Area saver: how Microsoft’s deal with the NFL turned into a marketing boon for its tablet

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett reviews a play on a Microsoft Surface tablet. (Photo GeekWire / Kevin Lisota)

Looking back, Microsoft’s decision to sign a six-figure sponsorship deal with the National Football League in 2013 was a shrewd marketing move. Tune into an NFL game today and you’ll likely notice coaches and players using Surface tablets to review past games. Millions of people who watch football in the fall are exposed to Microsoft’s devices, which have become a staple of the 102-year-old league.

But when the deal was signed, it was a big risk. And Xbox, more than Surface, was the focal point.

Still, the partnership ended up changing football forever and may have saved Microsoft’s tablet brand in the process. It now serves as a marketing case study for a successful sports technology partnership.

“It’s a good story,” said Brian hall, a former Microsoft executive who helped run the Surface business when the NFL deal began. “It was a great result. “

Earlier this NFL season, Hall shared In the wings ideas on the case. “This thing has had EVERY opportunity to fail along the way!” He tweeted.

Former Seattle Seahawks coordinator Tom Cable shows a previous play to a lineman during a game. (File photo by GeekWire / Kevin Lisota)

The case is worth a reported $ 400 million over five years – and extended later into 2020 – was originally designed to be spent entirely on Xbox, according to Hall. Microsoft wanted to use the partnership to show how people could use their Xbox to watch games live and access fantasy football stats.

“For fans, the NFL on Xbox will provide the most comprehensive way to enjoy live football by bringing the first fully integrated fantasy football experience to television, exclusively through Xbox,” Don Mattrick, then President of Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft. , said in a press release at the time.

That vision – using an Xbox to watch football live – never really took hold. The latest Xbox Series X | S consoles can’t even connect to a cable or satellite box.

The Surface, on the other hand, was a much different story – but the first few years on the pitch didn’t exactly go smoothly.

“IPad-type tool”

After the deal was announced, it took a year for the tablets to be ready for use in gaming. Microsoft had to develop a customized, hardened and weatherproof version of its “tablet PC”, which was coming. to make its public debut in 2012. The NFL competition committee also had to approve the use of such technology.

It was a difficult start, to say the least. In 2014, commentators called the Surface an “iPad-like tool”. A month later, quarterback Jay Cutler called the devices “Imitations of iPads”. Bill belichick and Aaron Rodgers made headlines for throwing away the tablets (devices can withstand such a force, by the way).

Then, in 2016, the New England Patriots couldn’t access their tablets during a game against the Denver Broncos.

A column title from Chicago Tribune, from this year: Microsoft Surface, NFL marketing flop. At a cost of just $ 400 million.

The case turned into a marketing disaster. But those breakaways may have been a blessing in disguise for Microsoft.

People were talking about the Surface. This allowed the company to educate the public about its new material.

The timing for this was crucial as the Surface brand “needed some work,” Hall said. Sales of the first models also did not meet expectations for Microsoft’s challenger to the Apple iPad.

Eventually, NFL advertisers stopped calling iPad tablets. Microsoft continued to refine the device, adding new features such as real-time collaboration between the coach’s cabin and the sideline. Teams can now access images within 2-3 seconds after a game.

Microsoft has stayed in the game, so to speak. And it paid off big.

“We had tenacity,” said James Bernstrom, sports marketing leader at Microsoft. “We wanted to do it.”

Game changer

Gone are the days of sending photographs on a wire from the coaches’ booth to the field – yes, they actually did – or waiting precious minutes for a printer to produce black and white thermal images to review previous games with a three-ring binding.

“The device is such an important tool that allows us to do our jobs to the best of our ability. It’s impeccable, ”said Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur in an NFL video. published earlier this year, showing how tablets have helped gamers make key changes in the game.

Microsoft now powers 269 NFL events each year with more than 2,000 Surface devices and 170 Windows servers installed in 30 stadiums.

Meanwhile, the popularity and audience for the NFL continues to climb. The Thanksgiving 2021 games recorded their highest number of viewers since 1998, averaging 29.7 million fans, up 9% from a year ago.

The Surface was even featured in Microsoft’s Super Bowl commercial two years ago.

“This has been huge for the Surface brand,” Bernstrom said of the partnership.

Without the NFL, the Surface brand might not have existed for much longer, according to Hall.

“The deal with the NFL probably kept some stupid things from happening,” he said.

The Surface family has grown from simple hybrid tablets to laptops, desktops, whiteboards, and even a dual-screen Android device. It’s become a big business for Microsoft, which uses Surface computers, tablets, and devices as a way for the company to advance new form factors in the industry, providing a role model for other hardware makers to follow.

The Surface-NFL deal also laid the groundwork for a number of sports-related partnerships between Microsoft and other leagues, including the NBA, PGA Tour, the league, and more.

So what’s next for the Surface on the sidelines? There are a few promising possibilities.

It might take a while – getting NFL coaches to accept and embrace gaming technology can be a slow process – but instant video reruns on tablets would be a huge advance over static images.

Improved real-time data like next-gen stats at the fingertips of coaches could add a new dynamic layer to in-game strategy.

One thing is certain: Surfaces are here to stay.

“We’re still thinking about what might be next,” Bernstrom said. “And with our technology, the sky is the limit. “



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