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The Digital Athlete: How the NFL & AWS Leverage Data to Keep Players Safe

Boardroom spoke with leaders at the NFL and Amazon Web Services about how the pair are leveraging data and analytics to keep players safe, healthy, and far away from injuries.

Jennifer Langton, SVP of Player Health and Innovation with the NFL, and Julie Souza, Global Head of Sports at Amazon Web Services (AWS), are leading an important tech-focused project to keep football players healthy on the field.

The NFL has been partnering with Amazon for years in different capacities, but the league’s partnership with AWS was first announced in December 2019, when the pair set a goal to harness AWS’ artificial intelligence and machine learning tech services to improve the sport of football, from gathering insights into player injuries to reviewing data from games that could ultimately change rules and other strategies.

Boardroom spoke to Langton and Souza about the league’s ongoing strategic partnership with AWS that’s ultimately focused on leveraging data to keep players healthy and safe. Here’s a deeper look into how they got into this work and its long-term benefits for NFL athletes.

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How Data and Sport Go Hand in Hand

For most of her career, Souza has worked in sports media and sports technology. During her time leading strategy and business development at Second Spectrum, a sports data tracking and analytics provider, she developed a deeper understanding of the volume of data that can really come out of sports.

“I remember thinking, this is gonna change everything, [from] how we look at sports, how we train, how we recruit, how we strategize, how we protect, which is Jennifer’s domain in the player, health, and safety space,” Souza told Boardroom. “for me, as somebody who was first introduced to sports data and thinking, there’s so much application and potential for this to actually now be partnering with Jennifer and the NFL and other customers in this space to make use of that data.”

This experience was the lightbulb that went off in Souza’s head about how important data is to sport. She joined Amazon nearly four years ago, and fast-forward to today and the tech her team is building with Langton and the NFL has been rolled out to all 32 teams in the league.

Langton was an athlete growing up but never envisioned herself in an SVP role at the NFL. Before joining the league in 2009, she was the CFO at video game giant Atari. Boasting a strong finance background, she was initially hired by the NFL to help restructure the league’s apparel strategy. Langton went on to attend business school since she was seeking a leadership opportunity.

“What was pretty unique was that in my finance roles, I was always rolling out systems or implementations that were around data, finances, [and] data,” Langton said. “I always just had a very innovative but systems-based background.”

From there, the rest was history for Langton, who worked in different business strategy-focused roles at the NFL before taking on her current leadership role in the player health and innovation division. Langton actually helped craft and create the league’s health and safety department. An important aspect of this department is to better understand injuries on the field, like concussions, for example.

Langton said gathering and analyzing this data was labor-intensive and manual, so the NFL began looking for the right partner that could help solve this problem. The league wanted to work with a cloud provider that shared the same vision on how not only to reduce but also predict injuries for players.

Enter AWS.

The Digital Athlete

It would take an NFL technician four days to review one game to count the number of head impacts. Now that the league is leveraging AWS as its cloud provider, it has automated this review process that takes less than a minute and archived data for every single head impact for every player dating back to 2015.

This is the sort of data Langton’s office is charged with gathering through a privatized portal that’s internally shared with each team. This platform that AWS built is dubbed the Digital Athlete, and its predictive capabilities hadn’t been done before in the league.

The NFL and AWS didn’t create the Digital Athlete platform just to compile injury data; they created it to understand each and every player on the field and conceptualize resources to help them play at their best every game. Langton said the Digital Athlete has helped reduce concussions by 25% this past season, all thanks to the platform’s computer vision technique, which can quickly review game footage and flag head impacts.

But this is only one example of the tech that the Digital Athlete is capable of harnessing.

“We consider the Digital Athlete a joint venture with the NFL and AWS. The technology itself is AI and machine learning, where we’re building complete views of the player to understand what their needs are as it relates to training, practice, and games,” Langton said. “When you can understand and do risk models around what their needs are and provide that to the teams that are managing those players, then the output of that is for them being better able to understand how they stay healthy, how you then prevent injuries, but then also, the flip side of all of it is how you optimize performance. A healthy roster and availability of a roster is success.”

Think of the Digital Athlete as a digital model of each player, and only teams have access to the data for the players on their rosters. Data isn’t captured for each player until they are drafted into the NFL. At that point, scans for each player are captured to start building out their digital twin.

Langton said the NFL’s front office doesn’t actually have access to the data being captured for the Digital Athlete, and it inked a deal with the NFLPA to streamline access to the platform and make sure the date on it stays secure and safe. AWS technologically manages the platform with the help of a third-party engineering firm that deals with the datasets.

(Photo courtesy of AWS)

During the season, the Digital Athlete sifts through millions of video frames and thousands of miles of tracking data each week. From kick-off to every play and every tackle on the field. That equates to 500 million points of data per week from games, practices, and other training sessions. Teams can access this data via a user-friendly dashboard, and more importantly, training staff can see data like players who are at optimal load or at risk of injury. The platform also leverages NFL Next Gen Stats to capture various tracking data points for players, including speed, acceleration, and real-time location.

“Think about the millions of simulations that we can do about in-game scenarios,” Langton said. “You’re not able to test things like the kick-off in-game. So if we make a change, we can model it because we have all of that data, and now we can build the sophistication, and I think there’s no risk to the athletes in that.”

Souza said she’s proud of the NFL’s commitment to roll up its sleeves to tackle the root cause of injury and lean into tech to help detect and prevent future instances from happening. She hopes AWS’ work with the league can be the model for the sports industry to start investing more in data and analytics because, ultimately, they can help athletes stay in their respective sports longer.

What the Future Holds

Aside from being the two leading ladies at the helm of the Digital Athlete, Langton and Souza are tackling DEI across sports and tech from various angles. Through the NFL and AWS partnership, the pair have hosted various career and networking opportunities, including the NFL Women’s Forum. The forum helps and educates women working with college football teams to look into what their next big role could be with the NFL.

“We need more women contributing their superpowers to sport,” Souza said. “We’re both really excited to be a part of bringing more women into sport in general and in the NFL, in particular.”

The NFL and AWS have more to come throughout their partnership, both internally for the league and externally, to foster more career opportunities and connections for women looking to work with athletes.

We’ll be covering the big movements from AWS and the NFL here at Boardroom and in our weekly tech newsletter, Tech Talk. Be sure to subscribe here.

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Michelai Graham

Michelai Graham is Boardroom's resident tech and crypto reporter. Before joining 35V, she was a freelance reporter with bylines in AfroTech, HubSpot, The Plug, and Lifewire, to name a few. At Boardroom, Michelai covers Web3, NFTs, crypto, tech, and gaming. Off the clock, you can find her producing her crime podcast, The Point of No Return.