Imagine Sean Payton holding up a Surface tablet instead of a cardboard playsheet on the sideline.
Envision Peyton Manning sitting on the bench and dissecting the last series from a variety of camera angles on his hand-held device instead of looking at still photos. Or sitting at home and pulling up real-time highlights on a Sunday afternoon.
The NFL and Microsoft, through its next generation Xbox device, are combining to upgrade interactive TV viewing of pro football games in a multiyear agreement announced Tuesday. The next step after that, perhaps as early as 2014, will be bringing technology to the sidelines on tablets.
The deal is worth $400 million over five years for the NFL, according to a person familiar with the agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because financial details have not been made public.
"When you think about the sidelines, what is most important for us is how you make the game of football better, make what the coaches and players do better, using technology but preserving the competition," said Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media. "The challenge is how to bring technology to make it a better experience for them and for the fans.
"You can start with how we communicate with each other, whether it's game officials or coaches. Coaches can look at formations as they develop. We'll look at how do you do the still photos better, get more into real time? Is there a more efficient way to give replay officials a way of doing reviews better through technology?"
That's for the future, albeit the not too distant future.
Fans will get new television viewing innovations including the ability to watch games, Skype video chat with other fans, view statistics, access highlights in real time and gather fantasy information about players and teams — all on a single screen. For those who prefer multiple screens, fans can get an even deeper experience on mobile devices and tablets with SmartGlass technology.
"From the use of instant replay to the yellow first-down line that has become an important element of the at-home television viewing experience, the NFL is committed to leveraging technology to improve our game for coaches, players and fans," Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We're thrilled to be teaming with a true innovator like Microsoft to shape the future of the NFL game experience both on-field, and in the living room."
Such technology is expected to keep fans not one step but several strides ahead of what's being presented live on TV now.
Consider that a Bears fan in Chicago could be watching his team take on the Giants at Soldier Field while conversing visually with a friend in New York on the same screen. Also on that screen could be all pertinent statistics for the game, access to NFL Red Zone and to replays from the Giants-Bears matchup.
Plus — and perhaps as significant as anything to the NFL given the popularity of fantasy football — real-time updated stats from around the league. Call it seamless fantasy integration with the real product.
"This partnership will redefine NFL experiences through exclusive and interactive content that you will find only on Xbox," said Don Mattrick, president of the IEB Division at Microsoft. "For fans, the NFL on Xbox will provide the most complete way to enjoy live football by bringing the first fully integrated fantasy football experience to the TV."
Branding of Microsoft products on the hoods of the referee's on-field instant replay station and other sideline areas will begin this season. In coming years, coaches or coordinators figure to have Surface tablets to aid in-game planning and for play calling.
The prospect presents enough competitive challenges that the NFL's competition committee will discuss guidelines for their use before making any recommendations to the owners next year or beyond.
"Anything we do will go through the proper approval processes," Rolapp said. "Whatever we do, it's of paramount importance it enhances the competition. We have some gospel points we will not break."
Signing a five-year deal also gives the league some flexibility as technological advances make even more improvements possible.
"This was smart by the NFL because it is signed up for five years of interactivity, then it can evaluate what works best and maybe go on with Microsoft or go to another communications company or even the networks. Had they gone to the networks now, it would have been a hodge-podge," said Marc Ganis, the president of SportsCorp, which does consulting work with the NFL.
"The tablets are a huge deal. For a league that prides itself about being at the forefront of technology, having Peyton Manning look at Polaroids isn't exactly cutting edge. Having him look at a tablet is."