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Photo via Microsoft.
Photo via Microsoft.

The Microsoft Surface is becoming a mainstay on NFL sidelines.

If you’ve watched an NFL game during the past two years, you may have noticed players and coaches using Microsoft’s tablet during games to review past plays, replacing the traditional printed paper black-and-white images.

The upcoming 2016-17 NFL season marks the third year of Surface integration, made possible thanks to the 5-year, $400 million sponsorship deal Microsoft signed with the NFL in 2013.

This season, Microsoft is equipping teams with a custom-made ruggedized version of the Surface Pro 4, the company’s newest tablet, that features improvements like a better display, lighter material, more powerful batteries, faster processing, and more.

Jeff Tran, Microsoft’s Director of Sports Marketing and Alliances, told GeekWire this week that his company has been pleased with the adoption by players and coaches, two years after first debuting its tablet on the sidelines. While some coaches are still wary of the new technology, the Surface is certainly no longer a novelty but perhaps a requirement for many teams.

“More and more players and coaches are using it every game, and not only using it, but using it in really critical moments,” Tran said. “You’ll see it within the 2-minute warning, or in the fourth quarter. It’s becoming part of the game.”

On the tablet, images from each play — on offense, defense, and special teams — are labeled, with the ability to make annotations on photos with the Surface Pen. Players and coaches can “favorite” specific screenshots that they want to bookmark. They can also use a whiteboard feature to draw up plays.
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Tran went as far as saying that “the Surface on the sideline is the greatest technology integration in sports.”

Jeff Tran.
Jeff Tran.

“It’s because of the authentic use and because consumers can actually go buy a Surface,” Tran said. “I can’t really think of another piece of technology that professional athletes are using to actually hone their craft in the game, that is a better example than the Surface.”

You can expect even more usage of the devices by players and coaches when they can access instant video replays. Teams are testing the video functionality this preseason — they did so during last year’s preseason, too — but the NFL’s Competition Committee wants more time to approve the new feature.

“We are ready with a solution, and the NFL has a solution,” Tran said. “We’ll continue to test it and it’s in the hands of the NFL to implement it during the regular season.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told GeekWire in May that the video streaming technology is “game-ready.” But he noted that “there was a suggestion among the clubs that coaching staffs wanted to spend more time exploring the competitive impact of including video on the Surface tablets.”

That speaks to how much of an impact this new technology can have on the outcomes of games, and how much the Surface is now embedded in the NFL world. Tran said the Surface has become “kind of culturally significant,” similar to a Gatorade bath or Nike uniforms — a branded product or image that football fans recognize in an instant. The tablet will even appear in the newest Madden NFL game.

“The fact that 200 million Americans can see this every week being used in such a meaningful capacity … I strongly believe it is the greatest sports technology integration for consumers,” Tran said. “We are proving that week in and week out.”

The use of the Surface in the NFL was designed to replace printed paper black and white images of plays. (GeekWire file)

But it hasn’t been all gravy for Microsoft, which endured several NFL Surface-related marketing headaches during the past two seasons.

In 2014, commentators referred to the Surface as an “iPad-like tool.” One month later, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler called the devices “knockoff iPads.”

The following year during the 2015 season opener, Al Michaels mistakenly called the Surface an “iPad” on national television.

Then there was a server power issue during a Monday Night Football game last season that kept players and coaches from utilizing the tablet. One month later, network problems caused a similar malfunction during the closely-watched AFC Championship in January.

But the NFL said both instances weren’t caused by the Surface tablets themselves. Microsoft even said in January that not a single issue had been reported related to the tablet itself over the past two seasons.

Still, that didn’t keep the critics quiet.

“A $400 million marketing deal struck with the NFL in 2013 has most visibly delivered nothing but embarrassing press for the company’s Surface tablet,” Mashable wrote earlier this year.

We’ll see if Microsoft can avoid these types of problems this season, at a time when other leagues are adopting similar technology solutions — the MLB, for example, inked a deal with Apple this year to let managers use iPads in the dugouts.

“We’ve come a long way from 2013,” Tran said.

Tran noted that Microsoft is pleased not only with the Surface usage on the field, but off of it, too. Teams are using the tablet for scouting and playbook reviews, and also front office-related business tasks.

“Every NFL team is using the Surface off the field in some capacity or another,” he said.

Microsoft, which works on other NFL-related projects for devices like the Xbox and HoloLens, also this week debuted new Type Covers that consumers can purchase for their Surface Pro 4 and Pro 3 with officially-licensed logos from all 32 NFL teams, another extension of Microsoft’s relationship with the NFL. These won’t be on the sidelines this season, but fans can buy the cover for $160.

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In Microsoft’s most recent quarterly earnings report, Surface revenue increased $76 million, or 9 percent, to $920 million. The Surface competes with other tablets like Apple’s iPad Pro; Microsoft debuted a new advertisement this week taking aim at Apple and touting the computer-like qualities of the Surface.

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