NFL Teams Learning the Xs and Os of Mobile Deployment

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One of the cruel but critical rituals of running an NFL franchise happens every summer, when assistant coaches run around to the players who have just been cut from their team and retrieve their top-secret, team-issued playbooks. But that won’t be an issue for the Cincinnati Bengals this year. Someone from IT will do the dirty work of scrubbing their playbook clean with a simple keystroke.

That’s because the Bengals are on a fast-growing list of NFL teams making mobile technology a central element of daily operations. More franchises are ditching dead-tree playbooks in favor of custom apps they can call up on an iPad. Instead of pages of pre-snap formations and zone-blocking schemes they now have interactive, swipe- and search-able, video-embedded and annotated digital plays. Beyond that, these entrepreneurially oriented organizations are showing any business some ways to make a smart mobility program work.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Geoff Smith, a technology consultant who spent 25 years at Procter and Gamble before working for the Bengals, and who led the team’s iPad rollout. “In the corporate world you don’t always get that close — you lower costs around the edges, but don’t necessarily drive the actual product. You figure out what’s core to your business, and figure out how technology can support that.”

Time Saver for Managers

In the past, playbooks were huge, heavy binders that ran up to 1,000 pages long – full of play diagrams, scouting reports, and itineraries – that took time to both draw up and disseminate to the players. Now, they’re all digitally searchable and updated every time the coach draws up a new play and drops it into his players’ folder. That, in turn, saves countless hours for the coaching staff.

Following the lead of some other early adopters (such as Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the Bengals are providing players and coaches with 120 team-bought iPads, which have access to a digital, searchable, and remotely update-able playbook run by an app from PlayerLync, a Colorado-based provider of technology tools for sports teams.

“Our coaches are here until 10 p.m. or midnight every night working on plays,” says Michael Kayes, the team’s director of technology. “Now, they can push [new plays] out to the players’ iPad, and they’ll get the updates, even if they’re at home playing Call of Duty. … That’s 12 hours of difference, so that’s a huge upgrade.”

Custom Content Distribution

The ease of sending plays out is great, but digital playbooks offer an even more important benefit: the ability to embed video cut-ups from prior games or practices right into the play designs. In the past, video cut-ups were burned onto DVDs and handed out – a time-consuming, expensive ritual.

Smith, who has served as a technology consultant for the team for several years, says that giving players remote, anytime access to digital video mash-ups of an upcoming opponent or of their own plays is the most exciting part of the move.

“[In the past] the prevailing protocol was that virtually no team would release videos of its own practices,” Smith says, “even to their own players. Teams were afraid that if those DVDs got out, they’d have a problem. But now since we have this tight security, we plan to make today’s practice available [to players] by the end of the day — that’s something to study that players never had before.”

Smart, Fast Set-Up

Kayes says that while the team is ecstatic about the digital playbook’s potential, it hasn’t necessarily been an easy switch. The process of purchasing the devices, setting up the necessary infrastructure in the team’s headquarters, and getting the app perfected, was completed in a few months – a compressed time frame for any company, let alone one with a tiny IT department like a sports team.

Kayes says beefing up the stadium’s Wi-Fi network so it could handle the load of 100 iPads simultaneously downloading five or six gigabytes of video daily was one of the biggest challenges they faced. The team also set up 96 mobile charging stations around the office and got extension cords for every meeting- and classroom after hearing reports about Tampa Bay players forgetting to charge their iPads.

The requirement that the iPad program come together so quickly meant that the team opted to choose an existing app to handle the playbook program rather than build one in-house. They lucked out, Smith says, in that PlayerLync was still in the process of finalizing its program when the team approached it, and so was open to suggestions from the coaches and scouts about additional features or user-experience notes.

Military-Grade Security

Smith says the team has taken several steps to ensure that the team’s sensitive data doesn’t wind up in the wrong hands – an important concern for any business, but especially a football team. (A few years ago the New England Patriots were punished for filming their opponents’ practices to get a look at the plays they were running.) The team outfitted iPads with a device-management product from Airwatch; GPS location information to find lost or stolen devices; remote lock, password reset, and remote swipe capabilities; plus a stiff, and clearly delineated internal policy on appropriate and inappropriate use.

Kayes says that while the team initially considered a sort of BYOD approach to the playbook app, it ultimately chose to hand out corporate-liable devices and lock them down with strict security measures. The team-issued iPad is Wi-Fi-only, and is unable to connect to Safari, Twitter, Facebook, or any other app. It is quite literally a playbook and nothing else. The coaches’ devices have more options, including the ability to go online. ”Some other clubs are trying to be more flexible,” Kayes says. “They think if the players use it as a personal thing, they’ll be more likely to carry it all the time. We’re erring on the side of safety, and limiting the ability to access the Internet, and to install other apps. We figured it’s easier to open things up down the road than it is to take those [privileges] away from them.”

Smith acknowledges that the locked-down team iPads weren’t ideal, but calls it the best solution for the time being. ”That was a concession – a reality – and it made things simpler for now,” he says. “It seems silly to say [players] have a personal iPad and a work iPad, but a year ago, they had a personal iPad and a monstrous three-ring binder. What’s more important is that these iPads give them more information than they had before.”

Ultimately, a Better Product

In any business, profits make up the bottom line; in the NFL, that derives pretty directly from wins and losses.  Smith says that an IT project like this has been exciting because it’s affecting something that’s at the absolute core of a football team: the plays it runs. ”A year from now, there’ll only be a few teams that aren’t doing this,” Smith says. ”This is a big deal. And for the 2012 season, I believe this’ll make a huge change in how well-prepared our players are going to be on Sundays. And really, we’re just getting started.”

More: Ten Apps to Kick-Start Your Mobility Plan.

Top image via Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.

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