How the NFL Is Using Business Technology and Information Technology Together

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2008-08-29

As in most years, the 2008 Super Bowl was a star-packed event, with Eli Manning and the New York Giants going up against Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots. At halftime, rock icon Tom Petty took the stage.

Off the field, however, the prospects of success or failure for the big event rested heavily on the shoulders of a virtually unknown player: Gameday Management Group. Orlando-based Gameday was responsible for making sure that the buses and limos transporting NFL team members, pro football execs, celebrity performers, corporate VIPs and other constituent groups to the event were running in perfect sync with the precisely tuned Super Bowl schedule.

In the past, the 100-plus Gameday employees working the game had to stay glued to their walkie-talkies to keep on top of the ever-shifting transportation dynamics. This year, however, they used a new solution from  U.S. Fleet Tracking, enabled by KORE Telematics. It combines state-of-the-art online map technology with GPS sensors, allowing Gameday crews to track vehicle movements on their laptops.

“We’re old school,” says Don Jordan, chief operating officer at Gameday. “Typically, we’ve handled the communications directly via our radios with police, entertainment representatives, team officials and corporate handlers. But we needed to upgrade the timeliness and precision of our information flow, and this satellite-based technology was the answer. It alerted us to issues before they became problems.”

In the broad universe of the NFL, Gameday is hardly alone when it comes to seeking newer and better IT tools. Pro football, after all, is a multibillion-dollar business, as driven as any high-profile entertainment-based company by broadcasts, merchandise sales, box-office revenue, marketing, and event planning and execution.

As a result, league and team officials—as well as supporting businesses such as Gameday—are always on the lookout for IT solutions that improve e-commerce, information sharing, data mining, data security, Web site user experience and other services that IT can provide. Here’s a closer look at the myriad ways in which information technology is making an impact on America’s favorite sport.

Falcons Expect E-Commerce Boost

For the Atlanta Falcons, a major overhaul in brick-and-mortar operations—the warehousing of the team’s considerable fan merchandise inventory—led to a significant upgrade of its e-commerce Web site operations this season. The team launched a shift in warehousing operations, resulting in the need to reintegrate all items with Falcon logos—T-shirts, jerseys, footballs, key chains and even those big foam fingers fans wave at games—with the team’s Web site.

“Once we examined this,” says Don Norton, manager of business information systems and executive support for the Falcons, “we saw how extensive and expensive it would be to custom-develop [such an application]. So we looked for an IT company that could integrate with our systems as part of its out-of-the-box offering.”

That’s where Ignify, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, stepped in—not only to serve these integration needs, but to provide a new online product catalog, storefront and business-commerce platform for the Falcons’ 365 online store. Thanks to the integration, the Atlanta Falcons’ marketing and promotion departments can more effectively gauge sales trends—such as targeted promotions, real-time inventory reports and key metrics like site visits, visitor browsing history, clickthroughs and customer purchasing patterns. Search-engine optimization is also part of the package, increasing the Falcons’ odds of coming up on top of the Google charts when fans type in phrases like “Atlanta Falcons gear.”

As a result, the Falcons are expecting a considerable uptick in online sales as the season gets under way. With the selection of top-pick quarterback Matt Ryan of Boston College, there’s a hopeful buzz about the team’s future. When fans go to the Falcons’ site to snatch up, say, a jersey with Ryan’s name and a big #2 (his official team number) on the back, they’ll have a much-improved user experience to get to the point of purchase.

“It’s much more fan-friendly than the previous site, which has been in use since 2005,” Norton says. “The new site has much easier navigation—it’s more like what you see on larger e-commerce sites like Amazon.”

The site features better merchandising and reporting, with more information about a fan’s past purchases and what that fan may want on the site now. Also, when fans buy gift cards in stores, they can use more than one card for a purchase online, which wasn’t allowed before. The Ignify solution also boosted anti-fraud tools. “This new site will help us to engage our fans and keep them engaged year-round,” Norton says.

Mobile IP Connects a Stadium

The Arizona Cardinals’ new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale—the venue for the most recent Super Bowl—is so connected that you have to wonder if well-wired fans notice that a game is being played on the field. Fans in the stands use BlackBerrys, iPhones and other wireless toys to check up on their Fantasy Football stats or snap a photo of themselves at the game and e-mail it to friends.

Thanks to a technology deployment of Connected Sports solutions—provided by Cisco Systems and designed, integrated and managed by solutions provider Insight—the Cardinals can now stake a claim to providing the most technology-friendly game experience in the league. Connected Sports combines data, voice, video, wireless and social networking to create a single, secure network that essentially serves every stadium-related function. These include everything from keeping an eye out for potential terrorism threats to scouting opposing teams’ game films to selling tickets to marketing fan-experience items.

“It’s not just about football, either,” says Mark Feller, vice president of technology for the Cardinals. “This stadium is a multi-event facility that hosts concerts, other sporting events, car shows, food shows and all kinds of expos. Anyone who comes in here can use this Cisco network connection on the floor in the expo or anywhere else in the facility.”

This is one of the first times that virtually all operations of an NFL venue have been connected via Cisco’s Connected Sports. Traditionally, stadiums have separate, proprietary networks to operate building systems, video surveillance, ticket sales, merchandise sales and other needs. By providing all of these on one secure IP network, Cardinals’ officials and Insight were able to work together to integrate wired and wireless access, voice, video and other services to fulfill these needs.

As a result, fans with Cisco IP phones can now touch their screens to get leaguewide score updates, or order a beer and a hotdog from concessions, or even buy upcoming game tickets from box-office staff. Coaches can send game film and special features back and forth between the stadium and the team headquarters in Tempe. In addition, police officers outside the stadium and security officials within it can e-mail each other about traffic updates and suspicious incidents.

As for the future, Cardinals officials see expanding applications for the network to weave even more eye-catching technology into the fan experience. “We’re looking closely at what we could do with video,” Feller says. “Thanks to YouTube and other online sites, video is becoming more and more integrated into our lives, and that’s where we want to go next with our network. We can envision using it to get videoscreens of the live action to our fans throughout the stadium.”

Ravens Stay Tough on Defense

The Baltimore Ravens team keeps a lot of important “stuff” in its network files: for starters, scouting reports on pro players who could be available as free agents, the latest 40-yard sprint times of college seniors who could end up as draft picks and medical histories of current players. In the past, all that information was kept on tapes. If the team wanted to back up the data, it would produce a duplicate tape and store it at its stadium in Baltimore, about 20 miles from the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills, Md.

To replace this antiquated method, the Ravens turned to AmeriVault to provide an automated access and offsite solution based on backup technology from Asigra. “The cost savings, in terms of just accessing and securing the data, have made it very worthwhile,” says Bill Jankowski, vice president of IT for the Ravens.

“We don’t put tapes on trucks anymore to send them to Baltimore. We just use the software from AmeriVault and back up our data. If we need to access some data from the past, we can search on the software—say, input a search going back 28 days—and it comes to us securely over the Internet. Previously, we’d have to call up the old tape to find the data.”

The new system saves a lot of time. “That’s good,” Jankowski says, “because there are only two people on my staff—including me.”

Online Content Gets Media Makeover

For years, journalists covering the NFL turned to to get the latest on team and league news. But the password-protected site was fairly static and limited in what it could provide. Security presented another issue, since the user name and password for the site was a generic, universal one that even a rank amateur hacker could gain access to.

That’s why the league turned to solution provider Gemini Systems to redesign the site using IBM software. Today, beat writers have access to a wealth of resources, such as detailed historical records of teams and updates on player injuries.

If a writer covers a particular franchise, he or she can customize a page to focus on relevant information affecting that team. And, if a game’s outcome featured a controversial call, streaming video of top league refereeing officials can be made available to discuss why the call was made.

“This is just our first step in making a portal that’s perfectly suited to the media’s needs,” says Joe Manto, vice president of information technology for the NFL. “We can now look to develop something like this for our other partners, such as vendors, licensee clients and sponsorship clients.”

Mobile Solution Makes for Smooth Super Bowl

Jordan’s Gameday crews have a lot of experience with large crowds. In addition to working at 10 Super Bowls, Gameday brings a wealth of Olympics logistics/coordination to the table, and has overseen events such as Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to America.

“You can plan everything to the minute, and then you have an incident like the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Games,” Jordan says. “Then everything is thrown into a state of chaos requiring immediate adjustments.”

Chaos is the last thing Gameday wants, which is why the company sought a technologically advanced system of tracking vehicles. At the 2008 Super Bowl, KORE’s online map technology and GPS sensors enabled Gameday staff members to get updates on their laptops throughout the day for real-time information on where every key vehicle was as it made its way to and from the stadium. An animated map flashed on the screens, pinpointing every bus and limo en route. This ensured that buses for opposing teams didn’t arrive at the same time.

“We knew when the stadium was ready to accept a bus or limo, and we could see how many minutes away those vehicles were,” Jordan says. “On game day, we could ping the buses every five seconds to get an update if we needed to. All arrivals were carefully staggered to minimize potential confusion. The teams’ arrivals especially needed to be managed to ensure a smooth entry to their locker rooms.”

In the near future, KORE expects its technology to allow satellite-based tracking of individual people, in addition to vehicles. The company is developing smaller and smaller sensors, which one day may be worn on wristwatches and other items.

This would enable Gameday to stay farther ahead of the coaches, quarterbacks and rock stars who make for a memorable evening. After all, it’s the stars that fans remember—not the support staffs who make it happen—and Gameday employees wouldn’t want it any other way.

“After the 2008 Super Bowl, I saw Eli Manning in a passageway of the stadium, with his brother Peyton and his dad Archie,” Jordan says. “He had just won the big game and gave us a friendly nod. He had no idea about what the people and companies had done for the months and weeks leading up to the game.

“And that’s exactly the way we want to keep it—a seamless operation that nobody notices. Technology allows us to do that better than ever.”