By Barry Janoff
August 3, 2014: Microsoft, which is entering its second season as an NFL partner, is expanding and enhancing its role with the league for 2014 both on the field, with the NFL office, with individual teams and with fans through Xbox, fantasy football and tech enhancements regarding the way the game is viewed and interacted with at home.
Beginning with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 3, all NFL teams will be equipped with wireless Surface 2 tablets that will enable coaches and players the ability to review "dynamic, full-color images" of plays on the sidelines and in the booth immediately following each series via the Sideline Viewing System app. Video and Internet access is not available.
According to Microsoft, their alliance with the NFL would have significant advancements over the system tested last year during the rookie season of a multi-year alliance valued in excess of $400 million.
The Surface 2 tablets will be branded for easy viewing on TV, in addition to the instant replay hoods and communications carts at every game, as they were last season.
These and other platforms Microsoft is bringing to the NFL in 2014 will be supported by a multimedia campaign, breaking in late August to coincide with the season, that will include TV (the first spot of which was recently filmed in Seattle), print, Internet, social media, mobile and interactive fan activations.
Xbox will also be presenting sponsor for NFL Kickoff, the 2014 season opener on Sept. 4 when the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers, to air on NBC's Football Night in America. (See the full story here.)
Microsoft aired its first Super Bowl ad this past February and is expected to return for Super Bowl XLIX in February 2015.
The Microsoft blitz comes on the heels of a strategy between the NFL and Zebra Technologies to install real-time location systems in 17 stadiums this season. According to the league, Zebra MotionWorks receivers placed throughout each venue would track radio-frequency identification transmitters placed inside the shoulder pads of each player (as well on game officials), with the ability to provide real-time “Next Gen Stats” to users such as position, acceleration and distance run.
With Microsoft, compared to the long-time NFL system of having players huddled around binders and flipping through black-and-white photos — iconic images that are captured several times a game on TV— and which take about 30 seconds to arrive, the Surface 2 images will appear within five seconds of each play having been completed, accessed from video shot in-stadium.
According to Microsoft, "These (Surface 2) images will be delivered and provide enhanced detail as well as the ability to zoom-in and focus on any area of the picture, making teams more efficient and productive in making adjustments during games." The photos will be saved over the course of the game, allowing players to instantly refer back to previous action.
In addition, the Surface 2 Sideline Viewing System has telestrator capabilities, giving coaches and players the ability to diagram moves and sketch new plays over the old ones.
"This really is a tremendous upgrade in the way players and coaches can interpret action during the course of the game," said Ryan Luckin, spokesman for Microsoft and senior PR manager for Xbox. "This by no means is intended to replace what the players do on the field or what the coaches do during games, but it is a significant enhancement over the old system of black-and-white photos that lack clear definition."
Although all 32 teams will be outfitted with the Surface 2 Sideline Viewing System, players and coaches will still be supplied with black-and-white play photos should they choose not to go higher tech.
"Microsoft wants its products to be available for players and coaches and to integrate its systems into the game, but not force its technology on anyone," said Luckin.
And lest anyone think that a "spy gate" scenario might arise where teams can tap into the Sideline Viewing System of their opposition, Microsoft said it worked with the NFL to make certain that these customized Surface 2 tablets are self-contained units (no Web or social media access) and cannot be invaded from other devices. A number of customized tablets will be available to each respective team only game day only (be it Sunday, Monday or Thursday), and not accessible the rest of the week as they are the control of the league office.
The tablets also come in specially designed protective coverings and are being tested to withstand extreme temperatures, rain and, as Luckin said, anything short of being stepped on by a defensive lineman.
Among other enhancements Microsoft is bringing to its NFL alliance this season, the Microsoft NFL app for Xbox One will become a more personalized and interactive destination, with users being able to customize live games, in-game video highlights, clips , fantasy football, stats and scores.
An "on-the-go" option for the Microsoft NFL app for Xbox One will be available for use on any Windows 8 tablet or PC. The NFL on Xbox 360 will feature NFL.Com Fantasy, NFL GameCenter, curated NFL.com content and NFL Now, a new digital service from the NFL launching ahead of the 2014 NFL season that features a large digital library of NFL content, including content from NFL teams, NFL Network and NFL Films Archive.
Another new addition for 2014 is NFL Sunday Ticket. Eligible customers that are unable to receive DirecTV service will be able to sign up directly for NFL Sunday Ticket on Xbox, while NFL Sunday Ticket MAX subscribers can also log-in to view Sunday Ticket on Xbox One and Windows devices.
"Part of the challenge for Microsoft is that this is only the second season of our NFL alliance and we are still educating consumers that we are an official NFL partner," said David Jurenka, executive producer for Xbox Sports. "People are associating the NFL and Microsoft, but we anticipate seeing a huge leap in that area with the systems and platforms we are introducing and enhancing this season and in seasons to come."
Zebra Technologies, just north of Chicago, said its MotionWorks system "captures player location and motion data to provide real-time performance intelligence, enhancing team training, scouting and evaluation, as well as the overall fan experience." The information would enable the NFL, its teams, fans and others to "gain immediate insight into the action on the field" by providing data on players that can be used in both game situations in for fantasy football.
Zebra’s sports solution will be installed in the stadiums of the 15 teams that will host Thursday Night Football (Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, New England, Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington) as well as Detroit and New Orleans, but "will capture information from all 32 teams."