The NFL is urging teams to use technology to improve the fan experience at games

Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman (C) runs 90 yards for the touchdown after recovering a blocked field goal attempt by the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Seattle, Washington, December 23, 2012. Credit: REUTERS/Robert Sorbo

As the CIO for the NFL since September 2012, Michelle McKenna-Doyle is always on the prowl for new ideas that can help the league engage more deeply with its passionate base of football fans across the United States.

Several NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, have recently deployed powerful in-stadium Wi-Fi systems that allow tens of thousands of fans to simultaneously connect using their mobile devices, increasing fan engagement by allowing fans to tell their friends back home about all the fun they are having at the games. Other NFL and even college football teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals and the Crimson Tide of Alabama, are looking at similar initiatives.

That's a start, but there's much more to do, McKenna-Doyle told CITEworld here at the NFL's lavish offices in New York City on Jan. 15. The NFL was announcing that Wi-Fi vendor Extreme Networks is now a preferred partner for Wi-Fi analytics services for NFL's 32 teams to help boost fan engagement across the organization. By collecting and evaluating Wi-Fi usage data during games, teams can learn much more about what their customers are doing with their mobile devices at events. That will let teams tailor their services and content to meet the needs of those information-rabid fans, said McKenna-Doyle.

The range of future services could be almost endless. What about the possibilities of mobile apps that could help incoming fans locate an empty parking space or have a cold beer of their choice waiting for them in the cup holder of their seat when they get to their row? What about the potential for EZ-Pass toll-collection transponders to be used for collecting parking fees and speeding up the parking process at games?

"They are all totally viable," McKenna-Doyle told CITEworld. "I spent 15 years with Disney (including time as the vice president of Destination Disney, as the CIO for Universal Orlando Resort, and as a vice president of information technology for Walt Disney World) and they are the masters at that. It's entirely possible."

To move on to those kinds of data-rich services and possibilities, though, two foundational things will be required from fans, she said. "We need to know who you are and what your preferences are, and we need to give you a compelling reason to share that with us," to make such personalized services viable in the future. "Then we need good reliable high-density connections to do that," such as the bolstered Wi-Fi systems now in use at the stadiums used by the Eagles and Patriots.

"There are a lot of things that we think about like that," said McKenna-Doyle. "I'm helping to lead the visioning on that, but each club ultimately does decide their own priorities about what to do based on their unique fan profiles."

The push for increased fan engagement in the NFL comes at a time when the league and its 32 member teams are competing with other activities and events to keep fans coming to the live games. In the first round of this year’s playoff games, several of the games were not sold-out at the last minute, which potentially could have led to some of the playoff games being blacked out in their home towns. (Eventually companies stepped in and bought the final blocks of tickets.) That's certainly something the NFL would not have wanted to see. The in-home game watching experience has also improved dramatically for fans, who can watch the games on big-screen, high-definition color televisions with special services such as ESPN Red Zone and other fan-centered upgrades, while using a phone or tablet to share taunts and misery with like-minded fans from all over the world...all while sitting on comfortable couches and chairs in the warm confines of their homes.

So are these the kinds of realities that are pushing the NFL to increase fan engagement in stadiums?

"Certainly a full stadium is the best fan and game experience so we do need to focus on making sure that happens," said McKenna-Doyle. "Keeping it compelling and special will help us sell tickets."

At the same time, though, McKenna-Doyle said she doesn't think those impacts are the core of the problem. "Although there are certainly more options for entertainment, our game is more popular than ever, so I don't really see alternatives as a real threat, however, we need to make sure our content is fresh, relevant, and available on multiple platforms" to keep fans coming in through the turnstiles.

When it comes to these kinds of in-stadium IT enhancements, they are steps that the NFL can only recommend to owners and teams -- they can't be mandated, said McKenna-Doyle. Only on-field game activities can be regulated and mandated by the league.

One potential future technology innovation for the game itself is being explored now and could eventually be mandated, which could have an impact for fans as well. "The overall sideline of the future is enabling the sideline in terms of getting the play information to the coaches and players," she said. "Today they use paper printouts of plays," which is why fans see players and coaches searching through sheaths of papers in folders on the sidelines, looking for just the right play at that moment in a game.

Someday, those same papers could be replaced by hand-held tablet computers which would let the players and coaches see the plays on a device screen instead of on paper, she said. This is being researched and tested today.

"Presently they're not allowed to look at such data on a computer," said McKenna-Doyle. "That's all to protect competition and to avoid unfair competition. We just haven't gotten to the point where we allow a computer to be used. We could in the future, on a tablet."

Before joining the NFL, McKenna-Doyle also previously worked as the CIO at Constellation Energy in Baltimore and for Centex Homes, in addition to her 13 years with Disney. She grew up in Enterprise, Ala., where she performed with the Enterprise High School band. "I didn't play football, but if they'd allowed girls to play I probably would have," she told her hometown newspaper, The Enterprise Ledger, in a June 2013 interview following her move to the NFL. "I was in the band as a majorette. I was very dedicated to sports, especially in Enterprise. I was always a huge football fan."

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