UFL innovations serving as technology bridge to NFL

Brahmas, coach Wade Phillips celebrate XFL Conference championship victory (0:44)

Brahmas celebrate as they defeat the Battlehawks to win the XFL conference championship. (0:44)

Two years ago, the XFL reached a partnership agreement with the NFL in hopes of serving as a "petri dish" of innovation for the game, with an eye toward rules, player development and playing surfaces.

The arrangement helped smooth the path for the NFL to adopt and modify the XFL's kickoff play, set to debut in the 2024 season, and the leagues have now turned their attention to a series of technological developments that could be a year (or less) away from hitting the NFL, too.

As the United Football League nears completion of its first season since the XFL-USFL merger, the NFL is studying its TrU Line ball-spotting technology with plans to continue testing this summer during its preseason games.

The technology has provided what UFL officials said has been reliable assessments of whether a ball has reached the line to gain. It does not replace the referee's responsibility to place the ball in the correct spot but eliminates the need for a traditional "chain gang" to determine first downs.

The NFL is also keeping an eye on the UFL's expanded system for coach-to-player communication, which allows up to eight players to have a helmet speaker to hear the offensive or defensive playcaller, as well as sideline tablet video that has replaced the still photos used by the NFL.

The UFL's technology team has conducted bimonthly meetings with its NFL counterparts this year, according to UFL senior vice president of technology Scott Harniman, and it will all be on display Sunday when the Birmingham Stallions take on the San Antonio Brahmas in the UFL's first championship game (5 p.m. ET at The Dome at America's Center in St. Louis on Fox).

"Our mission at the UFL has always been to attempt to balance innovation with changes that advance the game of football while providing the highest level of transparency in sports for fans," Harniman said.

There are other innovations the NFL seems less likely to adopt, at least in the near term, including routine broadcasting of officiating conversations and wearable cameras attached to officials and players. So we'll focus on three possibilities that the NFL could conceivably adopt in the next few seasons.

TrU Line spotting

The USFL used ball-spotting technology during its 2022 and 2023 seasons, but the UFL adopted it for its inaugural campaign and rebranded it as TrU Line in conjunction with developer Bolt6.

The system uses a portable set of six 4K cameras -- arranged on either side of both 20-yard lines, as well as the 50-yard line -- that can be affixed throughout a stadium. They detect the exact location of the ball, relative to the line to gain, whenever referees request a spot via their wireless headsets.

The league set a goal of averaging about five spots per game, with a focus on instances in which a ball is within 30 inches from the line to gain on the offense's side and six inches on the defense's side. Within seconds, TrU Line's cloud-based analysis produces a graphic that is shown both on the television broadcast and in the stadium, declaring whether there has been a first down or how many inches remain to achieve one.

Dean Blandino, head of officiating for the UFL, said the technology has proved to be reliable. As a result, the UFL didn't need classic sticks and chains on its sidelines for measurement. Instead, it had sideline designees who could use camera-based "laser chains" to measure if there was a need for it.

"I think it was successful," Harniman said. "I think we definitely did a good job of making it a brand. And that was kind of a goal for me coming out of it. And then, working hand in hand with talent, I think we found that kind of silver bullet of, 'How does it integrate into the broadcast and not affect the flow of football, but shows up and is an innovation and is part of the game?' So there's much that needs to be done to get it to work better, but I think we took a really good step this year."

One issue, Blandino said, was breaking old habits.

"Our biggest challenge was just getting the officials comfortable with it," he said, "and integrating it into the game because they're so used to the chain crew and managing that operation. I think that was just the biggest hurdle, getting them comfortable when they wanted to have a measurement, not bringing the chains on.

"But yeah, it's been really reliable and I think that's technology and a process. I know the NFL's looking at [it] and yeah, I think it's good for the game."

Blandino was part of one of the meetings between UFL and NFL officials this season, as he helped brief the league over the past year as it considered aspects of the XFL kickoff. NFL owners have approved continued testing of a version of TrU Line operated by Hawk-Eye technology, which services the NFL's replay review system and some tracking services. At the end of the summer, league officials will decide whether to implement it during the regular season, according to ESPN sources.

The obvious question, of course, is whether football leagues can combine systems like TrU Line with one that could tell officials where to spot the ball in the first place. The challenges are similar to those the NFL faced in the 2010s, when it investigated a proposal by the New England Patriots to install goal-line cameras in every stadium to aid replays of possible scores. Not only would the system need a clear view of the ball at the end of a play, but it would also need to know when the runner was down or out of bounds to provide an accurate spot.

"I think we have still ways to go," Harniman said. "We've experimented with chips and balls and everyone. But it is a tough sport with all the [potential blockage]. That's what any of the tech partners will tell you. I do think that the ability does exist, but it would be complementary technology with what we're doing right now. I don't see a path right now, at least one year away, where we could completely remove the human element of it."

Coach-player communication

The original vision of the 2020 version of the XFL was for every player on the field to have access to the playcaller's voice in real time, which goes to only two players in the NFL: the quarterback and the defensive player with a green dot on his helmet. The XFL also eliminated the NFL's cutoff when the play clock reaches 14 seconds, a change the UFL has retained.

The goal was to increase playcalling efficiency by reducing the need for full huddles, thus decreasing the time between plays. Receivers, for example, can line up as they hear the playcall rather than waiting for a huddle to break.

This season, the UFL capped the number of players with speakers at eight, including both offensive and defensive players. The distribution varied per team, with some using one on a backup quarterback while others skipped that step and added another position player, but the setup minimized the number of players that quarterbacks needed to communicate with directly before the snap.

"What I think you see because of that is a lack of what we call 'non plays,'" Harniman said. "We don't have garbage plays where the clock expires, or they don't get it off. That doesn't really happen in our league."

The UFL hasn't fully compiled its pace-of-play data for the 2024 season, but Harniman said overall time of game was less than three hours. (In the past 10 years, NFL games have ranged between 3 hours, 1 minute and 3:07). The concern with quicker games is that they would come with fewer plays, but Harniman said "we are seeing an increase in plays" in 2024 in part because of the efficiency that comes with speakers in multiple helmets.

Without that 14-second cutoff, there is also an opportunity for additional coaching. Blandino, who can hear the communication as part of his in-game role in replay review, said those conversations "don't get too granular" but that coaches typically take advantage of the full 25-second window to speak.

Some UFL coaches have advocated to expand the eight-player cap, Harniman said, a possibility that will be discussed before the 2025 season.

Sideline video

Each UFL sideline has nine iPads connected to an internal fiber network that uploads two angles of every play -- All-22 and from high in the end zone -- in near-real time for review in DVSport software. One is designated for medical replays, leaving eight for coaches and players.

The coaches' booth includes three more iPads. Each sideline is staffed by two league designees who are responsible for keeping the iPads charged and who assist with customizing the available video to meet immediate needs.

Sideline video allows UFL coaches to make more timely and accurate adjustments, in theory improving the quality of play in a league that doesn't have many NFL-caliber players.

The NFL has had a similar arrangement for the Microsoft Surface tablets on its sidelines since 2014, but the league prohibits video and restricts viewing to still photos. A 2018 competition committee proposal to phase in video was met with fierce pushback from coaches, who argued that allowing video would eliminate the competitive advantage some believed they had over others.

"If I'm looking at the video, I'll never be wrong," then-Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said at the time. "I'm against it because I think it takes some of your true coaching skills away and it makes it even for everybody, for good coaches and bad coaches."

The proposal was withdrawn and has not been seriously considered since. But Blandino, who spent nearly 20 years in the NFL's officiating department before departing in 2017, believes "it'll happen in the NFL" at some point.

"I respect those coaches that have that opinion," Blandino said, "but I just think it's been overwhelmingly positive in our experience, to be able to see what's happening and make adjustments right away. Both teams get it and whoever makes the best adjustment is going to end up coming out on top."