- The NFL will use Microsoft Teams to let fans virtually attend games.
- Players will be able to see fans on giant screens in the end zone when they score, and fans will be able to celebrate with them.
- The move extends a tech partnership the NFL has had with Microsoft since 2013.
Imagine Patrick Mahomes staring at you after he scores a game-winning touchdown for the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Now picture yourself staring back, as you sit in front of a screen, and then giving Mahomes a virtual high five. That's what'll happen starting with the beginning of the NFL season Thursday when Microsoft launches a new version of its fan cheering sections through its Teams video chat app.
Microsoft describes the NFL version of the cheering section "as virtual mirrors," or LED screens that will appear in each end zone during NFL games, allowing players to celebrate with fans who are not in attendance. (Most NFL teams will play in empty or mostly empty stadiums due to local restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic.) After a team scores, players can gather around the screen to view themselves celebrating with fans in Teams.
The broader collaboration shows how a top sports league is tapping technology to hold compelling live events for large audiences when many people can't attend in person because of the coronavirus.
It's also an extension of Microsoft's technological partnership with the NFL that began in 2013, when the league's coaches and staff started using Microsoft's Surface tablets on the sidelines. Neither the NFL nor Microsoft have commented on how much these deals are worth. The virtual fan cams used during this season's games will also be big exposure for Microsoft's Teams product, which had been growing rapidly even before the pandemic spurred a work-from-home tech boom.
"Part of watching a game on TV is seeing fan reaction," Jeff Teper, the Microsoft corporate vice president in charge of Teams, told CNBC in an interview Wednesday. "This is a chance to make the games more engaging for that TV audience."
The video feeds will also come to TV broadcasts, with fans appearing in windows around a player who scored. Think of it as a digital version of the Lambeau Leap. Teper said the NFL wanted to create "energy for the players in a big stadium, so the players know that they are still playing for real people who care passionately about them."
In a blog post published Thursday, Teper wrote that the cheering screens, called fan mosaics, will appear on big screens throughout stadiums for "key games" — likely those without spectators. Microsoft will provide audio from the feeds to the NFL so the league will create "augmented crowd noise customized for each stadium," Teper wrote.
Microsoft has a similar partnership with the NBA and controls its virtual cheering section for the Disney bubble. Anheuser-Busch occupies the NBA's cheering section sponsorship and will also take the NFL's version, dubbing it the "Bud Light Showtime cam."
With Covid-19 still restricting large gatherings in some states, Microsoft leveraged its partnerships with both leagues to sustain fan engagement and assist NBA and NFL broadcast partners with game presentations.
Leagues study metrics from virtual fan engagement opportunities and monitor changing consumption habits as sports gambling continues to gain traction in the U.S. Also, franchises might need to create new revenue streams if games continue with no fans allowed.
"As demographics and viewing habits change and society becomes more digital in the way they consume information, the venues also have to change," said Bennett Indart, a vice president at NTT Smart World Solutions, an information technology firm.
"And the leagues have to change in terms of how they are serving up that experience," added Indart, whose firm has partnerships with Indianapolis 500 and Tour de France. "I think you're going to find a lot more different ways to view sporting events rather than just going to the venue."
In April, Microsoft worked on the NFL Draft when it rolled out Teams to replicate in-person draft experiences. The NFL scheduled the 2020 draft in Las Vegas, but the event was postponed due to the pandemic and was ultimately held in a virtual setting.
Through working on the draft and NBA projects, Teper said Microsoft learned fans still want to "express themselves" despite not being in physical attendance.
"The potential to show up on television — to show up on a big screen similar to the gameday experience where a camera goes through the stands and put you on the big screen — there is an excitement to that," said James Bernstrom, director of sports and partnerships at Microsoft.
NFL teams will select 30 fans per session to join the fan mosaics and incorporate social media engagements from Twitter.
The Los Angeles Rams is using Teams for scouting and evaluating films of players, Teper said. The company works with teams to make sure players can participate in chats and calls in the Teams software, he said.
It's not so much about maximizing the number of NFL players using Teams each day, though — even though Microsoft likes pointing to increases in daily active users of the application, which is part of the Office 365 bundle for commercial customers.
"If we can help them in more processes, if you will, scouting athletes, working on their promotions, preparing their facilities safely for the next game, we don't have this big push about how many users did the Broncos have yesterday versus today," Teper said.