Surface Protector: How Microsoft’s deal with the NFL became a marketing boon for its tablets

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett reviews a play on a Microsoft Surface tablet. (Photo GeekWire / Kevin Lisota)

In retrospect, Microsoft’s decision to launch a six-figure sponsorship deal with the National Football League in 2013 was a shrewd marketing move. Catch an NFL game today and you’ll likely spot coaches and players using Surface tablets to review past plays. Millions of people watching football in the fall are exposed to Microsoft devices that have become a lasting part of the 102-year-old league.

But when the deal is signed, it’s a big risk. And Xbox, more than Surface, is at the center.

However, the partnership ultimately changed football forever and perhaps saved Microsoft’s tablet brand in the process. It now serves as a marketing case study for a successful sports technology partnership.

“It was a good story,” said Brian Hall, a former Microsoft executive who helped lead the Surface business when the NFL deal began. “It’s a great result.”

Earlier this NFL season, Hall shared behind the scene details of the agreement. “This has got EVERY chance to fail along the way!” he tweeted.

Tom Cable, a former Seattle Seahawks coordinator, shows lineers a play earlier in a game. (GeekWire/Kevin Lisota file photo)

Deal, worth it report $400 million in 5 years – and then extend in 2020 — originally set to be for Xbox, according to Hall. Microsoft wants to use the partnership to showcase how people can use their Xbox to watch live matches and access fantasy football stats.

“For fans, NFL on Xbox will provide the most complete way to enjoy live football by bringing the first fully integrated fantasy football experience to TV, exclusively through Xbox,” said Don. Mattrick, then president of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, said in a press release at the time.

That vision – using Xbox to watch live football – never materialized. Xbox Series X console | Latest S can’t even connect to cable or satellite receiver.

The Surface, meanwhile, is a much different story – but the first years on the field didn’t go smoothly.

‘iPad-like tool’

After the deal was announced, it took a year before the tablet was ready for use in the game. Microsoft had to develop a custom, rugged, weatherproof version of the “tablet computer” that went public in 2012. The NFL’s competition committee also had to approve public use. this technology.

It was a rough start, to say the least. In 2014, commenters mention Surface as an “iPad-like tool.” A month later, midfielder Jay Cutler called devices “Counterfeit iPad”. Bill Belichick and Aaron Rodgers made headlines for throwing tablets (the device can withstand such force, by the way).

Then, in 2016, the New England Patriots were unable to access their tablets during a game against the Denver Broncos.

Column headings from Chicago Tribune, from that year: Microsoft Surface, NFL marketing failed. At a cost of just $400 million.

The deal turned out to be a marketing disaster. But those fumbles could be a blessing in disguise for Microsoft.

Everyone is talking about Surface. It gave the company an opportunity to educate the public about its new hardware.

The timing of this is crucial because the Surface brand “needs to work,” says Hall. Sales of some of the first models also did not meet expectations to Microsoft’s challenger to Apple’s iPad.

Eventually, NFL announcers stopped calling the tablet the iPad. Microsoft continues to refine the device, adding new features like real-time collaboration between the coach’s booth and the sideline. Teams can now access images within 2-3 seconds of play.

It can be said that Microsoft is still playing the game. And it paid off well.

Microsoft’s head of sports marketing, James Bernstrom, said: “We had persistence. “We want to get it done.”

Game changer

Gone are the days of sending stills on the wire from the coach’s counter to the pitch – yes, they actually did – or waiting for precious minutes for the printer to generate black and white thermal images for review. previous plays with three -ring binders.

“This device is an important tool that allows us to do our job in the best possible way. It’s perfect,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said in an NFL video published earlier this year showed how the tablet helped players make important changes to the game.

Microsoft currently delivers 269 NFL events a year with more than 2,000 Surface devices and 170 Windows servers installed in 30 stadiums.

Meanwhile, the popularity and viewership of the NFL continues to grow. The Thanksgiving 2021 games posted their highest viewership numbers since 1998, with an average of 29.7 million fans watching, up 9% from last year.

Surface was even featured in Microsoft’s Super Bowl commercial two years ago.

Bernstrom said of this partnership: “It is huge for the Surface brand.

Without the NFL, the Surface brand might not have existed much longer, according to Hall.

“The NFL deal probably prevented silly things from happening,” he said.

The Surface family has evolved from just a hybrid tablet to include laptops, desktops, whiteboards, and even dual screen Android device. It became a key part of Microsoft’s business, using computers, tablets, and Surface devices as a way for the company to advance new form factors in the industry, providing a blueprint for developers. Other hardware manufacturers followed suit.

The Surface-NFL agreement also lays the groundwork for a number of sports-related partnerships between Microsoft and other leagues including NBA, Visiting PGA, La Liga, and more.

So what’s next for the Surface sideline? There are a few promising possibilities.

It can take time – for NFL coaches to accept and adopt in-game technology can be a slow process – but instant video playback on a tablet would be a huge step up from the original picture. still image.

Advanced real-time data like Next Generation Stats at the fingertips of a coach can add a dynamic new layer to in-game strategy.

One thing is for sure, Surfaces are here to stay.

“We are always thinking about what could happen next,” says Bernstrom. “And with our technology, the sky is the limit.”

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