The NFL Goes Digital
How the NFL is digitizing and using the Internet of Things to further connect the players, coaches, and fans.
The origins of American Football date back to the 1860’s. The National Football League (NFL), which was created in 1922, is the entity that organizes the sport of American Football into 32 teams that millions of people watch. Simply put, the business model of the NFL is to provide fans with access to American Football in exchange for money. In 2016, the total revenue of the National Football League (NFL) is predicted to be over $7 billion. The two primary channels through which it makes money are ticket sales and broadcasting rights sales. These are the two pillars of the operating model, or the way the NFL delivers its value proposition to its customers, the viewers. Of these two pillars, the majority of the revenue comes from broadcasting rights sales. Digitization is affecting the NFL in many ways including coaching strategy, player safety, and player development. However, given that the largest slice of the revenue comes from broadcasting rights sales, it is appropriate to look at the implications of digitization on the viewing experience. In short, digitization and the Internet of things is revolutionizing the way viewers consume American Football.
More traditional digitization (i.e. camera quality, streaming capability, etc.) has already changed the operating model by enhancing the television viewing experience through an increasingly impressive array of cameras that make it almost better to watch football at home on a television. This has resulted in more viewers, which eventually results in more money from broadcasters. Additionally, viewers are brought further into the game with instant replays and more reviews of plays, inciting emotion and active debate, which make the viewing experience more visceral (the Dez Bryant play of the 2011 Cowboys-Packers divisional playoff anyone?? Read about it HERE. Watch it HERE). Finally, game streaming, drone cameras, and goal line pylon cameras are all technology improvements that have enhanced the viewing experience.
Recently, however, a movement toward digitization and an Internet of Things has hit the NFL. The biggest recent change has been the installation of RFID chips in all NFL player pads (and in some player mouthpieces). These chips transmit the player’s position, speed, acceleration, and distance traveled 85 times per second to an embedded stadium sensor system that records the data for analysis.  These data are first utilized by broadcasters, who can integrate them into real-time game analysis. The data is also instantaneously transmitted to the on-field medical staff in case of an injury. Finally, the data are recorded for use by coaches, players, and eventually fans. Digitization is also affecting players more than ever with things like advanced helmet communications and advanced data analytics software. These digital additions significantly alter the NFL’s operating model because it allows for the football experience to be delivered in a new, interactive way. For example, the data gained from these chips can be integrated into fantasy football applications and can feed real-time stat trackers that fans use to follow their favorite players. Furthermore, these advances also enhance player safety which further ensures the relevance of football in the future. Finally, these digital innovations help the players and coaches perform better by arming them with extraordinarily useful strategic statistics. Digitization is enhancing the business model by strengthening the viewer relationship with the game and arming the relevant stakeholders with more data to provide a more compelling football experience.
These advances are just the beginning, and the NFL can take additional steps to further upgrade the viewing experience. For example, with the development of high-speed streaming capability, the NFL could introduce helmet cameras to bring the viewers literally on the field to see what it’s like to run through the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys or what it’s like to throw a 70-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson. Another way to bring the Internet of things to the fingertips of the viewers is to provide real-time, in-game, access to nontraditional player data. Examples include player speed, acceleration, force of a hit, or force of a block. Imagine a lifelong Seahawks fan being able to track Russell Wilson’s speed, real time, when he scrambles out of the pocket. To have that access would only strengthen the appeal of football to potential fans.
The NFL has an opportunity to take its business model of delivering a compelling football game to interested viewers to an entirely new and interactive level. Digitization provides tools and data for both sides of the value proposition – the fans and the teams. The digitization of the NFL is a virtuous cycle. It will lead to an even greater capability of teams to execute their strategy by increasing player safety and coaching effectiveness, and it will strengthen the relationship between the viewers and the game-all leading to happier players and happier fans. Go Bears. (794 words)
 The National Football League, “Chronology of Professional Football” (PDF file), downloaded from NFL website, http://static.nfl.com/static/content/public/image/history/pdfs/History/2013/353-372-Chronology.pdf, accessed November 15, 2016.
 Bloomberg, “NFL Revenue Reaches $7.1 Billion Based on Green Bay Report,” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-24/nfl-revenue-reaches-7-1-billion-based-on-green-bay-report, accessed November 16, 2016.
 Harvard Sports Analysis, “The NFL’s Current Business Model and the Potential 2011 Lockout” (PDF file), downloaded from https://harvardsportsanalysis.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/the-nfl-business-model-and-potential-lockout.pdf, accessed November 15, 2016.
 Statista, “TV Viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/216526/super-bowl-us-tv-viewership/, accessed November 18, 2016.
 Fox Sports, “Dez Braynt’s Crazy, Controversial No-Catch Happened One Year Ago Today,” http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/one-year-ago-today-dez-bryant-didn-t-catch-it-against-the-packers-011116, accessed November 18, 2016.
 Geekwire, “NFL adopts startup’s technology to detect concussions in real time,” http://www.geekwire.com/2012/nfl-concussion-software-created-seattle-tech-company/, accessed November 18, 2016.
 Datafloq, “The NFL Gets into the Internet of Things Game,” https://datafloq.com/read/the-nfl-gets-into-the-internet-of-things-game/1593, accessed November 17, 2016.
Student comments on The NFL Goes Digital
You left out the most important part: Will digitization lead to a playoff berth for the Buffalo Bills?
Thanks, Billy. Do you think the NFL has any concerns that digitization could actually be a bad thing for the league’s future? Sure, the viewing audience experience could be improved – but ratings are already sky high and they have lucrative sponsorships coming from everywhere. I’m thinking the digitization of the helmets may shed even more light on the dangers of concussions and attract more regulation from governing bodies. While this could help player safety, I’m not sure the NFL has shown compassion for player safety over the past several years. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them try to restrict use of this technology or perhaps conceal its results. The NFL’s main objective is to protect itself legally and politically and more evidence of the dangers of football will only be a detriment to this goal.
Sorry to hear about the bears fandom Billy. One thing that strikes me regarding the NFL and digitization is how short-sighted the NFL is about viewing rights. Contra to the NBA, the NFL restricts the content that users can share on social media. They are very strict about shutting down users that tweet or post videos, highlights, and even team logos without express use. This restriction applies to teams as well – the Eagles and Browns poked fun at this earlier in the year by tweeting out fake highlights (http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17808784/teams-poke-fun-nfl-tweet-fake-highlights)
The NBA, on the other hand, encourages the sharing of highlights and vines,resulting in great plays shared online as soon as they happen. I think this helps the league spread their product to as wide an audience as possible, and I feel the NFL is limiting its future growth by being so strict with their content
Great post Billy. While enhancing the viewing experience is a great goal, I very much agree with Mike’s point about the NFL limiting the potential scope of its fans by stringently monitoring content on social media. In my opinion, one thing the NBA has done extremely well is capturing international fans through disseminating its content on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The league is able to generate interest abroad which has translated to the NBA having over one hundred current international players who often comment that they were first exposed to the league by watching highlights on YouTube. For comparison, the NBA has 23.6 million Twitter followers, 31.6 million Facebook likes, and 7.3 million subscribers to its YouTube channel while the NFL has 20.5 million, 14.9 million, and 1.5 million respectively. Capitalizing on this potential market using its digital platform will be very important for Commissioner Goodell to promote growth going forward.
Interesting read! Given that this season has actually seen a decrease in ratings and viewership, do you see this as stemming from the NFL failing to adapt to these digitization trends or are there more secular headwinds that the league needs to address? Given that teams now maintain heavy social media presences and the number of mid-week games have expanded, is there any concern that digitization is actually just leading to oversaturation? Thanks! Now I’m going to go watch my team lose to the Seahawks.
Great post! It was really interesting to read how digitization is impacting so many different aspects of the game, down to individual players statistics and safety, as I had previously only thought about digitization relating to the NFL in terms of how it changes the NFL’s relationships with its fans and viewers. While I understand Zach’s concern above that gathering more data on what is actually happening to the players on the field could be too exposing for the NFL, I think that this technology will end up being a net positive for the NFL. The league needs to show that they are taking these safety concerns seriously and has started to make more of a show in caring about safety (new, stricter concussion protocols etc.) and I think that tracking more data and being able to share this with medical staff and trainers can only help players, coaches, and officials make the game safer. It could also help equipment manufacturers design better helmets or pads that will protect players in ways that we are currently not able to measure.
Great post Billy. I agree the digitization of many different aspects of the game provide great additional content that has never been available before. The NFL should be careful of protecting their lucrative broadcast rights, but I agree with Mike and Matt above that they are being to restrictive today. I view this extra content as complementary content to the traditional view of the game, not a substitute. On the contrary, I suppose the NFL is worried about changing viewer habits of watching content online, even if it isn’t immediately cannibalistic today, and is doing everything to protect the ecosystem as-is.