The NFL Unwired

By  Lori Castle, Editor in Chief — March 10, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII was the setting for several records and a few firsts. Notably, on the first play of the game, after the first snap to Denver’s Peyton Manning went awry, the ball was recovered in the end zone. This was the first time in the game’s history that any team scored so quickly.

Michelle McKenna-Doyle knows a bit about both football and firsts, as she is the first ever CIO in the NFL’s existence. The role was born from the explosion of mobile technology, which has not only provided the chance to improve how employees in the office and on the field work, but also resulted in a record demand from fans for connectivity and content.

From the League level to the individual franchises, connectivity and user experience have already been top priorities during McKenna-Doyle’s first year-and-a- half as Senior Vice President and CIO at the NFL. Coming up through the ranks on the business side in prior roles, she is a new breed of CIO, one that thinks strategically and sees technology, especially mobile, as the impetus for opportunity and innovation.

In one recent initiative, the NFL officially partnered with Extreme Networks as its Wi-Fi Analytics provider. Extreme will also help analyze and solve the challenges associated with connectivity in stadiums—and this is only the beginning.

This commitment to technology, along with other mobile projects already implemented, plus the mandate for a deep understanding of the user, illustrates McKenna-Doyle’s and the League’s commitment to putting mobile and fans first.

The Third Platform
Previously, the League had a VP of IT Infrastructure who was charged with technology. However, she noted that the NFL recognized that the advancement of the game—in many ways—is wrapped up in technology. “We can’t just look at it as a commodity infrastructure.”

So the NFL looked for a leader with a background outside of technology. “I moved from finance, marketing and operations into IT,” said McKenna-Doyle, “a move that, in the past, would not have been seen as rewarding. Now that you have a seat at the table it’s different. It’s the only position other than the COO and CEO that sees everything intersect. It’s a great challenge and that's why I do it.”

McKenna-Doyle had performed in environments similar to what she sees at the NFL when she was an executive at Universal Orlando Resort and The Walt Disney Company. “You didn’t just put the infrastructure in a room and forget about it. It was a living breathing thing as millions of people consumed the experience it enabled,” she said.

This intersection of business, technology and users brings us into the “the third platform of innovation,” according to Crawford Del Prete, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Research Products & Chief Research Officer for IDC. It is the bringing together of mobile, social, cloud and big data analytics.

Literally speaking, “We have billions of devices with what will eventually be millions of apps—the entire world is changing. Systems are becoming services. The challenge for today’s CIO is figuring out how to take these systems and drive them into services that can, in turn, drive revenue,” he said.

Del Prete echoes McKenna-Doyle’s view: “It used to be about IT agility, now it’s about business agility.”

Unprecedented Time
Del Prete noted that this concept applies to many vertical markets; it comes down to making any business more responsive to the trends that it faces and using information in new ways. How can an organization leverage the real-time data that comes from mobile? How can it react immediately? Or can new services be created? “There is transformation everywhere. It’s an unprecedented time in IT,” he said.

McKenna-Doyle shares this enthusiasm. “It’s a very exciting time to be a CIO. What I love about my job the most is the partnerships I have with leadership throughout the NFL. Smart CIOs have figured out how to get a seat at the table—it makes a difference at the company, and you can really influence strategy with the right environment.”

In light of the transformational opportunity and the shift in the CIO’s role, it’s hard to believe that the discussion about the misalignment of IT and the business still comes up. McKenna-Doyle said success is in the approach. “Learn to speak their language and understand them. I take it as second nature. But it must not be as easy as I think it is because we still talk about it,” she noted.

How else does she achieve buy in? There is a theory that “shadow IT,” particularly when it comes to mobility, blurs the line—but not usually in a good way. If there are too many siloed, unsanctioned technology projects going on in an organization, complexity can be greatly increased.

McKenna-Doyle, however, turns this notion into a positive. “I embrace that [shadow IT]. If I have a super user in the business, they are my best cheerleader for investment. It’s much easier when the business says ‘we need this.’ That’s the environment we are building here at the NFL.”

Technology at Work
Most sports fanatics can usually rattle off a litany of facts and figures around the game they are passionate about, and the NFL certainly has penchant for data. The analysis of this data, according to McKenna-Doyle, has resulted in an “unbelievable” knowledge around the statistics of the game. This has also spilled over to the business side.

For example, there are people who specialize in deep data analysis of the salary caps of teams, and they help the franchises make the most out of their salaries. In another case, a department was created a few years ago, under the umbrella of business development, to provide analytical support around the primary and secondary markets ticket prices.

The problem became, that there were many business units with an appetite for data, information and mobility, but the infrastructure was not built for that according to McKenna-Doyle. “Now, we are rapidly investing and trying to bring all that up to speed.”

Officially Mobile
Currently, the officials are the most mobile employees. They are graded after every game on every call that they make. To review these moves, they used to have to carry around big heavy laptops and download the content from an FTP site.

Last year, McKenna-Doyle drove a project where they created a new application of “NFL Vision,” the system that records all stats and play, which can be used on tablets. They also replaced the laptops with Microsoft Surfaces. The officials now get a little chip before they leave the stadium and they plug it into their device for immediate access to all the content they need.

On the corporate side, she said the NFL has all the same systems any company would have, but many of the core functions are not currently mobile. With the amount of travel required in the organization, that can lead to challenges. They will soon be mobilizing time recording and expense reporting, for example.

The teams each have their own IT and business leadership, so McKenna-Doyle said that very little is mandated down to them on the business side. The franchises can, however, leverage master agreements made by the League for the purchasing and licensing of technology, for example. Some utilize the larger organization for hosting, some for disaster recovery and some are part of an overall bigger business. It depends on the individual organization.

“At the end of day, I am a consultant to them and a service provider to them,” she said.

The Mobile Sideline
Tablets might be used by the officials outside of the game, but they are not currently allowed on field except for by medical professionals. They utilize the devices to conduct concussion assessment testing and to access electronic health records. Players use iPads for playbooks, but off the field only. They can also access their schedules and training and other information.

McKenna-Doyle explained, “This is not a technological limitation it’s a ‘competition committee’ decision.” The NFL competition committee studies all aspects of the game and recommends rules and policy changes to the clubs. So in order to leverage tablets in other ways on the field, policy needs to be changed. “We will be putting forth, before the competition committee, a proposal to replace the paper printout of play formations with a tablet viewed version,” she said.

That builds upon the “major initiative” on which McKenna-Doyle is embarking—“the sideline of the future;” a mobile sideline. She said, “There is so much happening on this little span of the sideline during the game. Officials view the plays; players study the play they just executed; doctors and trainers look at injuries... enabling all this and making it more efficient through mobile technology is a big focus.”

Connecting Conundrum
As the sideline goes mobile, what about the rest of the stadium? “There is no better place to watch an NFL game than in the stadium. You cannot replace that immersive experience shared with 70,000 fans,” said McKenna-Doyle. However, as the “at home” experience has continued to improve with technology—smart TVs, new video capabilities, the ability to connect to content on multiple devices—people are now “couch-gating,” and at home expectations are being attached to the in-game experience as well.

In particular, fans have come to expect the same connectivity they get at home. After all, they are not just sitting in the stadium watching the live game. At the same time, they are on their team specific app; they are viewing video and watching live feeds; they are emailing or sharing on social media; they are looking up stats; they are engaged before, during and after the game in many ways.

But, taking that connectivity from home to the stadium has many technical challenges. Signals have to travel through concrete and water (of which the 70,000 fans are made), and apps and devices always outpace the underlying infrastructure’s ability to keep up with it. “That’s where we find ourselves at the NFL,” say McKenna-Doyle, “playing catch up at some stadiums.”

To that end, she has released minimum standards for all teams to meet for both DAS and Wi-Fi connectivity. So far, the Extreme Networks solution has been successfully implemented at the Eagles’ and Patriots’ stadiums, but McKenna-Doyle pointed out that there is no one-size fits all solution.

The fan base differs by geography and their needs will also be different. So the fan experience has to be delivered uniquely for an individual club. Data will help the League and the teams build long-range plans.

“Ask fans what they want and they will tell you, but you have to be ready to hear what they tell you and be able to react upon it. They have to be, at a minimum, as connected as they are at home. That’s the standard. Our challenge is staying ahead of expectations—every year they will get higher. We have to keep upping the game literally and with technology,” said McKenna-Doyle.

Del Prete’s research supports her outlook. He said, “There is no era after this with less connectivity—it will only increase.” By 2020, according to IDC, the distinct hardware categories will melt away; broadband connected households in U.S. will have 16 devices (up from about 7 today), and 1 out of 5 Internet users will be mobile only.

Fan Experience
Why is fan experience so important? McKenna-Doyle said,“They are everything; they are why we are here; they consume our content 24/7, 365 days a year (and we have the best content on the market). We need to be able to give that to them in the ways they want to consume it.”

There are plenty of business reasons as well. Lou Perez, EVP & CFO for the Detroit Lions explained, “For a long time we viewed our product as team performance and wins and losses—there is no question that’s true; but the core product is the experience, and if you don’t value that right out of the gate you are not going to be able to optimize that part of the product.”

Michael Stokes, COO for Business Ventures at the NFL added, “From a League perspective, there is certainly direct revenue driven from people attending the game, but also broadcast and media partners want to see full stadiums. The passion that is perceived at home by seeing the full stadium is important to the overall business.”

For Super Bowl champs the Seattle Seahawks, Chip Suttles, VP of Technology, said that fan engagement is a top focus, and for the future, that means offering unique experiences that can’t be replicated in the home.

Big Game, Big Data
The Extreme Networks solution has analytics and management software built in, which improves insight and enables the organization to be more productive and agile. The NFL is using big data to realize usage and bandwidth patterns and to improve the experience.

While there is no personally identifying data collected, McKenna-Doyle said that within the stadium, the analytics tool allows them to see what sites fans are visiting, which apps are they using, how long they are connected, and if they are uploading or downloading.

“Through the real-time analytics, we can adjust coverage from our control center. So if one part of the stadium is saturated we can react quickly before it spirals out of control. With a high-density network, once it starts to spiral, it goes quickly and can go down,” she said.

Over time, high-quality connectivity with actionable information will improve and provide new services—like in-seat food ordering, bathroom line busting, unique camera angles and exclusive replays, for example—features that will take the fan experience to next level.

After the game, the Tier 1 carriers reported record mobile data usage at the Super Bowl this year, and McKenna-Doyle said it was also the first Super Bowl where they had the ability to gauge and monitor, at a detailed level, the type of activities the fans do in game. The learnings will be applied to future NFL events.

“It’s awesome to be in this digital age,” she said.

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