Microsoft, Verizon and Gatorade will all play a big role in the NFL's return during the coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • The NFL is working with brand partners, including Microsoft and Verizon, on ways to include fans in its 2020 season likely impacted by Covid-19.
  • Other NFL brand partners like Oakley and Gatorade have come up with new ways to keep players safe from the virus on the field.
Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Focus On Sport | Getty Images

The National Football League is using a variety of innovative safety concepts from its brand partnerships as the league continues to plan for its 2020 regular-season.

Ideas around a probable Covid-19 impacted season include bottle cap inserts preprinted with players uniform numbers to distinguish personal Gatorade bottles, Visa's contact-less transaction technology, and Verizon's 5G capabilities for fan engagement both in stadiums and viewers at home. 

The NFL brings in more than $1 billion in sponsorship revenue with some of the more prominent brands like Procter and Gamble, Lowes, Bose and Microsoft, all of which are assisting the NFL with its coronavirus response for the upcoming season.

Though the NFL hasn't made a league-wide decision on allowing spectators at games, Renie Anderson, chief revenue officer and executive vice president of NFL Partnerships, suggested the league plans to operate as close to normal as possible.

"There is no handbook on how to move forward in a global pandemic," Anderson said in an interview with CNBC.

But while the NFL's lawyers are finalizing negotiations around economics and health and safety protocols for operating during the pandemic with the league's players union, brands have already submitted their ideas around lowering the risk of the coronavirus' spread and new ways to entertain fans away from the stands.

Oakley designed NFL helmet with a face shield to protect players from spreading germs.
Source: NFL

Protection on the field

Concepts around the upcoming season include face shields designed by Oakley. The clear face guards are meant to replicate regular face masks and protect players around the mouth and nose area to reduce the risk of contamination during play.

Oakley consulted with doctors from the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), and Anderson said players on the west coast have already tested the equipment. She did not say how many players tested the shields or provide any feedback from those players as the NFL's "engineering group" monitored the operation.

Though the shields received a bit of criticism, the NFL believes the guards will lower risks of potential spreading of germs. The league also wants to mandate that players wear face shields when it releases its final version of health and safety protocols for the season, but the NFLPA will have to approve that first.

"We're hoping that [players] adopt the technology, but clearly, it's optional," Anderson said.

The NFL says Oakley, which pays the league roughly $75 million per year and makes its visors, will have enough shields to distribute them to all 32 teams before the start of the season.

The NFL will also have custom masks made by New Era for non-active players and other team personnel on the sidelines of the field.

Microsoft's fan engagement

Earlier this year, Denmark's Aarhus Gymnastikforening (AGF) soccer league created the world's "first virtual grandstand" with roughly 10,000 fans watching an AGF match via a Zoom video broadcast, something the National Basketball Association hopes to replicate with its Walt Disney "bubble" campus in Orlando this month.

The NFL plans to take a different approach using its partnership with Microsoft and the company's Teams video chat and collaboration app.

Anderson said the NFL and Microsoft are "working on different concepts" to have fans watch games through the Teams platform. Anderson didn't say if fans will need to pay a fee to participate in the video calls, and Microsoft didn't respond when asked to elaborate on its upcoming plans to incorporate Teams.

But Anderson said "the draft is a great example" of how Microsoft would work with the league, mentioning the video fan wall around commissioner Rodger Goodell during April's broadcast of the draft.

Zoom still seems to be the preferred choice for video conference calls. But Microsoft will have its chance in the spotlight to help both the NBA and NFL develop ideas around keeping fans engaged and future revenue streams with day-of-game revenue like ticketing, concessions and parking temporarily halted.

The NFL hasn't made a uniform decision on allowing spectators, but Anderson said the league would defer "to all the states and their guidelines and rules for fans attending games.

"That will be a decision made by those states, and we'll be working closely with our clubs," she said.

The Philadelphia Eagles will most likely see an empty Lincoln Financial Field after city officials banned large events until 2021. Also, Robert Kraft's New England Patriots have already informed fans games won't be at full capacity this season. And with Covid-19 cases increasing, it's likely more NFL clubs will need to prepare for life without fans as every other sport was required to adjust.

Verizon's 5G efforts

Verizon Communications Inc. 5G wireless signage is displayed at the company's booth during the Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Virtual reality and augmented reality experiences will continue to accelerate, with leagues needing to entice both in-person and at-home fans. But much will depend on wireless speed, and it's here the NFL will lean on Verizon, which pays the league roughly $300 million a year to hold the rights as its official telecommunications partner.

At February's Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the company tested its 5G wireless technology giving fans inside Hard Rock Stadium exclusive live-streaming camera views of the Kansas City Chiefs' victory over the San Francisco 49ers.  According to CNN, Verizon invested more roughly $80 million to install cell sites around Miami during the Super Bowl to enhance its 5G networks. And the NFL wants to have 5G infrastructure installed in at least 24 of its stadiums this season.

Anderson said the league is "trying to figure out the best solution that could bring fans in through Verizon and some of their 5G experiences."

Anderson also mentioned that the NFL is engaged "lots of discussions" with tech firms for temperature screening devices. The Baltimore Ravens have already purchased devices from a company called Seek Thermal to use around its training facility.

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