The National Football League (NFL) has been known to push the technological envelope in professional sports—from stadiums, to player health and safety, and to the fan experience. CES attendees were treated to insights from Michelle McKenna, chief information officer of the National Football League, at a session on Tuesday titled “NFL on the Digital Frontier.” The session was hosted by SportTechie CEO Taylor Bloom, and covered the ways the NFL uses cutting-edge technology to improve the experience for the fans, players, coaches, and owners.
This is McKenna’s eighth year as CIO for the NFL, having previously held similar positions for Disney and Universal Studios. However, as a lifelong diehard football fan, she believes that football fans are the best, and, as such, deserve the very best, and has worked to provide that for them.
She is the NFL’s first CIO, and she had to figure what needed to be changed at the organization as she learned to operate in a different hierarchy than her previous positions. “To do my job, I had to have healthy respect and reverence for the game,” she said. “It all starts with the game. If you keep that in mind, and you work to increase competitiveness and fan engagement, then you will find resistors, but also champions to help push it through.”
One of the biggest changes she brought to the NFL was bringing in the technology teams earlier. “We found that the tech teams were not brought in until the end,” she said. “The last in the chain. We said, ‘Bring us in when you first think of a venue.’ Every company is a tech company now, and you can’t leave it until the end. We are in the beginning of everything now.”
McKenna also stressed the importance of the right sponsors as key to a successful technology deployment. “The way we do amazing things is with great sponsors like Microsoft, Verizon, and AWS. We find a problem that needs to be solved and find a sponsor to make that happen. For example, Wi-Fi in stadiums. We had to convince owners how important it was and we had to find a partner that could help us. We partnered with Verizon and Extreme Networks, and they went to every stadium.”
On the horizon for the NFL is 5G, with the technology being introduced in 16 stadiums this season, and at the upcoming Super Bowl. “You have to be ahead of the devices,” she said. “5G will allow you to immerse yourself in the game in a different way. For example, you can see the virtual yellow line you see at home but not at stadiums. 5G will revolutionize the entire stadium experience, from food and beverage, to in-seat, and ingress and egress.”
When asked to predict where the NFL will be technologically in five years, McKenna replied, “In five years, I hope we are talking about the advancements in player health and safety. Not just our players, but the whole of sports by investing in a deep level of understanding in our players’ health and safety. And that we find new and advanced ways to make sure the game stays as great as it is.”
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