Football Needs Innovation Too

Football Needs Innovation Too

How the NFL Can Save the In-Stadium Experience through Digital Innovation

…Before it’s Too Late

Let’s face it, not every NFL franchise has the 12th man behind them, and yes, I happen to be a huge Seahawks fan, so before we go any further, #GoHawks! But last week, leading up to Wildcard Weekend, showed all of us a growing problem the vast majority of NFL franchises are experiencing – and it’s a big one.

In 3 separate instances, the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, and yes, even the oft-celebrated Packers of Green Bay - who play their home games at the cathedral-esque atmosphere that is Lambeau Field – had major challenges selling-out their hosted playoff games. It was reported that large corporations had to step in and purchase tickets in bulk to avoid these games from being blacked-out on television in their local markets due to current FCC regulations; though upon further review, perhaps the Cincinnati area would have seen that as a favor.

This happening in even one market is disturbing and it occurring in 3 separate markets – with one of them being Green Bay upon the re-emergence of Aaron Rodgers! – is a gigantic red flag the NFL needs to address immediately. Outside of the physical stadiums, the NFL is enjoying unsurpassed success. Its sport continues to swell in popularity and digitally, bolstered by the outstanding popularity of fantasy football, the NFL simply dominates all other sports in the U.S. So what’s going wrong with the physical in-stadium NFL experience? Let’s take a look under the hood.

First and Ten: Let’s Define What’s Wrong with the Current NFL Live Experience

To solve any challenge, you first need to define the problem properly. So what’s wrong with the live, in-stadium, NFL experience? I think this one is simple; it’s just that the in-living room experience is far, far superior. Due to big screens, second screen tablets, awesome NFL focused mobile applications and TV channels like NFL RedZone – your access to content and digital user experiences are simply better at home. Couple those factors with the comforts of home, the fridge full of beers you can access on-demand, and not having to jockey for a parking spot in ten-degree weather, and it makes it all that much more desirable to stay pat and watch the gridiron action as you ‘Couch-gate’ rather than tailgate.

3rd and Long: How can the live NFL experience be improved?

Here are a few, key areas featuring suggested converged (digital + physical) experiences all NFL teams should consider creating and distributing to their on-premise fan base. The ideas don’t center on re-creating the comforts of home, because that’s near impossible to replicate, but instead, most of the below focuses on brand new experiences that have yet to been created or re-purposed in the fashion suggested. They are broken down into 3 main categories: Wearable Technologies, the Internet of Things, and Social Media. So strap on your ‘thinking’ helmet, and go long!

Better Living through Wearable Technologies and Google Glass

Previously on the TopCoder blog, now part of the Appirio blog family, we discussed frequently the coming changes to physical user experiences that wearable technologies, and specifically Google Glass, are shepherding forward for humanity. As the niche applications for wearables are created, the new user experiences flourish and the specialty that ‘Glass’ brings to us all can be truly showcased. NFL teams should experiment and create applications on Glass right now that enhance the physical experience of being at a game. What can be tried and attempted?

  • Instant Replay in your HUD (heads up display) via Google Glass – get the best angle on the crucial play, instantly – and make it social (more on that later)
  • Exclusive On-Premise Angles via Google Glass – How about an angle from the first-down marker? What about a replay from the pylon, or a POV camera from the coach’s vantage point? Why not, embedded cameras are extraordinarily cheap and providing these POV’s could be a very cool, exclusive experience
  • Fan POV through a ‘Switch Seats’ function – How did your Facebook friend in section 329 see that one? What about your tailgate twitter buddy whose right behind the goal posts for the game’s oncoming field goal? Why not allow fans and friends to ‘switch seats’ and by doing so enhance their NFL experience?
  • Get in the zone, RedZone! – NFL RedZone is an extraordinarily popular TV and web channel that showcases every single Sunday afternoon NFL touchdown, live. Give the fans in the stadium instant access to ‘RedZone’ during commercial breaks, timeouts, and halftime – and deliver it right to their Google Glass headset
  • Embrace the Fantasy – Fantasy football is ridiculously popular. Notification apps already exist so you can keep dibs on your individual fantasy player’s performances throughout the day. Simple visual nudges notifying you that Matt Forte just rumbled, stumbled, bumbled to pay-dirt for the 2nd time today can be nicely delivered through ‘Glass’. Pair that with auto-refreshed score updates on your fantasy game and you’ve got a neat little fantasy experience that allows you to keep your hands clapping, while you occasionally gaze upward into ‘Glass’ for a fantasy update.

Honestly, you can run crowdsourced competitions to generate the top new ‘Glass’ experiences NFL fans would want to see created, and by doing so, involve the fans even further. You might notice, I solely suggested ‘Glass’ applications above, but certainly apps for smart-watches could be useful as well. Final point on ‘Glass’: To make this a reality so that the very vast majority could enjoy the experiences, the NFL teams would need to provide the hardware and come up with a way to distribute and collect the devices pre and post-game. Which of course can be easily figured out and implemented.

What else are they saying about 'Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire'

Embrace the Internet of Things to Create a Truly, Fan-centric and Social Stadium

If the above ‘Glass’ app ideas were focused on creating brand new digital experiences, the following in this section are about improving existing physical experiences through sensor technologies and social platforms like Salesforce1. Companies like Brivo Labs are hard at work creating applications in the emerging social access management space where physical surroundings – like offices, homes, and yes stadiums – are re-invented as truly smart, and social buildings.

With the embedding of tiny sensors into all ‘things’ comes the potential to re-invent how we interact with the physical world and how we can greatly improve our experiences by lowering or eliminating traditional frictions that eat at our most precious resource, our time. When you experience a live event at a crowded venue, challenges centered on parking, waiting in egregious lines for access, restrooms, concessions and more eat into your time and often decrease the value of your experience. Through 3.0 social connectivity and mobile applications – including wearable applications – the NFL can be a leader in what is the emerging era of smart and social buildings. The league has the money and investing in such technologies to improve the physical experience would be an awfully smart play at this point.

Empower and Reward the Social Fan, Handsomely

The NFL does a solid job incorporating social into the very fabric of how you experience their game, but most often this benefits the home viewer who can don a second screen and live tweet his way to social gridiron glory. Pairing the below ideas with the use of wearable technologies can help bring neo-social experiences to the fans whose fannies are in the seats. Here are just a few ideas to consider:

  • Instant Fan Voice – paired with instant replay reviews we discussed earlier could allow fans to quickly vote on a wide variety of topics and immediately see the results (which can of course be shared by the official Twitter account of the team as well)
  • Vine or Instagram ‘Re-Actions’ – fans do this already on their own, but why not entice your fan-base to share their ‘Glass’ POV and commentary on specific big moments throughout the game – a dedicated second-screen channel could be enjoyed by home viewers, while the contributors would of course be those enjoying the action live in-stadium
  • MVT aka Most Valuable Tweeter – This doesn’t have to be twitter exclusive, but allowing your fans to create in-game social content for you could be an amazing experience in crowdsourcing. Of course this would need to be managed and screened, but again, it’s nothing that can’t be figured out and the fun factor this could bring to a live event could be off the charts

Applying some light gamification and a social reward system that delivers the most influential and socially vociferous fans special perks, freebies and more could go a very long way in improving the on-site experience.

The Final Score – The NFL Needs to Make their Move, Now

To date, the NFL has been exceptionally nimble and savvy as it pertains to delivering their fan-base an outstanding home, digital experience. It’s time a similar focus is given to the on-site one. With the emergence of wearable technologies, the uber-connectivity the 3.0 offers to us, and the ways in which social continues to permeate our lives and embellish experiences, the NFL is in a prime position to call an audible at the line and forever change how we fanatics experience the game we love. It’s not the final play, but the NFL should realize it’s later in the game than they may think. If they don’t act now, they’ll find themselves chucking up ‘Hail Mary’ solutions to half-empty stadiums.

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Clinton BonnerClinton Bonner (@clintonbon) is a Marketing Manager at TopCoder – the world’s largest competitive community of software developers, algorithmists and digital creatives. Fun Job!

Clinton Bonner




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  1. Mara Swanson on January 15, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    I definitely think utilizing Google Glass would enhance the fan experience and encourage people to go to the games. I think allowing fans to view instant replays on their heads up displays is a great idea. Without this technology you are able to get a much better viewing experience at home on your television. If the NFL wants to get more people to buy tickets they need to change this.

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