Where is the next tech battlefield? Predicting the future of sponsors on the field

About Eric Fernandez

During the day, passionate about the intersection of marketing, media, technology and sports. At night, passionate about my starting 5 at home.

Microsoft Surface on the sidelines

nfl surface tabletIn May, the NFL announced a ground breaking partnership with Microsoft that would bring interactive features to fans watching at home through the X-box One console (in-game Skyping, split screen to view game feeds with stats and fantasy updates, etc) and provide a significant tech upgrade to the field of play.

Until now, with the exception of headset communication, all technology had to be turned off 90 min before game time.  Coaches used Polaroid images, static play sheets and wipe boards as in-game teaching aids.  With the Microsoft agreement, the Surface tablet will make its way to sidelines allowing coaches a new, dynamic medium to provide players feedback and coaching in real-time.  Additionally, referees will use the Surface tablet to monitor replays from the sideline.

Sponsors getting on the field

From a branding standpoint, the NFL field-of-play is arguably the most premium available real estate – a three hour engagement opportunity with no brand clutter.  Branding opportunities have been limited to three categories:

  1. player uniforms and coaches apparel (Nike),
  2. isotonic drinks (Gatorade) and
  3. coaches headsets, which until last season was owned by Motorola, but is currently available, and noteworthy that is was not part of either the Microsoft agreement or recent Verizon NFL extension.

Tech brands are finding the field-of-play, in particular the NFL gridiron, as the battleground for building their business and brands with consumers.  Consider some recent examples and what might happen in the future:

1) Now: US Women’s tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands using Google Glass as a training aid for her Wimbledon preparation.  As a player, it providers her coach a first-person viewpoint of how she’s reacting.  As the video lead-in shows, in addition to providing her training benefits, it provides a unique and intriguing camera angle for TV viewers (which is not available…yet). Or just check out Victor Oladipo at the NBA draft.  The Future: Imagine NFL referees wearing Google Glass or better yet, quarterback’s helmets equipped with Google Glass to provide a unique TV camera angle.

2) Now: I.F.A.B., soccer’s preeminent lawmaking body, announced in 2012 that chip technology would be implanted in balls to identify when they’ve crossed the goal line.  Using Hawk-Eye and GoalRef technology, the English Premier League has tested the technology to aid referees.  The Future: The NFL should not be too far behind since one of the most controversial, and time consuming, officiating decisions is goal line touchdowns.

3) Now: Technologists are developing brain sensing pads that can be placed in NFL headgear to measure hit impact for concussions.  The Future: Still in the early phases, given the NFL’s focus on game safety, I’d anticipate this rolling out by 2014.

Given the scale and deep engagement of the NFL, I’d anticipate more tech companies looking to use the NFL as a platform to build their business.  If they can integrate their technology to improve the game and the fan experience, it can serve as a relevant content platform that would be better than any form of paid advertising.

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