June 23, 2014, 9:10 PM — Tablets on the sidelines. Electronic medical records follow players as they leave one team and sign with another. A massive, searchable database with a video clip that corresponds to every recorded stat.
Welcome to the Modern NFL
Just in the last couple years, the league has been making a concerted push to modernize and consolidate its technology operations, spanning its various consumer-facing media platforms, the technology coaches and referees use on the field, as well as internal systems, according to Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL's CIO, a relatively new position within the league.
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"For the first time in its history, the NFL really decided it needed a CIO about two years ago, two-and-a-half years ago," McKenna-Doyle said in remarks at a conference on Friday. "It had various heads of IT that did various pieces and parts, but we had a very disparate technology footprint across our digital businesses and our sort of corporate, back-of-house type of businesses."
McKenna-Doyle describes an IT evolution at the NFL that will sound familiar to CIOs at more conventional enterprises. That transformation, which has entailed a shift in focus from systems to services, saw the NFL move past its mainframe days, into the client-server model, and, finally, onto the third phase of cloud computing and associated technologies.
"Believe it or not we still had some old applications that not that long ago were recently migrated," McKenna-Doyle says of the remnants of the NFL's mainframe era. "Now, we're all living in this third platform, which is really around all the analytics, big data, making sure it all runs on the cloud and the Internet of things."
The NFL Is Up to its Facemask in Data
McKenna-Doyle points out that the NFL, like other stat-dependent sports leagues, has been working with big data long before big data became a buzzword. But in recent years, the league has been drilling into that information to create a platform that the 32 teams can tap into with their own applications to develop smarter scouting programs to make better, more data-driven personnel decisions and gather intelligence on opposing squads.
The NFL Vision platform offers video clips of each recorded statistic, tagged to the player and sortable by variables such as playing surface, stadium, weather conditions, etc. Last year, the NFL reached an agreement with the NCAA to include video clips from players' college days.
"That has been amazingly beneficial to our coaches and players from a learning perspective, and the fact that it can be mobile now on handheld devices tablets or phones continues to just drive the adoption and different types of analysis that coaches like to do," she says.
The league is also offering consumers access, for a fee, to a version of the NFL Vision database, an appealing option for the diehard fantasy players. The NFL Network is also incorporating insights from the data hub into a segment it's calling "Mind-blowing stats."
Then, later this summer, the league is planning to roll out a customizable app that fans can configure to create channels that cull together NFL content tied to their favorite teams. The app, dubbed NFL Now, will be "like a Pandora for the NFL," McKenna-Doyle says.
Is it any wonder, then, that the NFL recently added an official data storage provider ( NetApp) to go along with the " official beer of the NFL," the official pizza, the official wireless service provider?
NFL Focuses on Player Safety and On-Field and Sideline Tech
Separately, late last year the NFL began digitizing every player's medical records, a large-scale undertaking that fits with the league's recent focus on player safety and health issues, but one that has also introduced new compliance challenges around the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
"That doesn't get the big, high-profile news, but it was a major initiative to take all that paper data" and convert into a HIPAA-compliant electronic format, McKenna-Doyle says.
As league CIO, McKenna-Doyle also devotes a considerable amount of time and attention to the on-field and sideline technology, such as the wireless communications between coaches and players.
"It's a very crowded RF space in these stadiums and it's not getting any better," she says. "Frequency coordination, and continuing to develop these communication systems and have them encrypted, is a big part of my job."
Additionally, the league recently moved to change the rules for instant replay, so now, when a play is under review, the official looking under the hood will be in contact with the league office in New York, and McKenna-Doyle's team is working to set up in each stadium the communications infrastructure to facilitate those calls.
Fans this year can expect to see more new technology on the sidelines, as well. Football watchers are familiar with the binders of still photos of the last set of plays that players review on the sidelines with their coaches. This year, that process is going digital, too.
Replacing the binders will be Microsoft Surface tablets, McKenna-Doyle says, though the NFL's competition committee is limiting the content to still images, rather than video. Still, the devices will enable players to zoom in on an image, and, if the technology proves useful and the competition committee consents, video could be coming to the tablets, as well.
"That will be a big part of our development next year, so we're hoping that they work well," McKenna-Doyle says.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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