Things on the gridiron have changed. Once the province of paper-based play analysis, complicated hand signals and rules reliant on the eyes and ears of human refs, football is now awash in tech. Just take a look at the broken Surface tablets from last week’s AFC championship. With the Panthers and Broncos squaring up for Super Bowl 50 next week, here’s a look at the NFL technology (and IT teams behind it) that help elevate the sport while keeping its time-honored traditions intact.
It starts at Art McNally GameDay Central, located at NFL Headquarters in New York City. From here, Game Operations staff are tasked with prepping every communication and broadcast system before gametime while checking for radio frequency conflicts and handling failures prior to air. From a corporate standpoint, the GameDay crew is analogous to CIOs and their admin staff; they get the “big picture,” ensuring sysadmins on the ground have the information necessary to get their jobs done.
Key to Game Ops is keeping radio frequencies clean. As the number of licensed bandwidths approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to grow, fewer clear channels exist for team officials and their support staff to use. With this in mind, operations must make sure both teams, their coaches and all TV network crews use the right bandwidth spectrum for headsets, microphones and any Wi-Fi connections to prevent accidental “jamming.” Jamming often leads to signal loss at a critical moment.
Operations staff are also responsible for ferreting out any “not-so-accidental” frequency interruptions; the New England Patriots’ “Headsetgate” comes to mind, especially since the team regularly shows potential as a Super Bowl contender. Did they really tamper with headsets? Maybe, maybe not — there have been a number of accusations over the past few years — but what matters for Super Bowl 50 is that Game Ops staff are up to the challenge of tracking down any technical issues regardless of origin or intent.
Game Ops staff are also responsible for overseeing the use of NFL Instant Replay technology, which got its start in 1986, was removed in 1992 and then reimplemented in 1999. GameDay teams use the league’s proprietary NFL Vision software to analyze replays and communicate with both the stadium’s replay official and the referee before he goes under the hood — both of which shorten the length of a replay review. Think of it like analytics; the NFL is investing in software that can capture relevant data, serve it up to experts and empower users in (or on) the field.
On the Ground
Crews in the stadium during Super Bowl 50 are responsible for managing a few new pieces of hardware, including Microsoft Surface to analyze defensive and offensive formations. But because these tablets have no Internet access and their software cannot be altered, the league is currently testing a “video review” feature which may be implemented in future seasons.
Not everything works perfectly, though. As noted by Geek Wire, a problem during the December 8, 2015, matchup between Dallas and Washington forced these tablets out of service and left coaches with pen-and-paper diagrams. And on January 24, 2016, in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots suffered significant tablet malfunctions causing more than a few frustrations on the sidelines, especially since the Denver Broncos weren’t required to give up their still-working tablets under the NFL’s “equity rule”. February’s onsite IT will need to not only monitor the performance of the Sideline Viewing System, but its connection to their team’s tablet. System monitoring comes to mind here: Small precursor events in still-picture taking or tablet connections could act as warning signs for larger problems, if caught early enough.
There’s also a need for data aggregation as the league moves toward full adoption of M2M systems like Zebra player tracking. Using RFID chips in each player’s shoulder pads, it is now possible to track their movements in-game in real time, then provide “next-generation stats” for fans. The larger value, however, comes in the form of actionable data obtained by recording and mining the information collected by these sensors. NFL technology professionals are tasked with not only ensuring this data stream is uninterrupted, but also making something useful out of the final product — a curated version of player data that trainers can use to improve Super Bowl performance.
NFL teams need to transfer highly sensitive files containing details regarding trades, play books, and player contracts. In the past, the Denver Broncos used thumb drives and CDs to physically pass around large data files including that containing high-res video and image files. It was a manual and unstructured process that proved to be a time waster, lacking even basic security controls. Email was not an option because of the file size since most IT teams limit the size on email attachments.
In order to secure their data in motion and move it without hassle, regardless of the size, the Broncos picked Ipswitch WS_FTP software for secure data transfer internally between departments, and externally with partners.
A New Career?
Interested in working support for the NFL? It’s possible: While the Cleveland Browns are hiring an intern, the Washington Redskins need help at the helpdesk and the Seattle Seahawks are looking for a CRM data analyst. Interestingly, the job descriptions read like standard tech sector advertisements; NFL clubs have become enterprises in and of themselves, requiring multiple teams of backend IT personnel in addition to those on the ground during regular and postseason play.
Even the NFL is not all glitz and glory for IT. In fact, the league’s mandate is similar to most tech firms: Keep systems up and running while collecting and curating actionable data. Ultimately it’s a team effort — the work of many, not the power of one, moves the chains and snatches victory from the jaws of overtime.