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posted: 9/8/2012 8:00 AM

Game of the Future: NFL 2017

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  • The Dallas Cowboys boast a high-tech stadium and video display, but there are more advances to come in the NFL. The first-down line that has become a staple of all NFL broadcasts could become a fixture for fans at the stadium, and chain crews might disappear if measurements can accurately be determined through high-tech gadgets.

      The Dallas Cowboys boast a high-tech stadium and video display, but there are more advances to come in the NFL. The first-down line that has become a staple of all NFL broadcasts could become a fixture for fans at the stadium, and chain crews might disappear if measurements can accurately be determined through high-tech gadgets.
    Associated Press/file

  • While NFL officials now use chain crews to help measure for a first down, lasers or computer chips may find their way onto the field in the future.

      While NFL officials now use chain crews to help measure for a first down, lasers or computer chips may find their way onto the field in the future.
    Associated Press/file

 
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer

NEW YORK -- Laser technology to help officials. Computer chips in the football.

Devices that measure the impact of a hit or the speed of a ball carrier heading to the end zone. Streamlined, yet safer equipment. A 400-pound player.

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More teams in the playoffs. More international matchups. More prime-time games.

NFL 2017? Quite possibly.

America's most popular and profitable sport, a $9 billion industry that figures to be worth more than $14 billion in five years, still will feature 100-yard fields, 11 players on each side of the ball, and Green Bay cheeseheads by then. Otherwise, experiencing the NFL season and off-season could change drastically, whether you're on your couch, at the local tavern or in the stands.

So look for a longer draft, possibly rotating to league stadiums. Expect huge video boards in those stadiums capable of providing instantaneous information for the fan and the fantasy player -- along with highlights from every game, peeks at what the referee sees when reviewing challenged plays, even views of the locker room.

Dynamic ticket pricing. Another outdoor Super Bowl in a cold weather city. A franchise in Los Angeles, perhaps even two.

All of that possibly, perhaps probably, is ahead for the NFL.

"Our philosophy is to always look for ways to improve," said Commissioner Roger Goodell. "Our goals are to continually evolve the game to make it better and safer, serve our fans in new ways, and represent the NFL with integrity. We do that by emphasizing quality and innovation, including the latest technology as it applies to everything from equipment to medical care to the stadium experience."

And it all could come crashing down if the thousands of people involved in concussion lawsuits against the league win their cases.

"You never want to understate the potential impact of class-action lawsuits," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., and a keen observer of the league's business side. "Having said that, we must keep in mind that if the concussion lawsuits are found for the plaintiffs, we are talking about effectively eliminating football in the U.S. They will have to say football inherently is too dangerous a game to play because it inherently causes concussions. That could be the impact of these lawsuits."

That's a doomsday scenario. More likely, the NFL will be around and will remain this nation's No. 1 sport.

With labor peace assured for another nine years, pro football is positioned to continue its prosperity. One of the biggest challenges to remaining No. 1 in 2017 will be making every game for 17 weeks an event, no matter where it is being viewed.

Making the stadium experience as enriching as what fans get at home is a challenge now, and will be even more so in five years. Consider how the fans in their decked-out living rooms, watching on high-definition TVs, have access to every game through DirecTV's Sunday Ticket and the Red Zone channel. They have all kinds of statistical info at fingertips, particularly for their fantasy teams. And they can get everything on a smartphone or tablet.

By 2017, maybe even sooner, they will enjoy all of that -- and more -- at the ballpark.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced this week they hired an outside company to enhance the in-stadium experience through "free Wi-Fi, a new replay system, and bolstered customer service." Fans can take advantage of wireless access to use the team's official mobile app, as well as the Bucs' tablet and smartphone application that will give them special features when used at Raymond James Stadium on game day.

Fully powered Wi-Fi will be available at all stadiums "much sooner than in five years," said Redskins general manager Bruce Allen. Stats and highlights from NFL Films, too.

The monstrous, crystal-clear scoreboard at Cowboys Stadium will be replicated elsewhere, providing a better variety of replays, real-time statistics and -- get this -- instant measurements of how much force Ray Lewis, if he is still playing at age 42, used to bring down a runner. Or how many miles per hour A.J. Green was running when he caught that bomb from Andrew Dalton.

NFL vice president of business operations Eric Grubman sees cameras in locker rooms or tunnels beneath the stadium or coaches' facilities supplying video for fans.

"I don't look at it as trying to match or duplicate the home experience," said Steelers President Art Rooney. "The idea is create an in-stadium experience that is unique and different from the home experience. It's always going to be unique in terms of in-stadium live experience. You won't ever equal that, with thousands of fans cheering along with you, no matter how much you turn up the sound at home."

Turning up technology for action on the field is ahead, too. Most intriguing is possibly having a computer chip in the football that, through lasers or some other electronic wizardry, will indicate if the ball has crossed the goal line. On-field officials -- replacements or otherwise -- probably can't wait for that.

"Definitely. We're almost there," NFL senior executive vice president Ray Anderson said.

Giants general manager Jerry Reese agrees. "That's something I could definitely see by 2017," he said.

The first-down line that has become a staple of all NFL broadcasts should become a fixture for fans at the stadium through the same technology, too. Chain gangs might disappear, as well, if measurements can accurately be determined through high-tech enhancements. Lasers or computer chips could "extend 100 feet up" Anderson said, to determine if a kick goes through the uprights.

"There's so many things we can and will do with technology the way it is and will be," Anderson said.

The guys playing the game in 2017 could have helmets with more padding to protect their heads, along with lightweight knee, thigh and hip pads that the NFL plans to make mandatory, perhaps by next season. They will spend even more time with personal trainers and dietitians.

At least they'd better, according to Brian Martin, CEO of TEST's academies, who believes the current CBA and its limitations on time spent at team facilities will have a huge effect on player health.

"They need to make sure they have doctors and physical therapists that the athletes trust, people outside their NFL organizations," Martin said. "They will need to do research on their own into helmets and equipment."

Martin sees players hiring their own specialists such as podiatrists, chiropractors and psychologists.

"They are CEOs of their company and their bodies are their company," he said.

Those bodies have grown larger, yet faster and more agile. Unlike Rooney and Browns President Mike Holmgren, Martin thinks the size of NFL players will continue to increase.

"I see 400-pounders on the lines and 300-pound tight ends who can run a 4.6 or 4.7 40," he said.

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