Each summer for the past six years, technology leaders and innovators in the sports community join forces at the leading industry conference known as SEAT, or Sports and Entertainment Alliances in Technology, for four days of networking, collaboration, and enriched discussion. The goal is simple: share experiences, lessons learned, and best practices around leveraging technology in the world of sports, with a cross section of team delegates, league officials, and technology providers. With such a well-established platform and array of compelling content the conference has proven to deliver on this goal time and time again.
One such breakout session featured a sit down conversation with the National Football League’s VP of Information Technology, Aaron Amendolia, who shared The Leagues’ perspectives and continued goals for implementing technology across the League and with its individual teams. In a room full of collegiate athletic representatives, Aaron discussed the NFL’s takeaways from past and current technology initiatives, as well as gave a peek into what’s on the forecast for the League moving forward. Ultimately, this was an educational exploration for how the NFL’s experiences can help college athletics with their own technology goals, now and in the future. Here are a small selection of key takeaways that I jotted down from the session, which you might find valuable as well:
The League’s “Co-Opetition” Philosophy
Comparable to what the NCAA is for collegiate athletics, the National Football League acts as a governing body for the 32 individual partner teams in The League. Each team’s organization and market is unique, so there is an inherent challenge in formulating, distributing and adequately supporting league-wide technology initiatives that are achievable for all. It’s critical that teams work together when League-wide technology initiatives roll out. How does the governing body establish an open environment of sharing best practices for optimal results? Aaron coined the term “co-opetition” to describe the approach. Acknowledging that the teams are competing entities, the League embraces the fact that a certain level of competition will exist from team to team, and not solely on the playing field. Competition is a great motivating catalyst if done so in a collaborative environment, for the purpose of accomplishing a common goal. This is the ‘playing field’ the NFL embraces, and yields some of the greatest successes.
Establishing a Technology Baseline
Team to team variance is a driving reason why the NFL is so absorbing and popular: each club boasts its own colors, its own traditions, and its own legacy – all for their fans to follow and be a part of. One might argue the fanatical culture of college athletics is an intensified version of professional sports (even the NFL) in some cases. However, while the unique character of these teams are encouraged and celebrated, the habits and subsequent expectations of respective fan bases are markedly alike. Recognizing the growing expectations for fans to ‘stay connected’ while attending games, in 2013 the NFL wrote and published in-venue connectivity standards that each League team needed to meet by a certain date. These minimum performance standards included both distributed antenna systems (DAS) and wireless local area networks (WLAN), and were instituted to ensure equity across the NFL, guaranteeing a baseline level of connectivity to provide a consistent in-stadium experience for all fans across The League. To assist with the details and delivery of these standards, the NFL teamed up with Extreme Networks, who has now installed high-density Wi-Fi to ten NFL stadiums across the League.
The Value of (Wi-Fi) Analytics
The next iteration of Wi-Fi technologies and how teams view Wi-Fi is well underway. Unlike past models where cellular carriers virtually threw in a Wi-Fi system as a means to better support an installed DAS system (via Wi-Fi data offload), teams now understand the value of owning Wi-Fi as a strategic business asset – specifically to gain access to Wi-Fi analytics, or the mobile engagement patterns of connected users. Aaron acknowledged exactly how NFL teams’ best leverage Wi-Fi analytics is an evolving discussion, but simply gaining access to this data is priceless for any sports organization. To start, individual NFL teams and The League as a whole are able to observe the overarching engagement and consumption trends of connected users. For example, in terms of bandwidth usage, Aaron and his team have monitored the transition from users mostly using in-venue Wi-Fi to download content, to users now uploading more content than they download. This isn’t exactly a revelation, but it validates the investment in Wi-Fi – it also ensures the network experience and performances aligns with fans’ mobile behaviors. This intelligence yields more informed business decisions: which social applications do we want to target for a particular campaign? Is my game day app being used to the extent it should? Do we want bandwidth allocated to support iCloud backups (the number one consumer of bandwidth in-stadium to date), or do we want to provision our network differently? The answers to these questions are hugely insightful, and are critical for the advancement of any team’s fan experience and overall digital strategy.
The Integration of Sideline Technology
Sideline technologies are an emerging sight across professional sports, and the NFL has already taken the initial steps to understand its impact on the game day experience for players and coaches. Two seasons ago the NFL provided coaching personnel with a collection of tablets for use during the game. Tablets connect to a secure Wi-Fi network, and are purpose-built to withstand hazardous weather conditions and physical wear. Overall, the program has been very successful, but Aaron cited some inherent challenges these technologies present moving forward. From a general IT perspective, there’s the challenge of reconciling the network supporting sideline tablets with the network(s) supporting guest Wi-Fi usage and internal business functions. The frequency coordination between systems requires careful planning so service isn’t interrupted for any users. For coaching staff, use of tablets for real time planning and review purposes during the game is a significant improvement compared to physically printing out game footage from printer. However, the next evolution of this technology, delivering high-quality video to sideline tablets, may take more time to realize. Aaron cited that the NFL believes video delivery is inevitable, but as a finite medium Wi-Fi is restricted to its most updated standard (currently 802.11ac), and as of now this standard isn’t capable of supporting the video speed and quality coaching staff expect, but this will surely change as the Wi-Fi advances in the future. Lastly, with player health and safety being a top priority for the NFL, immediate access to player medical records to view past injuries, concussion history, etc. is a huge benefit of sideline tech, but with it is the challenge of ensuring all these records stay secure and private.
The takeaways above were just a small sampling from an array of insightful topics included in Aaron’s sit down conversation, in addition to the variety of questions Aaron fielded from the audience. For more information or follow up questions, please feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) at my email address.