re going to sit down and say, ‘How are we going to use this information?’”

Such data also could be broadcast to fans watching the action, providing new insights into gameplay.

Leagues have been hesitant to implement any tracking system that altered the primary tool of the game: the ball. No changes in dimensions were allowed, and anything that altered how the ball bounced, spun, flew, or felt was a non-starter.

Catapult solved that problem by removing the transmitter from the chip inside the ball. Now the chip weighs just over half an ounce, so the ball stays within the specified range of 17 to 18 ounces. The transmitter is in the small GPS units included with each player’s game-day equipment.

The in-ball module sits snugly inside a pouch with the ball’s interior bladder. Two beacons — one with a range of 16 to 47 inches and another with a range of 3 to 16 feet — pulse five times per second, sending data to the receiver. The receiver typically is strapped into a vest worn and sits comfortably between the player’s shoulders. The data recorder worn by the players can tell whether the player has the ball and can produce accurate measurements of possessions, speed, and distance.

The NAB Cup will mark the first time the ball-tracking tech has been used in an official game, but a few teams, including Gold Coast, North Melbourne and Adelaide, have tested the system during preseason practice. If all goes well, Catapult co-founder and COO Igor van de Griendt said he foresees the SmartBall being used at a future Super Bowl.

“We see the ball tracking as having enormous potential for Australian football and rugby this year, but have our sights on soccer and (American) football in the near future,” he said. “We’re all pretty excited about where the technology is headed.”


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