Football meets tech: A brief history of technology on the gridiron

Infographic: Technological improvements complement football better than almost any other sport. Here are some highlights.

Caitlin Petrakovitz Director of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Caitlin Petrakovitz
5 min read

From its inception, football has been a social sport. And as far back as radio, it's been a technological one, too.

The advancements of the game have always been made in an effort to elevate it, such as the communications system between coaches and players, or to trim the time of a single game to make it more enjoyable for everyone. But that's not all that's changed.

From pylon cameras to the 1st & Ten line to instant replay (both times!) this is just a quick look at some of the big tech of the biggest game. Check out the infographic and read more about the super sport below.


What do you think has been the best enhancement to the sport? (Click for the full version.)

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1939: The first televised pro football game aired on NBC on October 22, 1939, and featured the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers (not those Dodgers, the "football" Dodgers). It wasn't until 1948, however, that the first televised NFL Championship game would air.

1982: John Madden introduces the football-viewing world to the Telestrator -- you might know it better as Madden's fancy drawing knick-knack. What would become his signature began this season as a small pen and device devoted to illustrating live plays.

1984: Skycam is the technical name for that fancy camera that floats on wires above the field. It was first used in public at a preseason game in San Diego, where the Chargers played the San Francisco 49ers. Today, we're starting to see drones being used in some games for fancy aerial shots, but nothing has supplanted the fly-by-wire Skycam -- especially with its Super Bowl 50 upgrades.

Inside the Super Bowl tech at Levi's Stadium (pictures)

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1986: Instant replay makes its first regular season appearance, but that wasn't the first time it popped up on the field. In 1978, the current director of officiating, Art McNally, "experimented" with the idea, using a stopwatch and a video camera -- he saw something that could've been adjusted using replay and wanted to incorporate it. The first replay system, however, was a costly endeavor and its poor performance during the 1978 Hall of Fame game sent the idea back to the drawing board.

When it was finally instituted, according to the NFL's own History of Instant Replay, reviewable plays were:

  • Possessions or touches (like fumbles or interceptions)
  • Plays over the sidelines, goal lines, end lines and line of scrimmage
  • Infractions easy to detect on replay

Six seasons after its integration, owners voted against renewing the system. According to the NFL, it was in large part because of the delay it caused in games, as well as statistics that showed replays failed to reverse a significant portion of original calls.

1994: NFL approved on-field communications system in an effort to speed up game and eliminate the time it took to relay play calls between the coach and the quarterback. It wasn't exactly the first of its kind though -- 1956 was the first (documented) experiment with radio transmitters on the sidelines, but they were banned shortly after due to listening concerns.

In 2008, the NFL would approve the use of a similar system between a coach and a defensive player. Four years after that, the league moved from analog to digital receivers, thereby improving the sound quality.

1995: In the mid-90s, the cost of a Super Bowl commercial crossed the $1 million mark. Since then, the price has continued to rise -- this year, CBS says the average 30-second Super Bowl spot costs $5 million. (Disclosure: CBS, which is airing the Super Bowl, is CNET's parent company.)

1998: The 1st & Ten line (yes, that virtual yellow line actually has a name!) was first shown on ESPN during a broadcast of a Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens game on September 27, 1998. Today it's so ubiquitous going to an actual football game is a little confusing sometimes: "Wait, why is there no yellow line? How do I know where they are?"

1999: Instant replay returned -- with some caveats and additions: teams now had two challenges instead of three per half; a timeout was charged only for unsuccessful reviews; in the final 2 minutes a replay could only be initiated by the referees; and now replays could also cover scoring plays.

The referees now also had the ability to view the replay on the field from a little booth and just 90 seconds to make their ruling.

Replays continue to evolve. In 2007, the league upgraded to high-def replays, and in 2014 the NFL began direct communications from its officiating headquarters in New York with the referee when a review is initiated. Some plays are now reviewed immediately from New York, even before a coach's challenge, so as to cut down on the time it takes to make the ruling on the field.

2013: This year it got even easier for football fans to multitask. Microsoft and the NFL entered into a deal to make it easier for you on an Xbox One and other Microsoft devices to keep up with all your fantasy football updates, track scores and stats, and see personalized highlights all while watching a live NFL game.

Watch this: Surface on the sideline: how tablets work at an NFL game

2014: In a different kind of partnership with the NFL, Microsoft began supplying Surface tablets for coaches and teams to use on the sidelines this year. For some, the tablets have replaced written plays and formations. Last season, the tablets were upgraded to Surface Pro 3s, and the software on them was upgraded to allow for more images, multiple colors in mark-ups, and a whiteboard mode.

2015: This season, pylon cameras were added to the field. They're not used for instant replay due to requirements of those specific camera angles, but they do show off some interesting things (like touchdowns, no big).

2016: So what's next?

Well, the NFL has already started exploring such options as microchips in balls, better stadium Wi-Fi, impact sensors and more. There's Schutt Vision, an HD camera built into a full-contact helmet, but so far it doesn't produce great footage (all it seems to show is something worse than shaky cam).

Some teams have also begun to experiment with using virtual reality "film" in practice to learning and improve.

And if Microsoft has its way, one day we may all be watching an augmented version of football using its HoloLens.