TV worked out so well, the NFL wants to be on your headset next.

Photographer: Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

NFL's Technology Innovations Follow the Money

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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On Tuesday, the NFL and Microsoft unveiled some "innovative" ideas for how technology could "shape the future of football." Notably, these included fan-submitted suggestions for apps that would bring the in-home viewing experience to those sitting in the stands.

And yet, it was one product developed by Microsoft, called HoloLens, that stood out -- not just because of its ambition, and not just because attempted holograms have already traumatized us by grotesquely commodifying dead artists (RIP Tupac, Michael, Whitney). Then again, the NFL has perfected the art of commodifying the past, with countless DVD releases by NFL Films containing highlights of previous seasons, and the recent re-airing of Super Bowl I.

Rather, it signaled, once again, that the NFL's biggest business interest doesn't lie within the stadium, but at home.

Now, that's not exactly news, and it's not exactly a bad thing. The NFL has spent decades perfecting televised sports, to a much desired end. The original Monday Night Football broadcasts on ABC created modern-day sports television, and perhaps more importantly, modern-day sports television ad revenue -- to make up the cost to networks of ever-growing rights deals with the leagues. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, in 1970, networks' broadcast fees were $50 million for the NFL, $2 million for the NBA, and $18 for MLB. The museum says: "In 1985 those figures had risen to $450 million, $45 million and $160 million respectively."

That was due to the demand for televised sports, particularly football, all of which was fueled by the nature of sports being "VCR-proof." Now we talk about sports being similarly "DVR-proof." But sports are not streaming-proof. Consumers want to stream sports to any device. This isn't just possible -- it's inevitable.

As the leagues, led by MLB (and, tacitly, the NHL, through its partnership with MLB's spinoff, BAM Tech), take significant steps toward a cordless future, the NFL is left in a self-created limbo between its renewed satellite deal (the past) and its satellite partner's burgeoning field of streaming viewers (the future). In 2014, the league extended its deal with DirecTV for exclusive rights to the Sunday Ticket package for eight years and $12 billion, clearing a major roadblock in the eventual merger between DirecTV and AT&T. Rather than being stuck with traditional cable and satellite offerings, the deal will eventually allow the NFL to lean forward with AT&T's 12 million U-Verse subscribers and its vast network to support streaming services.

Regardless of the medium, on-screen technology, from the first-down line to instant replay to skycams capturing every angle on the field, has helped make professional football must-see TV -- along with its enormous gambling stakes, of course -- and technological innovation won't stop the juggernaut that is the NFL Viewing Experience.

But that has come at a price -- namely, the stadium experience. Most football fans would rather sit at home or at a bar and watch a game than trek to the outskirts of town with an overpriced ticket and a suboptimal, single-game view. Watching TV at home, fans can keep up with simultaneous games. In the battle of RedZone versus real time, it's no contest.

Again, the NFL knows that, and once again, that's really OK. Almost every San Franciscan I've met this week has balked at the idea of going out to Santa Clara for a game, and I know most New Yorkers (not necessarily Long Islanders or New Jerseyans) feel the same way about East Rutherford. And I guarantee after the luster wears off, Angelenos will concur about Inglewood -- though they're used to driving rather long distances for small payoffs, anyway.

So in must come the technological advancements. A token few will try to improve the stadium experience. The more important will serve the much more profitable, in-home experience. Those lucrative broadcast rights deals are approaching supernova status, but until they implode, the NFL will revolve around them.

On Tuesday, the NFL hosted a panel called "The Future of Football: How Technology Could Shape the Next 50 Years of the Game" -- which turned out to mean "the future of football consumption." The discussion featured, among others, Joe Montana, Drew Brees and Microsoft's Mike Nichols. It felt like an hourlong commercial for the Microsoft Surface tablet.

And what could the owner of a Microsoft Surface tablet do with one of these amazing Microsoft Surface tablets? Why, the Microsoft Surface tablet could enhance the stadium experience in a few ways. One fan suggested an app to let people in the stadium see the video angles that are available to at-home viewers. An app could also show a real-time stadium map highlighting the shortest restroom and concession lines.

Next the discussion/commercial included a video demonstrating the wonders of HoloLens, replete with Marshawn Lynch virtually bursting through a wall. The idea is to put on a headset so the viewing experience expands to the wall behind your television and even, apparently, to your coffee table, with 3-D holograms immersing you in the game. 

Not mentioned during this whole presentation: the cost of the technology; the cost of the headsets; the cost of the wall.

Also not mentioned: that the NFL wants you to have the greatest in-home experience to watch its games, no matter what that means for the deteriorating stadium experience

There will always be fans who prefer to attend a game in person, whether it's the tailgating or the bonding or the crowd "atmosphere" they relish. (Though that atmosphere, with drunk, sometimes violent fans, is the very reason some choose to stay at home.) But for the most part, the NFL is banking on you wanting to stay home. And again, that's perfectly fine. Just keep that in mind the next time an NFL team tries to get your city to pay millions in stadium subsidies. If the NFL doesn't really care whether you're sitting in the seats, then your tax dollars shouldn't subsidize the stadium. 

For those of us who relish the crowd noise and that feeling in the pit of your stomach when thousands strong go in on a targeted cheer, a hologram would be a feeble imitation of the live experience -- the very experience responsible for making some of us sports fans in the first place. But with its continued emphasis on bringing the stadium experience to the small screen, the message from the NFL seems clear: Who needs reality when you have virtual reality?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net