The NFL’s Technology Opportunity

As you may have read this past week, Bill Belichick — Head Coach of the New England Patriots, went on a scathing rant about the Microsoft Surface Tablets that NFL teams have been using since 2014. In case you missed it, here is what Belichick had to say:

Q: Congratulations on becoming a grandfather, Bill. It was reported that there were some issues Sunday with the sideline technology like the headsets and tablets you use. Does that affect the number of plays you guys may be able to call and how does it affect any potential adjustments that you would make over the course of a game?
BB: Yeah, well, first of all thank you for your comment there. As you know Phil [Perry], there are multiple communication systems on the sideline. As you probably noticed, I’m done with the tablets. I’ve given them as much time as I can give them. They’re just too undependable for me. I’m going to stick with pictures as several of our other coaches do as well because there just isn’t enough consistency in the performance of the tablets, so I just can’t take it anymore. The other communication systems involve the press box to the coaches on the field, and then the coach on the field, the signal caller, or the coach-to-quarterback, coach-to-signal caller system. Those fail on a regular basis. There are very few games that we play, home or away, day, night, cold, hot, preseason, regular season, postseason, it doesn’t make any difference; there are very few games where there aren’t issues in some form or fashion with that equipment. And again, there’s a lot of equipment involved, too. There are headsets in the helmets, there’s the belt pack, that communication, there’s a hookup or connection to internet service or that process and so forth with the coaches and the press box. So, there are a number of pieces of equipment, there is a number of connections that are on different frequencies. Again, not that I know anything about this but as it has been explained to me there are a lot of things involved and inevitably something goes wrong somewhere at some point in time. I would say weekly we have to deal with something. Dan Famosi is our IT person and he does a great job of handling those things. This is all league equipment so we don’t have it. I mean we use it but it isn’t like we have the equipment during the week and we can work with it and ‘OK, this is a problem. Let’s fix this.’ That’s not how it works. We get the equipment the day of the game, or I’d say not the day of the game but a few hours before the game and we test it and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually by game time it is working but I would say not always. And then during the game sometimes something happens and it has to be fixed, and first of all, you have to figure out what the problem is. Is it a battery? Is it the helmet? Is it the coaches’ pack? Is it the battery on the coaches’ pack? I mean you know, again, it could be one of 15 different things. So, I would just say there are problems in every game. There were problems last week but there were problems the week before that, too. Some are worse than others. Sometimes both teams have them, sometimes one team has them and the other doesn’t have them. There’s an equity rule that’s involved there on certain aspects of the communication system but not on all aspects meaning what happens on one side then the other team has to have the same. If ours are down then theirs has to be down and vice versa, but it’s only true in certain aspects of the communication system; not everything. Overall there is a lot of complexity to the technology. There is complexity to multiple systems and there are a lot of failures, and so I know on our end Dan does a great job to fix those as quickly as possible. He has very limited access. I don’t know how much urgency there is on the other part from the league standpoint. However much urgency there is for them to have everything right, I don’t know, I’m not involved with that. But yeah, it was a problem last week. It’s basically a problem every week. The degrees aren’t always the same but we’re usually dealing with something. But as far as the tablet goes, I mean there was an experiment in a couple of the preseason games. It was one preseason game. We actually had two because it was our home game and Carolina’s home game where we had video on the tablets. But for me personally, it’s a personal decision, I’m done with the tablets. I’ll use the paper pictures from here on because I’ve given it my best shot. I’ve tried to work through the process but it just doesn’t work for me and that’s because there’s no consistency to it. Long answer to a short question; sorry.

It seems pretty obvious that the NFL has some issues with their increasing use of technology. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers also complained about headset technology, conincidentially in Foxboro. I have no insight into the NFL’s technology strategy, but given that the tech will be here to stay, they need to get this resolved for the sake of the game. I would propose the following changes to their strategy:

  • Make sure it works. The quickest way to turn someone off from technology is for it to be unreliable. We are in an era where instruction manuals and tutorial videos are out the window. If you can’t turn it on and get the information you need within seconds, you will have lost your audience. This leads to guys like Belichick doing things like this:
  • Consult with the IT guys. Above, Belichick speaks about the Pats IT guy who is constantly scrambling around on the sidelines trying to get things to work. (Sounds like a great gig, right?). Don’t tell me that the system is too complicated. The NFL brought in revenues of $13 billion last year and is expected to be $25 billion by 2027. Spend some of that cash on your stadium infrastructure and use your smart people create a reliable system that does not fail.
  • Encourage Innovation. The NFL must be fair and I understand their rules about use of technology. However, the NFL must encourage both large and small companies to push the boundries of what is possible in leveraging technology for the league. The advances in technology use to monitor player health and wellbeing is encouraging. Continue that and tap in to the huge pool of tech knowledge in the US who can also make their mark on the league.
  • Don’t think of technology as a profit center. When first announced, the deal with Microsoft and the NFL to make the Surface the “official tablet of the NFL” was worth $400 million. The NFL should consider technology as a tool that can help improve competition, player safety, and fan engagement rather than a tool to make more profits. Use that cash and reinvest in infrastructure and innovation. That will pay longer term dividends.

Digital transformation is hitting every industry and comes under heavy scrutiny when you have the high levels of revenue and fandom that exist in the NFL. Rather than allowing technology to be a problem, the NFL should double down and make it great. Convincing a curmudgeon like Bill Belichick would be the ultimate win.