A network’s goal for the NFL home viewer is to bring the stadium experience to the home as best they can. But that objective conflicts with coaches’ concerns for the game at hand and team ownership seeking to build a fan base within—and without—stadium walls. Such was the topic of a panel at the Covington & Burling Sports Media & Technology conference Thursday as NFL team leadership and network execs discussed working together to improve the fan experience.
If viewers—and by extension, network heads—had their way, they’d have full access to locker rooms, huddles, coaches’ strategizing, you name it. But according to Stephen Jones, COO, evp and director, player personnel, Dallas Cowboys, there’s an “inherent resistance from the coaches” who are wary of revealing too much. Their main concerns are leaking strategy to the competition and the interference cameras and equipment might have on play, execs said. “They would just as soon keep everything in a cocoon if they had their druthers,” said Jon Miller, pres, programming, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. The trust between coaches and networks needs to build over time, he said.
However, “more and more of our coaches are seeing the value” of partnerships with networks, said Kansas City Chiefs president Mark Donovan. In smaller regions like Kansas City, the team unites the entire community, he said, which ignites fans’ passion in a unique way. They’re distinctly aware that “they’re in this, too; they have a role to play." And that in turn can be used as an asset, said Donovan. But it’s a challenge to give fans things that they can’t get at the stadium, he added.
“We want to bring the spectacle to the big screen…. And first and foremost entertain,” said Neil Glat, president of the New York Jets. “We’re spending a lot of time on the locker room cam.” He said that coaches prefer to introduce the team as one unit, but fans latch on to individual players. The solution is to have the team come out as a group and also highlight individual intros. Similarly, Donovan focuses on more elaborate player intros via video for at-home fans, which is “a way of engaging them earlier on… We’re stepping towards more and more in-game enhancement that will be fed to network partners…There’s editing you can do. Our fans react immediately to coaches being mic’d up,” he said.
From a network standpoint, anything that can be done to enhance audio will be welcomed with open arms, Miller said. “You want to hear what’s going on on the field, you want to hear collisions,” he said. Yet he understands the concerns, mainly language and, once more, the competition factor. Additionally, what happens during replay is still “a big mystery” for the at-home fan. “We think people want to see what’s going on,” namely the additional information officials review to make the call. But an added consequence to that is that it opens doors to critique the decisions made, said Jones.
Not surprisingly, another thing that’s lost in broadcasting the event is the game’s speed, according to Bill Wanger, evp, programming and research, Fox Sports Media Group. The leagues designate specific areas where the networks can place cameras, and there’s not enough space in his view. Ways Fox Sports is looking to enhance the experience is by placing cameras on the sideline and the goal line, which Wanger anticipates will improve both the in-home and in-stadium experience, and using 4K resolution. The latter hasn’t yet been implemented due to technology and expense, he said, “but we’ll get there.”
In the end, all constituencies have to keep fans in seats at the live games—or none of this works. That means second screen experiences in the stadium should be compelling, but not distracting. So highlighting products like NFL RedZone needs to be done sparingly. “When RedZone takes attention away from the game, you feel it,” said Jones. “You have to pick your spots,” like break times and halftime, he said. Donovan says he gets a lot of feedback to the tune of “don’t mess with the game,” so he, too, uses the product during breaks.
The concern from all this: At one point will staying at home and watching the game trump the live experience? Some say, never. Others might be more compelled to set up camp on the couch. But at least there are a few amenities that in-stadium fans have exclusive access to: concession lines, restroom queues and the mad dash for parking. But wait, the teams have thought of that, too. Pretty soon you’ll get to order from your seat and find the nearest open parking spot, the execs confirmed. The restroom queue? That, they can’t help with.