Microsoft is a company built on technology. But it also knows how to get up-close and personal with consumers and NFL fans.
Entering the 2015 season, the Seattle-based company continues to build upon and enhance its five-year deal with the NFL, signed in 2013 and valued at $400 million by industry analysts. For its investment, Microsoft became the official sideline technology sponsor; Surface by Microsoft the official tablet; Windows the official PC operating system; and Xbox the official game console of the NFL.
This season, even as Microsoft unveils its new Windows 10 platform, Surface Pro 3 will replace Surface Pro 2 on NFL sidelines and expand throughout football operations.
Surface Pro 3, which allows NFL teams to review photos of plays instantly on the sidelines and up in the booths, has gotten a substantial upgrade from its previous versions. That includes a larger screen allowing for more photos, more tools available to players and coaches — such as multi-color diagramming and a whiteboard for drawing up X-and-O plays — and a product that is lighter and more durable than its predecessor.
The NFL and Microsoft are also expanding during 20 preseason games the testing of video and instant replay on the Surface Pro 3 by officiating crews, an element that was tested during the Pro Bowl last season. The NFL plans to review the results before potentially moving ahead with video and instant replay for 2016 regular season and playoff games.
Microsoft will get significant input from "Next Generation Stats" — information being made available from the motion-tracker chips from Zebra Sports Solutions — which this season will be embedded in every player's jersey, including the distance and speed of every player on every play.
Consumers and fans will get an enhanced at-home experience via the Xbox One NFL app and Windows 10, as well as via Xbox and EA Sports' Madden NFL 16 (scheduled to hit retail Aug. 25). Among the benefits: More and upgraded video content, replays, statistics and a season-long skills game competition via such platforms as NFL Now, NFL Mobile and NFL Game Rewind.
And, owing to the burgeoning category of fantasy football, fans will get enhanced fantasy football notifications and quicker access to more detailed information on NFL players including NFL.com Fantasy Football.
Jeff Tran, director of sports and alliances for Microsoft, recently spoke about the on-going impact of Surface Pro on NFL sidelines and football operations, marketing and activation during a season that will culminate with Super Bowl 50, the introduction of Windows 10 and the growth of Xbox, fantasy sports and other fan-friendly and consumer-centric platforms.
What are the hot points in 2015 regarding your alliance with the NFL?
This is a big year for Microsoft. It is a crucial point for the company and what we want to do with fans, consumers and Windows 10. It also is a big year for the NFL, celebrating Super Bowl 50. We love football. But this is not just about the validity and bigness of the last 50 years, but the future and what the next 50 years will bring.
How much input do the players and coaches have regarding the Surface Pro on the sidelines?
Players and coaches do contact us to let us know how the devices are operating and what impact they have. We listen to the players and coaches and take their input very seriously. We have gotten feedback from Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and other players. Bill Belichick has one. The color was something that the players wanted. Drew Brees told us he makes in-game adjustments based on what he is seeing on Surface Pro on the sidelines. He said it is a differentiator for him, and especially during inclement weather, because he can get the information faster (than using the black-and-white photo method) and communicate that information to his teammates faster.
Are more players and coaches acclimating to it?
Last year we saw more players and coaches using it during critical moments of the game: During two-minute drills, in overtime. So not just a couple of times during a game but more often during each quarter. Using Surface Pro is seven times faster than the black-and-white photos, and each and every time they came off the field the Surface Pro was available for them to look at plays, which is not the case with the photos. And it's not just the speed, but also the ability to manipulate the photos, to zoom in on them, to circle players and use the pen to draw routes. The coaches in the booth have accesses to Surface Pro and the information that the players are seeing on the sidelines, and nearly all of them are using it.
Were you able to measure the growth of Surface Pro usage last year during games?
In 2014, for the first half of the season, we saw a 50% adoption rate. And it grew from there. Teams have come out and said that they want to use Surface throughout their football operations. Aside from the marketing support, we have found that if a professional sees a device or tool that makes them better, faster, more informative, they are going to use it. It's as simple as that. That's what we focus on: To make sure that the user gets exactly what they want.
How do you get most of the feedback from players or coaches?
Russell Wilson gave me his feedback in person, so I know it was him. We do activations with Wilson, Percy Harvin and a host of other players, and I ask them directly about Surface and how it is impacting their game. I ask them in a way in which the truth has to come out, and they all have given positive feedback. They tell me that they have become better at their craft, better at their job using Surface. They like the information they can access, the speed in which they get it and the durability of the product, which is made to use in inclement weather, in hot weather, under conditions in which it might hit the ground, get tossed around by linemen. It supports the marketing theme, Trusted by the pros, built for the fans.
What is the contingency plan just in case of extreme usage?
Each team has 13 Surface Pros, which are kept on the sidelines in climate-controlled charging carts. And there are 12 in the coach's booth. So at any given time there are 50 Surface Pros at every game. Not once have we had a shortage.
The NFL is testing video and instant replay on the Surface Pro 3 during pre-season, but how long before that might become part of the regular season and post-season?
The NFL has a process, and the process is to test it first, then present it to the Competition Committee. We don't see it being implemented this season. If they like the test results, we can see it being used beginning next season.
What are you taking from your first two seasons with the NFL to build and expand upon this season?
A lot of people didn't know what to expect in going from paper to the digital world during games, and that's a risky position to be in. But we feel that the results have spoken for themselves. Players and coaches are using it on the sidelines and it's proliferating into the locker rooms, onto their play books, in video departments and throughout team business operations. And that's the outcome we were looking for.
Can you talk about marketing and activation for the coming season leading to Super Bowl 50?
You will continue to see us use all of the platforms that connect us to fans and consumers. This year is a celebration of Super Bowl 50, but our storytelling also will talk about the next 50 years. How Microsoft will be at the forefront of technology and using that to improve the game and enhance the experience for fans and consumers, as well as players and coaches.
Are you finding that consumers are associating Microsoft with the NFL?
People at first may not have realized that they were seeing Microsoft on the sidelines during games, where you don't see brand names and logos. Now it's almost second-nature. They are not questioning it. They are seeing more players and coaches going to the Surface Pro after plays. At home, football and fantasy are becoming synonymous with Xbox. We are the official technology sponsor of the NFL, and with the Surface Pro on the sidelines, more consumers are understanding that Microsoft is associated with the NFL.
How is Microsoft translating what it is learning from its NFL alliance to other partnerships and other parts of the company?
We want to apply everything we are learning with the NFL to to sports and business alliances. In sports, we have among others partnerships with NASCAR, Major League Soccer and Real Madrid. So in working with the NFL, the biggest league in the world, and its players, we are learning and building and taking that knowledge to all aspects of Microsoft.
What do you envision moving forward?
Football (fans) are like steak eaters: Give them the red meat. We want to empower them. We are always looking to see how we can revolutionize and evolve the experience of football in our living room. Microsoft is in a singular endemic position to take the NFL and technology to the next level, to the future. Microsoft wants to be at the forefront of technology not just in how it impacts football and the NFL but sports and life. Revolutionizing and evolving the game-day and life experience.
Reprinted with permission from NYSportsJournalism.com