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Microsoft's tablet deal with the NFL has been a disaster

Daniel Roberts

The Microsoft Surface tablet is so bad that the best coach in the NFL would rather use paper. At least that’s the opinion of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has the best record of any current active coach, and who speaks out so rarely that any time he describes something in detail, it is instant catnip for the media. It may not be a fair review of the Surface, but unfortunately for Microsoft, it has become a major story this week.

On Tuesday, Belichick, notoriously stingy with answering questions, unloaded on the Surface tablets for a full five minutes in a team press conference. “I’m done with the tablets,” he said. “They’re just too undependable for me…. I’ll use the paper pictures from here on, because I have given it my best shot.” The tablets, which are used by coaches and players to view high-res photos of plays in-game, frequently fail to load the images. Belichick has run out of patience.

The NFL put out a statement in response, stressing that Microsoft remains “an integral, strategic partner of the NFL,” and adding that, “Within our complex environment, many factors can affect the performance of a particular technology either related to or outside of our partner’s solutions.” Microsoft, too, put out a statement in response: “We respect Coach Belichick’s decision, but stand behind the reliability of Surface… We continue to receive positive feedback on having Surface devices on the sidelines from coaches, players and team personnel across the league.”

But the Belichick rant was picked up everywhere in the press. It was looking so bad for Microsoft that on Friday the software giant published an extensive blog post defending its tablet further. In other words: Microsoft knows it has a big problem on its hands. (Or in the hands of NFL players and coaches.)

The 1,000-word post begins, “This week Surface has been at the center of the debate on the role of technology in the NFL, with different opinions shared from coaches and players.” It is interlaced with large pull-quotes of praise from quarterbacks Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, a Rams defensive backs coach, and Commissioner Roger Goodell. The quotes read like they were written by the Microsoft public relations team.

“Before Surface,” the post says, “coaches and players pored over stacks of static, black-and-white photos of NFL plays to analyze the opposing team’s defense and strategize future plays… Now, these teams can respond nearly in real-time.” Microsoft also appeared to use the defense that getting the technology right is hard: “Consider the office environment of the NFL… It’s an ever-changing, fast-paced technical environment – truly one of the toughest IT jobs on one of the world’s biggest stages.”

But still, Microsoft acknowledges, “We know change can be hard and technology adoption typically has a growth curve.”

If this had been the first negative review the Surface had received in the NFL, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad. But there have been multiple instances, leading to terrible optics for the company. Microsoft reportedly spent $400 million back in 2013 to get its tablet on NFL fields as the “official sideline technology” of the league. It’s a five-year deal, so that’s $80 million per year. It’s now fair to declare that the deal has not been a success. Earlier this year, before this latest Belichick rant ever happened, Mashable called the partnership a “$400 million marketing fumble.”

The tablets failed to work during a crucial AFC Championship game last January—again for the New England Patriots. At the time, they worked fine for the Denver Broncos. After the game, sports media interpreted that the malfunction benefited the Broncos on the field, giving the team an unfair advantage—the very last thing Microsoft’s tablets, meant to aid coaches in their play calling, should be doing.

In October 2015, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler called the Surface tablets “knockoff iPads.” Time and time again, players have been caught on television hurling the tablets down at the ground in anger. Time and again, NFL broadcasters have erroneously called the tablets “iPads” on air. And now that a typically tight-lipped coach has complained yet again, all eyes are on these devices, for the wrong reasons.

The idea was for the visibility of the tablets on the sidelines to raise brand awareness of the Surface, and help it compete with iPads. But it’s had the opposite effect for Microsoft. When the deal expires in 2018, don’t be surprised if the NFL tries something else for its tech.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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