The NFL May Finally Swap Its First-Down Chains for Cameras

The NFL is swapping cameras for chains as the $150 billion sports league embraces 21st-century technology.

Despite a combined valuation of its 32 teams nearing $150 billion, the National Football League (NFL) has long relied on a literal chain — carried by a “chain gang” — to measure first downs. This archaic measurement tool may finally be on its long-overdue way out, possibly replaced by camera technology.

After testing optical tracking to measure downs at two stadiums last season and during Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, NFL team owners are slated to vote on the technology ahead of the 2024 season.

It is jarring that first-down measurements, a vital part of any football game that can frequently determine the outcome, have relied on decades-old technology for so long.

The “chain gang” is incredibly anachronistic given that the NFL has continually implemented new imaging technology into its broadcasts and rules decisions, including high-resolution cameras for video replays and cameras embedded in the endzone pylons for determining if a player scored a touchdown.

At Super Bowl LVIII last month, there were 165 Sony cameras used for CBS’ broadcast, including two dozen cameras with 4K zoom capabilities that were available to league officials during replays and official reviews.

The new “line to gain” ruling technology has been developed by Hawk-Eye, a Sony-owned computer vision system used in many high-level sporting events, including professional tennis, cricket, badminton, rugby, soccer, and volleyball. The camera tech system allows officials and broadcasters to visually track a ball on the field of play.

Despite some testing last season and the established ability for Hawk-Eye technology to perform at the highest level of sports, NBC Sports reports it is unlikely the new line-to-gain technology will be used exclusively next season, so chain-gang fans likely have at least one more season to enjoy the occasionally-comical song and dance that is measuring first downs.

Beyond finally realizing the camera technology available for measuring first downs and the line to gain, NFL officials are discussing other ways to implement camera technology in NFL broadcasts. Replay systems may soon finally have high-resolution cameras along the end zone and sidelines. There are also continued discussions concerning ball and player tracking technology.

As camera technology continues to improve, the NFL spectator experience is due to do so as well.

Image credits: Featured image created using a photo by BrokenSphere, CC-BY-SA, and a photo licensed via Depositphotos.