New NFL Technology Brings Fans Closer to the Action

The National Football League is often hailed as one of the most technologically savvy sports operations in the world. To keep up with the demands of those involved in the game and those watching at home, the league will be testing a myriad of new technologies this season, from a new type of game clock that keeps the refs in the loop to its first 3-D broadcast.

The league's tech goals this year, as in other years, are clear: boosting the fans' experience by getting them deeper inside the game.

"The closer you can get to the game, the more you feel a part of it," said John Chambers, chairman and chief executive of Cisco, during a recent webcast press conference. “There are many game changers on the horizon."

NFL embraces 3-D

The NFL often gives technologies a test run during the preseason; for instance, referees' use of TV instant replay to review calls debuted during a preseason game in the 1990s. During this preseason, the NFL launches its first 3-D broadcast Thursday, Sept. 2, when the New York Giants host the New England Patriots in the Giants' new stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Although this won’t be the first 3-D telecast by a professional league – Major League Baseball and the FIFA World Cup already have tested the three-dimensional waters – it marks the start of a long experiment by the NFL involving several stadiums.

The 3-D game is being carried subscribers of Verizon FiOS TV in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Viewers need a 3-D TV set, 3-D glasses and a high-definition set-top box to see the special effect.

Working with a company called 3ality Digital to power the telecast, Verizon is using two cameras attached to one rig — one camera for the left eye and one camera for the right eye — to create feeds that are beamed to a truck stationed outside the stadium and are combined to form a 3-D signal.

Ivan Seidenberg, Verizon's chief executive officer, said the New Meadowlands Stadium, which the Giants share with the New York Jets, will be among the NFL stadiums experimenting with 3-D technology in the next few years.

"You will see a lot of 3-D at the New Meadowlands Stadium over the next two to three years – and then you will start to see it pop up more elsewhere," Seidenberg said during a press conference.

What happens at the stadium, he said, "will impact the football viewing experience in the future."

New game clock

The effect of new technologies will also be felt on the field. The NFL has had its eye on the Precision Time System currently used by the National Basketball Association, which allows on-field officials to control the pace of a game with the touch of a button.

Four officials — wearing battery-operated packs attached to their belts — will be able to activate or stop the clock system. They will work in concert with the game clock operator in the football stadium’s booth.

The NFL started testing out a new Precision Time System game clock during four preseason games to increase accuracy and cut back on downtime between plays.

"If we have the potential to time our games with more precision, then we will pursue all avenues, including experimenting with alternate methods to accomplish that goal," Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, told USA Today.

The NFL could roll this out league-wide in the near future, once a full evaluation of the test has been completed.

In-game video

Also debuting this season is a handheld device called FanVision that will allow fans in the stadium to watch the game as if they were back home on the couch. FanVision offers 10 video channels, including multiple camera views, out-of-market games, fan-controlled instant replays, game highlights, comprehensive game statistics, and real-time scores from around the league.

It can be used in the parking lot and inside the stadium only.

The devices — part of a venture owned by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — are currently available for 12 teams, including the Dolphins and Jets. Fans will be charged $200 for the devices.

"This is of great interest because it gives fans access to information they wouldn’t necessarily have while at a stadium," Thad Sheely, executive vice president of finance and stadium development for the Jets, told TechNewsDaily. "It enhances the game that much more for them."

Team tech

The Jets also are trying out new technology in the skybox this season. Team owner Woody Johnson will be testing a touchscreen device to keep track of various game-day operations, such as which concessions and merchandise are selling fast, ticketing information and if there’s a jam in the Meadowlands parking lot.

The touchscreen "command center" — built by design agency Roundarch — is a first for an NFL team.

"Woody loves technology and wanted access to the entire stadium’s data flow in real time to oversee everything that’s happening," Sheely said. "If each game is three hours and there’s only ten games, that gives us only 30 hours of action to get it right for our fans. We don’t want to have any lost opportunities, so having the device at our fingertips is key."

Johnson said the new technology has the potential to revolutionize how NFL teams manage in-game operations in the future.

"The application that Roundarch is developing for us will help us to understand, analyze and then improve the experience each and every time fans come to the stadium and interact with our team," he told TechNewsDaily.

Internet viewing access

To cater to the needs of on-the-go game viewers nationwide, DirecTV is offering its NFL Sunday Ticket package to the online world, giving non-subscribers the chance to watch out-of-market games. Those who want to watch football via a computer or smartphone can pay $350 for access to streaming video of the games and the Red Zone channel.

"In this widget-app-driven world, mobility is the name of the game,"Robert Mercer, a spokesman for DirecTV, said in a telephone interview. "Consumers are demanding more access to entertainment and information wherever they are. As broadband and mobile services continue to increase in popularity, and now with the introduction of new devices like the iPad that provide an even better mobile viewing experience, we expect that trend to continue."

The move follows a year-long test of the service in the New York market.

"We’ll see how we do with this national launch and use that as a strategic guide for 2011 and beyond," Mercer said.