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September 3, 2013

The NFL Tackles In-Stadium Mobile

Pro football fans want a personal, immersive, and high-tech experience at stadiums. But can the NFL deliver?

Mike Pesca is a sports writer and correspondent for NPR

The NFL is more than just the ascendant sport property in America today; it is the dominant entertainment brand of any stripe. Consider this: According to Forbes magazine, the least valuable NFL team is worth $770 million dollars, with 20 teams each valued at over $1 billion. At a time of cratering network TV ratings, the NFL accounted for the eight most-watched TV programs in 2012—and some 32 million fans play fantasy football. 

But all those assets are actually liabilities when it comes to the area the NFL is working hard to improve—the in-stadium experience. As TV sets get bigger and clearer, and as out-of market games become more important to viewers, the allure of the stadium loses luster.  


The 3-Screen Experience

“In some respects the NFL is its own worst enemy," says Mark Lamping, the president of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "It is such a great experience to sit at home and watch games on a large flat-screen TV; the games are broadcast in high def, and you can always follow other games throughout the league. The challenge is to make sure that the stadium experience is uniquely different.”

The NFL’s version of “uniquely” different combines the most fan-friendly aspects of home viewing, such as following other league games and constant fantasy football updates, with the thrills of being there: tailgating, group bonding, and creation of a safe space for adult men to wear body paint. 

From a technology perspective, Brian Lafemina the NFL’s vice president of club business development, says a live in-stadium NFL game experience consists of three screens. 

“You have the field, which is the first screen, you have the video boards, which are the second screens, and the third screen is your smartphone or whatever device you have in your hand,” he says.

The first screen, what we used to think of as “the area of play,” is the purview of coaches, players, and, perhaps most importantly, the TV networks who will be paying an average of $3.1-billion a year beginning in 2014 to broadcast NFL games. On this first screen, the NFL very cautiously foregoes what could be some very compelling content—the audio “chatter” both in huddles and from coordinators to players. Of course, in a sport where coaches spend entire games shielding their mouths from potential or imagined lip readers, it seems far-fetched to imagine the public dissemination of sideline chatter. 

The NFL is also still hesitant to allow the teams themselves to utilize any technology more advanced than a landline telephone and athletic tape during games. Computers, including calculators, are not allowed on NFL sidelines, in locker rooms or in the booths where offensive coordinators sit. Tablet computers and live video feeds are similarly banned, though the league does allow players to examine still photographs.

NASCAR, on the other hand, openly broadcasts conversations between drivers and crews via a device you can rent at the raceway called FanVision. You can also watch the race from 10 different angles and rewind moments DVR-style. The NFL has begun to offer FanVision, which happens to be owned by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross, in 12 stadiums last year. The football version of FanVision provides four TV angles and feeds of out-of-town games and the NFL RedZone. But the NFL version of FanVision has no extra sights, sounds or snippets of sideline conversation that a nervous NFL coach might worry about.

According to Uday Ahuja, FanVision’s VP of corporate development, the FanVision device is currently better suited than smartphones at handling the demands of content delivery. The NFL’s mobile app offers little more than network feeds of out-of-town games, the NFL RedZone, and the kind of fantasy interface that is available for free from ESPN, CBS or Yahoo. But as consumers and stadiums upgrade their technology, phones will become the logical resting place for all the new content, because, as Lafemina says, “Nobody wants to carry a second mobile device.” 

A cautious media strategy, or a refusal to aggressively embrace cutting-edge communication, is the exact opposite of the vision that made the NFL the dominant cultural force it is today.   

More Content, Please

In the interim, the second-screen video boards are doing the heavy lifting, raising the quality of the information available on those screens. Jaguars president Lamping says the team is planning to install a 348-foot-wide “content board” that will show everything from fantasy football updates to replays, which the league is now mandating be shown on jumbotrons. (In the past, home teams could game the system by withholding replays that might open the home team up to a replay over rule.)  

Another interesting league mandate for the upcoming season is for home teams to have video cameras in locker rooms. Audio is optional, but several teams will be airing locker room pictures and sound over stadium video screens, thereby offering a more compelling glimpse of pregame preparations. But each toe touch into the waters of players-as-reality-stars brings with it a disclaimer. “We don’t want to get in the way of the game, we don’t want to crowd out the game itself,” Lafemina says. 

It’s logical that an entity that venerates tradition, selflessness and hierarchy to the degree that the NFL does would be less than eager to push its players to engage in social media the way NASCAR encourages drivers to tweet and post on Facebook. On the other hand, it’s clear that the very existence of an executive like Lafemina pushing against the NFL’s entrenched forces of multimedia conservatism shows that the league knows it must continue to innovate by bringing fans closer to the game. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has enriched the league’s owners immeasurably and the owners have, in turn, made him the best-paid commissioner in sports. A cautious media strategy, or a refusal to aggressively embrace cutting edge communication, is the exact opposite of the vision that made the NFL the dominant cultural force it is today.   

“There’s an insatiable appetite to understand more about what’s happening,” Lafemina says. “Fans want to know: How do I get behind the curtain?”

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