NFL Football Operations' tech brain trust set out this year to determine if they could bring video to coaches and players with tablets on the sideline to take play review another step forward beyond even the color still pictures introduced on the mobile devices just last year.
The concept was tested recently during the preseason. Taking the practice of video delivery over wireless would have out the crew face-to-face with numerous obstacles (see below), which appears to have shaped the tests and resulted in the proof of concept that the competition committee will review next March for possible use next season.
If approved, the sideline coaching process would have come a very long way in just three years. As late as 2013, black and white fax printouts were still the norm. Last year, however, the NFL and Microsoft advanced the process by enabling the display of color still images on Surface tablets. Some still rely on the black and white paper stills, but that population is shrinking fast.
Better still; the Sideline Viewing System app on the tablet enables coaches to get access to the photo at least 30 seconds faster, according to the league. It also lets coaches zoom in, make annotations, review plays and tag 'favorites' for later review.
Inside the Test
In the preseason tests, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablets were wired to the video source between series so they could receive a copy of the video while the offense or defense was on the field, according to John Cave, VP of IT for Football Technical Solutions. "At a change of possession, those tablets were then delivered to the coordinator whose (unit) just came off the field."
When the tablets in the test came back from a coach, Cave says they would automatically receive all the video they missed while disconnected. The constant rotation continued throughout the games.
The test doesn't appear to involve the number of tablet users on the sidelines during a regular season contest. The football IT crew started with three tablets on each sideline and in the coaches' booth for tests in the first three weeks of preseason play. That number was boosted to five for the final week of preseason, according to Cave.
Given that it represents an evolution of the sideline coaching process that balances tradition with technology, it's no surprise that the approach taken and its use was a hit. "The proof-of-concept test was extremely well received by coaches and players," said Cave.
The NFL's competition committee will review the test results and make a recommendation one way or another to team owners in March. It's possible that the review of game video on sideline tablets could begin next season. Whether there's a wireless element of the enhanced process remains to be seen.
Why Not Wireless?
The league mandated wireless deployment in team stadiums has helped improve the experience for fans in the stands and is powering the enhancement of football operations such as instant replay, player performance tracking and sideline communications, But using wireless to bringing video to the sidelines pits them against a list of imposing obstacles. The mix of challenges listed below are either tech, management, or process-oriented. Here they are:
- Bandwidth. There's not currently enough wireless bandwidth in stadiums to transmit copy and send two, 20-second video clips (one from a sideline cam and another from and end zone cam) from those who record them to coaches seeking to use them with players, etc. NFL IT estimates it would need to move a gigabyte of video to get the clips to those that need them on their tablets. Wired connections are better suited to deliver this capacity.
- Video Handling. The league's IT and football ops folks are already using the advanced H.264 video compression standard which performs greater compression than those approaches that preceded it. The H.264 video coding format is widely used for the recording, compression, and distribution for the content.
- Competition - Fans. Those trying to send video to sideline tablets using wireless technology have to compete for capacity with tens of thousands fans in the stands.
- Competition – Processes.Further enhancing the sideline coaching process beyond replacing black and white photos with color still images on tablets could require competition for resources and maybe technology with other efforts such as streamlining instant replay.
- Wireless Deployment. Though all NFL venues have Wi-Fi, the deployments vary in reach and capacity. A uniform requirement form the league would likely be needed to get everyone on the same pages before moving forward with upgrades and enhancements needed for play video to the tablets.
- Tech Partners. NFL clubs are free to – and do - team with a vendor partner of their choice for stadium deployments. For the league, that means working with teams and their different partners which is more challenging than dealing with a single tech company for all stadium wireless infrastructure needs. Using Microsoft Surface tablets league-wide seems to be speeding tech advances in football operations.
- Fast Football. While fans love hurry-up play and fast-paced offenses, they seriously restrict the time available for moving video (and still pictures) to the tablets. The less time you have to view black and white paper photos, images on a tablet or video on the tablet, the less valuable the info is.
- Receivers. The number of people that would need to receive the video clips in time to use them (on both sidelines) is large, which in a Catch-22 sort of way slows the actual transmission process over wireless.
- Victims of Success. Though this may be an issue well down the road, coaches with tablets may eventually want video clips of entire drives, not just individual plays and then series. That, of course, would require a gigantic amount of bandwidth and would have to be done over wired connections.
- Timing. The league IT would like to have sideline video of individual plays available next season. That seems ambitious, but could likely be done using wired connections to the Surface tablets, which would be less popular than a wireless option.
The Bottom Line
This isn't a blue sky situation as football operations has been testing streaming sideline video to tablets in its testbed, which usually comprises the Pro Bowl, preseason games and often the annual scouting combine. Teams have had the opportunity to try it out and feedback has been gathered from all parties.
It's not completely clear what the implementation of this enhanced process would look like if given the green light by the competition committee next March. The proof of concept shows it can be done with wired connections, if only for a relatively short time.
Regardless, football operation/IT has an impressive track record of introducing technology for teams and fans without fundamentally changing America's game. On the tech front, the cry "Wait 'til next year" is exciting, not one borne out of sadness and disappointment.
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.