As the National Football League returns to regular-season play, the view from the sidelines may look a little different, with several new technologies coming in for fans, fantasy and football coaches.
The NFL is taking a high-tech leap to enhance the game for players, coaches and fans and has partnered with a number of new sponsors to make it happen. With more than 200 million broadcast viewers, the stakes are high for the NFL—and its partner companies—as they try to redefine the game for the next digital age.
Among the most visible, Microsoft is introducing its Surface tablet to the sidelines. In a reportedly five-year, $400 million deal with the NFL, players and coaches will now be equipped with custom tablets as part of a new "sideline viewing system." Gone are the days of black and white photo printouts that teams have relied on in the past. For the first time in NFL history, players will have the ability to review full-color images of plays in near-real time. The minute a play is over, coaches and players will gain instant access to evaluate plays and formations on the tablets.
"We were looking to bring innovation on the sidelines from a coaching standpoint," said Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of media for the NFL, who said the tablets worked well in the preseason.
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Built to withstand both weather elements and 300-pound linemen, each team will receive 13 Surface tablets for players and coaches and an additional 12 tablets for offensive and defensive coordinators in the coaching boxes. The deal won't only help players and coaches but will also create some brand exposure and visibility for Microsoft.
"The value of the NFL is the premiere property," said Yusuf Medhi, corporate vice president for Devices & Studios at Microsoft. "Being able to be associated with the NFL and deliver a technical experience to power all 32 teams—that's a great value for Microsoft."
Bose headsets are landing on the sidelines as well. The privately held consumer electronics company's logo will appear this season on headsets worn by NFL coaches, following a deal Bose signed in March to replace Motorola, which previously supplied the headsets. Fifth-year Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carol, who used the headphones in preseason, said the technological improvements have been huge. "It's going to take us to a new level," he told Seahawks.com.
Player-tracking technology is getting a makeover as well. The NFL teamed with Zebra Technologies to provide player-tracking statistics to fans and coaches. Zebra equipped 17 stadiums with its real-time location system (RTLS), which communicates via RFID with a chip in players' shoulder pads.
"This can revolutionize the game for nearly every stakeholder," said Zebra Technologies CEO Anders Gustafsson, who expects the technology to be rolled out in every stadium by the end of the 2014 season.. "It provides a whole new rich environment for what's happening on the field, analyzing and getting insight from it."
The system will capture player location, motion data and other vital statistics to better measure how players are performing on the field. That data can be viewed in real-time not just by players, coaches and scouts but also by fans and fantasy football enthusiasts.
"The best part of big data from a fan's perspective is going to allow us to create (a) next generation of stats and metrics that will make fantasy football that much more engaging for people to play," said Jonathan Kraft, co-chair of NFL Digital Media, and president of the New England Patriots.
To ensure that fans can access all this new data from the field—instead of from the comfort of their couch—stadiums all around the country are working to become more connected than fans' homes are.
Kraft said his team, the Patriots, has found success with its game day app, giving fans everything from a custom Patriot Player alarm clock, to traffic alerts on the way to the stadium, to tools to monitor bathroom lines and order food. The stadium has also added a lot of new ribbon board, and instead of using the space for advertising, it's using it for information about the game, and for people tweeting using a specific hashtag.
The NFL's Rolapp said the league's goal is to make sure that not only can fans do everything in the stadium that they can do at home, but also that they can have a unique experience at the live games—including the technology they access.
"It's really about creating apps and other experiences that enhance their experience there—everything from where did I park, to what's the longest line at the bathroom, to how to order concessions, to what's going on in games outside the stadium," he said. "The highlights on the other side of the country, or the highlight I just missed because I just went to the bathroom—those things are all important, and those are the things we're investing in."
—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin and Jessica Golden