The NFL's plan to tackle big data

  @FortuneMagazine November 21, 2013: 7:28 AM ET
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(Fortune)

New York Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley leaps and plucks quarterback Geno Smith's toss from midair. His hands meet the ball, one foot lands and the other -- well, the on-field officials call it out of bounds, ruining any hopes of a first down. There are less than 20 seconds left in the first half of this game, played in the third week of the season, against the Buffalo Bills.

In a box overlooking the field, two officials scrutinize the catch, rewinding the tape again and again in their tiny room. Two others -- a woman, whose trigger finger captures every single play with the click of a button, and a "communicator," an NFL employee with a direct line to the field -- accompany them. Within the final two minutes of either half, this foursome calls challenges, rather than the competing team's coaches. And in this case, they call one. Immediately, the on-field officials blow their whistles, stop the game, and duck under the instant replay hood behind the sidelines.

On a massive screen in the National Football League's Officiating Command Center in New York City, I'm watching them watch the scene play out. The game isn't live, but the center's Big Brother feel is undeniable. In this room a team of ex-officials grades the nine referees' (seven on-field and two in the booth) officiating of every game -- and the officials with the best marks head to the playoffs. The Command Center also hosts data, everything from penalties to announcer comments to more traditional playtime statistics, and stores it in its Game Statistics and Information System (GSIS). The media, fans, and NFL execs consume that data in all sorts of ways -- and the system's existence is one indication of the League's push to increase its digital footprint.

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