Battle over NFL sensor technology moves from gridiron to courtroom

Sensors  on players’ shoulder pads are read by receivers mounted in the stadium that collect data on the players’ movements.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Sensors on players’ shoulder pads are read by receivers mounted in the stadium that collect data on the players’ movements.

The National Football League piloted an on-field player tracking capability last season that it hailed as the future of scouting — and of cool television graphics.

But a lawsuit filed this week alleges the firm that licensed the system, Zebra Technologies Corp. of Lincolnshire, Ill., stole it from a company in Haverhill, Lynx System Developers Inc.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston, Lynx claims to be the true inventor of the motion sensors NFL players began wearing under their shoulder pads last fall. Zebra was merely a supplier of component parts to Lynx, according to the suit, but upon realizing the potential of the tracking system, Zebra cut off its supply, copied the technology, and ultimately landed a $50 million deal with the NFL that Lynx believes it was poised to ink.

Lynx is seeking unspecified damages, including lost profits and what it calls Zebra’s “ill-gotten profits.”

It also asked the court for an injunction that would halt the use of stolen technology by the NFL or anyone else. But that request, if granted, could stall the use of player tracking technology by coaches and TV networks alike.

“Our company spent many years and significant resources developing and refining technological innovations for the real-time tracking of athletes during competition and training,” Lynx president Doug DeAngelis said in a statement. “We are committed to protecting these inventions, trade secrets, and other confidential and proprietary information.”

In a statement, Zebra denied stealing Lynx technology.

“Zebra has an uncompromising position of honoring its contractual and confidentiality obligations, and respecting the intellectual property of others,” said Therese Van Ryne, a company spokeswoman. “Lawsuits in technology are an unfortunate part of doing business, and we believe the lawsuit filed against Zebra is without merit; and we intend to vigorously defend against it. It is Zebra’s policy not to comment further on pending litigation.”

Zebra’s MotionWorks tracking system was installed at 17 NFL stadiums, including Gillette Stadium, for the 2014 season. All 31 arenas are expected to have the system in place for the comingseason.

It works like this: Twenty receivers mounted between the upper and lower decks of stadiums take in a constant stream of radio signals emitted by the sensors that each player wears under either shoulder pad. The sensors send 25 signals per second, enabling pinpoint measurements of every player’s location, speed, and distance traveled.

The data collected can be used to quantify performance in advanced ways. It is possible, for instance, to calculate exactly how much separation a wide receiver gets from a defensive back, or to identify which running back accelerates fastest after taking a handoff.

Information from the tracking system was used sparingly by TV networks during NFL telecasts last season as networks said they needed time to figure out how best to enhance — but not clutter — their broadcasts. The league did not grant data access to teams to prevent those that had the technology in their stadiums from gaining an unfair advantage. But the NFL has said the plan in future seasons is for MotionWorks to become a player evaluation tool for coaches and a statistics generator for fans watching at home.

A spokeswoman for the NFL, which is not a defendant, did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

Lynx claims the Zebra system deployed by the NFL is a clone of one that it began developing in 2004, when it first experimented with a radio frequency identification technology produced by a Maryland company called Multispectral Solutions Inc. The RFID technology had been used to track equipment and inventory in factories and warehouses, but Lynx believed it could be modified and used on athletes.

In 2008, Zebra acquired Multispectral Solutions, meaning Lynx would have to buy from Zebra if it wanted to continue using the same RFID components it had previously gotten from Multispectral Solutions. In its complaint, Lynx said it signed agreements with Zebra that called for sharing intellectual property Zebra would need to serve as a supplier but prohibited Zebra from using those disclosures for its own benefit.

By 2010, the Lynx athlete tracking system was drawing interest from the NFL and was even tested during a Patriots practice, according to the suit. After additional testing over the next two years, a deal between Lynx and the NFL appeared to be on the horizon, the company said.

Aware of the licensing opportunity, Zebra attempted to acquire the Lynx system, according to the complaint, but Lynx rejected a what it called a “low-ball” offer. Lynx said Zebra then stopped supplying RFID components, leaving Lynx unable to move forward with the NFL until it could find another supplier.

In the meantime, Zebra swooped in to strike its own NFL deal with a copycat version of the player tracking system, Lynx alleges.

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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