Ball tracking technology is certainly under consideration, but definitely not for the impending 2013-14 season. In the future, embedding sensors in footballs could even be considered, but not yet.
“We don’t anticipate introducing any new technology this season, but we have some of the brightest minds in tech spending a tremendous amount of time to see how we can improve what we do,” McCarthy said.
The NFL has already demonstrated a real willingness to embrace technology with its recently announced five-year, $400 million partnership with Microsoft. Much of the new deal is geared toward upgrading the fans’ viewing experience, especially with a new version of X-Box for interactive viewing. But down the road, McCarthy said, referees may benefit as well. This will be evident when playbooks are swapped for Microsoft Surface tablets, and high-definition replay eliminates the need for black-and-white Polaroids.
Introducing the use of new technology for the referees is really a balancing act, Blair said. “Any decision made in officiating has to pay attention to the relationship between sponsors, athletes and fans,” he said. “Technology is available that could be implemented in short order, but will it take away from the spirit of the game? If the technology is not to the benefit of the fan experience and it’s only for the sake of accuracy, that ignores the bigger picture. If the fans don’t want to lose the human element to the calls in the game, then we have to take a step back.”
McCarthy agrees. “Some people say we should move away from the chain gang for first down markers,” he said. “So we’ve discussed using lasers to speed up the game, but others say how exciting it is when the chain gang runs out there and the referee stretches it out and you’re inches away from the first down. Would that excitement be diminished if we just used a laser? We don’t know that yet.”
More likely are some lower-tech innovations that may show up soon, according to McCarthy. “We’re open to things like some type of communication system for the officials so they don’t have to run 40 yards downfield to another referee when there’s a pass interference.”
Meanwhile, in late 2012, the NFL and the NFL Referee Association (NFLRA) created a new technology committee, which will meet annually to consider new innovations that may make the games better and the calls more accurate.