Microsoft’s NFL deal is great news for pro football teams (unless they’re the Jets)

Microsoft NFL Deal: Surface on the Sidelines

Last week it was announced that the National Football League will finally dip it’s toe in the waters of the 21st Century, and in a partnership with Microsoft, allow Surface tablets on the sidelines during games, probably by 2014. The partnership also includes plans to use the Microsoft Surface tablet and Xbox for an enhanced, interactive viewing experience for fans. As if there’s something we’re missing? 

But tablets on the sidelines! Hear that Mark Sanchez? No longer will you have to look at a three-ring binder filled with snapshots of previous plays in order to figure out why you threw it directly to the middle linebacker instead of the receiver wide open down the sideline. You’ll now see what the viewing audience sees – that you suck!

Hear that Mark Sanchez? You’ll now see what the viewing audience sees – that you suck!

But this isn’t about Mark Sanchez. Actually, if the Jets are smart – I can’t even get the sentence out without laughing – but if the Jets were run by different people, smart people, they’d let Geno Smith start and hand Mark Sanchez a clipboard tablet with Angry Birds loaded on it and let him have fun. But that’s beside the point. This is about the country’s most popular, most powerful sports league (by far) taking another technological step.

It’s hard to imagine what took the NFL so long to embrace a technology that many watching on couches have likely been using as a viewing companion, checking their fantasy teams or scouring Twitter for real time info on injuries, analysis, etc. The league was probably concerned that some of their more unscrupulous coaches would exploit it for a competitive advantage. Yes, we’re looking at you, Bill

But how did they imagine that would happen? Use it to watch the television feed of the game? As if hearing the commentary of such geniuses like Herm Edwards could be any help. By the way, know where he used to coach? That’s right. J-E-T-S. JETS JETS JETS!

I think this is an idea that’s long overdue. From headsets on the coaches to earpieces in the quarterbacks’ helmets, the NFL has moved slowly toward technology, trying to strike the right balance between embracing innovation and not messing with a game that is already wildly popular. Of the highest-rated TV programs of 2012, eight of the top ten belonged to the NFL. No wonder they gave this guy a show.

But where’s the impetus for change? Well, when Microsoft ponies up $400 million, you’ve got your answer. The times they are a-changin’!!

While this is the first time the league will allow tablets on the sidelines, many teams, both in the NFL and in college, have replaced the heavy paper playbooks with iPads that can be updated instantly, allow for players to watch video from wherever and whenever, and allow coaches to see which players have watched tape and which ones have not.

Tom CoughlinI have to admit, as a Giants fan, I am concerned about giving a computing device to head coach, Tom Coughlin who, as a 66 years-old grandfather, I’m guessing is more comfortable with an abacus than an app. I mean, my grandfather can barely work his answering machine. That’s right, I said “answering machine.”

I envision the initial advantages that teams embracing this technology will have over those who fail to (or are just stupid, like the Jets) will most likely be in clock management at the end of halves and regarding decisions on 2-point conversions. But who knows? Maybe this will spark real innovation on the field and we’ll see coaches utilizing analytics in real-time, going for it on fourth down in unexpected scenarios, utilizing on-the-fly formations and trick plays that we’ve never seen.

But more than anything, I look forward to the first post-game press conference where the coach blames a play call that didn’t work on his computer. That will go over swimmingly in the non-hyperbolic world of sports radio.

My hope is that, years from now, we’re talking about teams’ IT departments the way we discuss their special teams. The embracing of technological innovation by the jockiest of jock leagues is something that should have every high school math-leaguer stepping out of the locker they just got stuffed in and saying, “Phew.” The future is bright indeed. Unless you’re a fan of … well, you know.


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