It might seem off that the NFL is at TechfestNW, a conference in Portland, Ore. curated by Rick Turoczy, founder of the city’s premier startup incubator. In the midst of local startups and Internet entrepreneaurs, there’s also the National Football League. But why?
NFL’s Director of Mobile Technology Steve Adler explained that exactly. According to Adler, the NFL—unlike many of its peers—just gets digital media.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the league has a massive budget, though Adler says that his team still has to seek funds for its mobile app just the same. “I’m trying to teach the NFL how to operate as a startup,” explains Adler, whose background is dotted with 10 different startups. The whole thing comes naturally to him— but the NFL’s decidedly old school attitude does give rise to some philosophical tensions.
Adler, who works on the NFL’s popular mobile app, has plenty of fires to put out. After its user base ballooned from 800,000 to 7 million users nearly overnight, Adler spearheaded the process of offloading the NFL app’s user load onto the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform in just six weeks.
Though he coordinates with external international teams, Adler’s in-house engineering team is only five members strong—he prefers the “butts in seats” method, as he puts it. Naturally, the mobile app’s workload revolves around the football season. Through the NFL mobile app users can access up-to-the-minute schedules, standings, news and live video over iOS and Android.
Given the NFL’s size and organization, it can be tough to coordinate between verticals within the company, which operate somewhat separately. “Last night we had an outage in the data services, people started screaming that ‘hey your app is broken’—well, my app’s great, but something upstream is broken… [it’s] challenging sometimes.”
The NFL was one of the first franchises to test tablets for its players, which remain right at home in the locker room. Now, the digital strategists at the football behemoth are eyeing technologies like augmented reality (AR), 4K, and 3D.
“Part of the challenge is with augmented reality… the use cases they have are very simplistic at this point,” Adler notes. “I’ve challenged a couple of vendors to come up with something more sophisticated.” Given the live, geo-specific nature of the NFL’s digital data, its needs tend toward the complex side.
Adler notes that his team has yet to get its hands on Google Glass specifically, but “the jury’s out” on whether it’s a viable device. “The tablet and the handsets seem to be a much better platform for us,” Adler explains. “A lot of the handsets coming out with 3D, I think those are going to be a lot more interesting for us in the short term.” With AR or 3D, users could get pop-out or HUD (heads-up display) views of players and stats in realtime without interrupting the viewing experience.
Ultra HD 4K technology is another frontier that makes a natural fit for the NFL. “When you start getting up into the 4K range on a large screen, it gets pretty interesting,” Adler said. “There’s lots of things you can do there.”
Navigating digital strategy is tricky, even for a company with such a massive footprint. Adler pushed back against using social media accounts like Twitter and Facebook for customer service purposes. Things get hectic on game days, and Adler prefers that the digital app and a phone team monitor and provide triage technical problems for NFL watchers.
On the monetization side, the NFL is very interested in iBeacons, an iOS 7 feature that communicates with in-stadium transmitters to map the location of mobile users. The beacons work with Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) and could help fans find their seats and help businesses target ads to them—getting a coupon for nachos when walking past a food stand, for instance.
According to Adler, the mobile app functions mostly as a brand extension that engages the fans, but one that can also test innovative monetization strategies that might be unique to its ferocious fan base.