The NFL took a large leap forward last year in implementing new technologies to enhance and advance the playing, viewing and marketing of the game. This year the league is currently wrestling with tech-fueled capabilities that present complex challenges.
Some items such as Twitter and apps are not new but others such as virtual reality, Periscope, expanded live streaming use and wearable products represent newer challenges. Regardless, they are under evaluation with hopes that they can help, not hurt, America's game.
Here they are:
- Virtual Reality. As expected, virtual reality has landed in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys having installed a VR system to help with the training and education of its quarterbacks and others expected to follow soon.
These systems hold great promise in this use and will be checked out by other clubs as a means to give signal callers more reps without the wear and tear of more practices.
Although the league sees promise in VR, where does the NFL stand on letting fans watch games using virtual reality? The NBA filmed its annual All-Star game using VR and early viewers of such content rave about the option. Fox Sports let some at this year's U.S. Open watch the event using VR headsets in a test. VR giant Oculus (bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year) recently created a VR filming studio unit.
Although VR presents challenges, it also presents potential revenue opportunities for the league.
Gamers already enjoy VR immensely. The NFL could allow some fans at games watch the action using VR headsets. That could add a new dimension to the game. Expect VR technology to catch on with the NFL TV partners, its vaunted NFL Films unit and its fast-evolving NFL Network property.
- Periscope & Meerkat. The NFL has at least for now, banned use of these live streaming apps by its clubs because they can be used to sidestep event coverage and video distribution by providing live video direct to consumers as was obvious when many of those at the $100 pay-per-view Mayweather-Pacquiao title fight in Las Vegas did just that, giving fans a free but lower quality alternative.
The ban could end after the league and its business partners determine how to harness this not necessarily revenue-friendly live video distribution app set. Launched in March by Twitter, Periscope is an app that broadcasts video via the social media service.
- Twitter.Yes Twitter, the 140-character social media staple that has both helped and hurt the league depending on its use, is under review to keep from spoiling information distribution. This was the case with the recent NFL draft when media members were asked not to tweet player picks before they were officially announced to the viewing masses on TV.
On the large plus side, Twitter has and continues to help enliven the NFL's fan base by providing a means for the league, its teams and players to directly communicate with the online masses. It also helps the media quickly get out coveted info before it can appear on TV, online or in print.
How players use Twitter can be another matter with players told years ago by ex-coach and player Herm Edwards at a rookie symposium to think hard before pressing send and pushing out a message that you can't reel back in afterward. Finding a way to keep Twitter from being a spoiler for events like the annual draft could be tough sledding given its widespread use with America's game.
- App Evolution. The NFL and its teams, with help from tech innovators, have launched a slew of apps for fans. The league launched NFL Now last summer, teams have launched their own follower-focused apps and The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers have launched game day, venue-oriented apps. All are essentially about raising engagement with fans.
NFL partner Verizon Wireless offers NFL Mobile which can allow users to stream live primetime matches and more. It's safe to assume that AT&T's buy up of DirecTV, if approved, will result in a NFL Sunday Ticket app for its 100 million plus wireless subscribers.
The league offers yet other apps/services and all the content to power the apps and other distribution channels. But are more needed or is what's available enough? And you can expect the league to enhance and advance NFL Now for its second season debut. To recap, it provides live non-game content and on-demand programming customizable by team and player.
- Instant Replay. First launched by the now-defunct USFL in the early 1980s, instant replay has become almost as much a part of NFL football as the yellow first-down line. It has since spread to Major League Baseball and the NHL, with the latter testing challenges next season.
Instant replay technology has evolved from the use of hooded cameras for refs to view contest plays to the use by some broadcaster of ultra-high definition (UHD) cameras to provide a better picture. In the past NFL Pro Bowl, refs used Microsoft tablet computers as part of the process, perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
But despite already enacted changes to the way it's used and the technology that powers it, instant replay still has a ways to go in the eyes of many who want the perimeter of the playing field and the boundaries of the end zone covered with cameras in stadiums. After nearly a decade of requests, the league's competition committee finally agreed to research such a proposal.
- Live-Streamed NFL Games. Live streaming of games, which the NFL has done for years to fans outside North America with its Game Pass service is still largely uncharted territory for the league whose fans would love to watch contests on the web without the expense of pay-TV packages from cable, telco and satellite TV providers.
The NFL's announced decision to stream its first game every live internationally for free woke the masses to the future viewing option, preferably as a standalone. Many fans have already had a taste of the online streaming of live games through DIRECTV's NFL Sunday Ticket out-of-market game package as part of a limited deployment last season or before. Many more have been waiting in the wings. The league's decision to do the above with AOL this Fall as "a test," has interest climbing fast.
For those wondering why other sports are moving faster on this front, remember that the NFL has long-term deals with broadcast networks that helped make the sport and doesn't want to compete with them. That's why the live game on the web will be broadcast in the local TV markets of the two teams – Buffalo and Jacksonville.
- Wearables. This category covers everything from wrist-worn health gauges to GoPro cameras mounted on player helmets to smart clothing that's already under development. Each provides tech-driven advances in aspects of the game as well as challenges for the NFL.
The core question here is whether any of these will make it into live games or whether they will primarily be used in practices, camps, all-star games and preseason matches. All need to be evaluated before any makes a prime-time debut. And all still have value to the NFL if they don't make the jump.
The GoPro and similar cameras provide captivating content outside of football, especially with extreme sports and with thrill seekers. However, the league currently has a policy against players, etc. wearing forward-facing video systems in games.
A faster-growing (and more impactful) wearable segment includes devices that capture ad export player health information also provides a challenge for the league. Receiving and monitoring data is great for practices, training camps and OTAs, but what about live games when player exertion and contact are higher?
The collection of player health information using wearables seems to be fertile ground with the league exploring emerging tech options for acquiring, managing and best using this crucial information.
The Bottom Line
Technologies that can advance and enhance America's game in some way, shape or form present both opportunity as well as challenges in their deployment and application. That's especially true for the above-listed items that show promise in evolving pro football.
And while 2014 was a breakthrough year for tech in the NFL, one that saw RFID, sideline tablet use, next-gen stats, stadium apps, NFL Now and player tracking, this year appears to offer more and bigger challenges for the league.
Balancing technology and tradition is tough enough. Shortening a technology challenge list that's always growing is far tougher.
Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.