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The USFL to Go Chainless This Season, Will Rely on Sensors in the Football to Measure First Downs


Andrew Cohen
April 11, 2022

The USFL will use sensors in game balls to measure first downs during its inaugural season that kicks off April 16. The sensors will enable “first down measurements that are more accurate than ever,” the league said in a tweet.

Referees will not use chains to measure first downs, a departure from the NFL and college football. A broadcast of a USFL pre-season game on Friday included graphics of the league’s first-down system which appeared similar to the line-judging system in tennis that is powered by Hawk-Eye’s ball-tracking cameras. 

Zebra Technologies has embedded sensors into NFL game balls since the 2016 season for the purpose of tracking data for the league’s Next Gen Stats system. The chips can track location within six inches of accuracy and, although the NFL explored this off-season whether to use the chips to see where a ball sailed out of bounds on a punt, there are no imminent plans to go chainless on plays from scrimmage.

“That question will be discussed every year,’’ the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent told SportTechie in February. “Keep in mind with officiating, the ball may be one place, but the runner is being tagged where that body part went down. So his knee may be in one location, but the ball may be at another. So we, too, would like to get away from the chains. Really, like, we would like to get away. But there are some other aspects that we’ve just got to keep in mind as we work through officiating. So [we’ll be] working with our officials on what’s the best way to evolve to being, let’s say, chainless.”

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