When it’s time to measure for a first down in the USFL, the officials will call for a high-tech solution in place of the decidedly low-tech 10-yard chains that have been used in football for a century.
The USFL played a preseason game on Friday night that included the debut of its new first down measuring system, which combines a chip in every football and the yellow first-down line that fans are accustomed to seeing on TV. Video of its use during the preseason game was accompanied by a claim from the USFL that the upstart league has “First down measurements that are more accurate than ever.”
That, however, may not be accurate. Although it undeniably looks cool on TV to see an image of the football and an image of the line to gain — reminiscent of the way replay is used in tennis — the reality is that this kind of ball tracking technology isn’t precise enough to guarantee that first down calls will be correct.
The NFL already has a chip in every football, but it uses those chips only for its Next Gen Stats tracking data, and not for officiating. That’s because the chips in the middle of every ball just aren’t accurate enough to locate where a football is to the inch. The data works fine as a good approximation of where the ball is, give or take the length of one football. But it doesn’t tell you whether a third down play just barely picked up the first down, or whether the offense should be facing fourth-and-inches.
Replay technology works so well in tennis because tennis is a sport fundamentally conducive to it: The smaller size of the ball, the spherical shape of the ball, and the ability to always have camera angles with unobstructed views of the ball and the lines on the court make tennis well suited to its replay system. Football just doesn’t work that way. It’s not always possible to tell precisely where the ball was when the ball carrier’s knee touched the ground, especially when huge men are surrounding the ball carrier and blocking any view of his knee or the ball.
So TV viewers will probably enjoy watching the USFL’s solution to first downs, but no one should expect the actual spotting of the ball to be any more accurate than it is in the NFL.