Primal Screens: How Pro Football Is Amping Up Its Game

Pro football is turning to screens—some massive, others on smart phones—to try to keep its fans entertained.

cowboys stadim

At football stadiums today, it’s all about the screens. Photo courtesy of Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision

It’s the time of year when the National Football League gets a little bit smaller.

Sure, the Super Bowl on Sunday is its championship game and more than 100 million people will be watching, but if the outcome isn’t decided in the last two minutes, more people on Monday will be talking about the funniest TV commercials or how Beyonce sang–or didn’t–at halftime or the post-game homage to the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis as he dances off into the sunset.

It’s been this way for a while now. As the spectacle of everything around it has become bigger, what actually happens on the field during the Super Bowl has gotten smaller. And that’s been okay with the league as long as it’s only happened once a year.

But now, with the rise of giant home video screens and the ability to see every scoring play of every game on the NFL’s RedZone network or watch games from different angles on a computer tablet, people running the league and its teams have realized that they need to pump up the stadium experience. What happens on the field, they fear, soon may no longer be enough to keep the customers satisfied.

Hitting the big, big screen

No question that the Dallas Cowboys ratcheted things up in 2009 when they opened, with much hoopla, the new Cowboys Stadium. Not only did it cost more than $1 billion, but hanging 90 feet above the field is an HDTV screen so large–it stretches from 20-yard-line to 20-yard line–that players who are quite massive in real life look like little Lego men moving around below.

Next fall, the Houston Texans will one-up the Cowboys when they unveil their own field-dwarfing video screen, almost 25 percent larger than the one in Dallas. And now even colleges are starting to join the monster screen club. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hardly a football powerhouse, just released plans for a new stadium that will include a video screen 100 yards long.

That’s right, it will be as long as the playing field.

Stand up and cheer

Okay, so we can expect the screens to get bigger and bigger. But some think the stadiums may actually get smaller, or at least there will be fewer seats. Instead, more attention will be paid to where people can stand and what they can do while they’re there.

Here’s how Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of business operations, described a football stadium of the future in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“What if a new stadium we built wasn’t 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room? But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, RedZone and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home.

Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What’s that ticket worth? What’s that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?”

Phoning it in

Other stadium innovations are heading in a different direction. Instead of having the game be only part of a multi-screen, sports bar party experience, they would entertain fans by allowing them to immerse themselves more deeply into the game itself. And they would do it all on smart phones and tablets.

Take the case of the New England Patriots. At the beginning of this past season, they became the first NFL team to deploy a free Wi-Fi network for streaming video in their home field, Gillette Stadium. Fans were able to use mobile apps to watch instant replays on their phones and get real time stats.

And next season, they’ll have more options, ones that take them into the games within the game. There will be apps that allow them to tune into cameras following star players around, apps that let them watch what goes on in their team’s locker room at halftime, apps that listen in on players wearing microphones and eavesdrop on conversations between the coaches and the quarterback (with a 15-second delay, of course).

And there will an app that, by the fourth quarter, could be the most valuable of all. It will tell them where to find the shortest bathroom lines.

Wearing protection

Here are other recent advances in football tech:

  • A red zone you don’t want to enter: Reebok has developed something it calls a Head Impact Indicator. It’s a thin skullcap lined with sensors that can detect dangerous hits to the head. If a yellow or red light goes on, it’s time for a player to head to the sidelines.
  • Now if they could only do something about helmet hair: Meanwhile, engineers at Purdue University say they’ve developed the model for a football helmet that disperses the energy of a smack to the head instead of just protecting a player’s skull. They report that tests with a polymer-lined Army helmet they designed showed it could reduce the G-force a player’s brain absorbed by as much as 50 percent.
  • Like we need another reason to boo the refs: You know that imaginary yellow line you see on TV games to show where the first down marker is? After this season, the NFL is going to take a look at technology that would project a laser line across the field so people in the stadium could see what everyone at home has been seeing for years.
  • Hardbodies the easy way: When they run out on the field Sunday, four San Francisco 49ers players, including both of the team’s quarterbacks, will be wearing a form of customized body armor under their uniforms. It’s called EvoShield and it’s a gel that hardens to fit a player’s body when exposed to air.

Video bonus: Okay, here’s a sneak peek of two Super Bowl ads already being declared winners, a spot about how getting the keys to the family Audi jacks up the testosterone of a boy headed to his high school prom, and a Volkswagen ad using a Minnesotan-turned-Rastafarian to celebrate the power of German engineering.

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