Whether it be on the sidelines during an NFL game, on the track during a NASCAR race, or on the TV via advertisements, sports fans have likely seen Microsoft’s branding or products appear in one form of another during the past few years.
That’s because the tech giant is making a big investment in the sports world, highlighted by the 5-year, $400 million contract it signed with the NFL in 2013. Microsoft has since inked deals with the PGA Tour, NASCAR, Real Madrid, and many other organizations.
While reporting from Atlanta at Microsoft Ignite last month, GeekWire spoke with two long-time Microsoft execs — Chief of Marketing Chris Capossela and Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate Vice President, Windows and Devices Group — to learn more about the company’s philosophy behind these sports-related partnerships.
The general idea for Microsoft is two-fold: To help leagues and teams improve their business and strategy with Microsoft products and services, and to gain marketing exposure for its technology.
About three years into the NFL deal, Microsoft seems pleased with what’s transpired. As highlighted by a Microsoft News Center story this week, more and more players and coaches are using a customized Surface tablet on the sidelines to view images of past plays. This is the third year of Surface integration on the sidelines, and if you watch an NFL game on TV or in person, you’ll notice players and coaches huddled around the tablets during breaks.
It has all but replaced the black-and-white printouts, though some still like the traditional format. For example, while reporting about the technology at Levi’s Stadium last month, I noticed a San Francisco 49ers coach who was using a combination of the paper printouts and the tablet:
Still, with each game, it seems like the Surface is becoming the de-facto way to review past plays.
“To have people like Drew Brees or other players say ‘wow, this really changes the way we play the game on the sidelines’ — that is without a doubt a big success,” said Capossela.
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.
Yet despite what appeared to be a PR nightmare for Microsoft, it may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
“I actually think it has been beneficial,” Mehdi said. “The whole controversy of, ‘oh wait, it’s not one of those other devices, it’s a Surface?’ People wondered what the controversy was, and realized there was a Windows device on the sidelines. In a way, it’s almost better than if it had just been smooth.”
You can expect even more usage of the devices by players and coaches when they can access instant video replays. Teams tested 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.
The NFL deal goes beyond just the Surface, which is also being used for business-related purposes by teams and the league itself. The Xbox One, for example, is the “official game console of the NFL” — football fans have probably seen an Xbox-related NFL advertisement or two.
Looking ahead, Microsoft is also developing fantasy football bot that utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning — a vertical where the company is investing heavily. Microsoft unveiled the bot in Atlanta last week when CEO Satya Nadella brought out NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders on stage.
There are also some cool potential sports-related applications with Microsoft’s augmented reality headset, HoloLens. Earlier this year, the company showed a video that offered a glimpse of how HoloLens can be used by sports fans while they watch a game on TV.
Mehdi said that in the long-term, Microsoft has “a lot of optimism for what HoloLens can do.” He said the device could potentially let fans see the perspective of players during a game.
“People yell at their TV and wonder why Russell Wilson threw to a receiver that was covered,” Mehdi explained. “But [with the HoloLens] you could see from his vantage point and understand why he couldn’t see the defender. It brings another level of interactivity.”
Caposella called the NFL deal a “great adventure” and said the focus on how the league can use Microsoft’s technology “has gotten much deeper than when we first started.”
“That was our hope,” he said.
Caposella said that while the NFL partnership started with a sponsorship focus, Microsoft’s deal with Real Madrid was geared more toward technology — namely, how it could help the soccer club do a better job with running its business operations and connecting with fans.
“Those are the best models for us: when someone really wants to reimagine their own company on our technology, and then there are some joint benefits where we can talk about what they are doing,” Caposella explained.
The deal with Real Madrid is similar to what Microsoft is doing with the PGA Tour. GeekWire reported from the Tour Championship last month in Atlanta and saw how the tour is using Microsoft technology in a variety of ways on the course.
Mehdi said that Microsoft is “learning as we go” with its sports-related deals.
“We’re finding how our overall platform across Azure, Windows, and Office can help these sports teams,” he said. “They tend to be very data analytics-focused. The data is the lifeblood, and the ability to do that analysis in real-time … I think we do have a unique value proposition.”
Caposella also noted that sports teams and leagues are starting to look closely at how technology can enhance the viewing experience for fans at home. It’s something that Los Angeles Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talked about at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit in July.
“Live sports is one of the last places where people will really tune in — they want to see their Seahawks live and they want to see their Yankees live,” Caposella said. “Sports teams are doing everything they can to think about how they can reimagine the fan experience and technology is a huge part of that.”
Live-streaming has been a hot topic in the sports world, particularly as Twitter streams 10 Thursday Night Football games this season. With its Azure cloud computing platform, Microsoft could potentially use its technology to provide some sort of streaming service.
“We are always open to finding if there are partnerships there,” Mehdi said. “One of the nice things now, because of the partnerships we have, we are always in the conversations with all the various sports leagues. If there is something where we feel like we can add a unique value, we’ll do that. You never know.”
Beyond its lucrative deals with the NFL, PGA Tour, NASCAR, and Real Madrid, Microsoft also utilizes its Bing technology to make sports-related predictions — it inked a deal with the NCAA for March Madness-related picks earlier this year, for example. In addition, the company pays its hometown professional soccer clubs to have its branding on player jerseys. There are also plans to invest in eSports.
“We would like to build a fanbase and earn fans with our products,” Mehdi noted. “Sports teams have this fan concept, so there’s a little bit of a nice overlap there.”