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NFL exec discusses improving in-game experience

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Posted Aug. 03, 2012 @ 3:47 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

NFL executive vice president of business ventures and CFO Eric Grubman has been with the league since 2004 and has held his current titles since 2006. His job responsibilities are many, but he is one of the executives in charge of helping the league improve the in-game experience for fans at the 32 stadiums, a top mandate of commissioner Roger Goodell amid sinking attendance numbers.

Although the league is far from in trouble, the numbers — overall attendance is down 4.5 percent since the 2007 season and full season-ticket packages now are available on the majority of the teams’ official websites — suggest a trend the league isn’t fond of.

Strong TV contracts, which will guarantee the NFL a windfall of nearly $28 billion through the 2022 season, will keep the league financially unassailable, it would appear.

But the league has sought new ways to reverse the flagging attendance trend and keep fans from simply choosing to stay home and watch NFL games on their myriad sources of entertainment through local and digital TV options, plus the incredible array of online supplements to football entertainment.

Pro Football Weekly spoke to several current and former season-ticket holders about the ways they wanted to see the NFL’s in-game experience changed — and their concerns will be outlined in part two of this feature on Monday. But we took a lot of what they told us and asked the NFL what it is doing to improve the product at games.

In a wide-ranging interview about the ways the NFL is seeking to reverse the trend and improve the in-game experience, Grubman discussed with PFW the league’s efforts to improve connectivity at the stadiums, the new under-the-hood referee feeds at games, improved fan experience and other challenges the NFL faces.

“It’s an enormous opportunity, and we’ve got to get it right,” Grubman told PFW.

Here’s the full transcript:

PFW: What changes to the in-game experience entering this season are you most excited about?

EG: I think that two things this season that can have a positive impact are the content offerings — some of which are new this season, some of which are two to three years old and are starting to get resonance — that’s one bucket. Another bucket is connectivity. Let me come back to connectivity.

In the content bucket, you have the (new) under-the-hood feed that the replay official sees, which is simultaneously available to the clubs to put up on their video board. So that’s a unique offering; I am not anticipating that feed going to television.

The reason we are giving it to fans at the stadium is that fans at home are treated to many, many different camera angles and an analyst analyzing those camera angles. The fan at the stadium has essentially nothing to look at due to our rules and due to the fact there is not a bunch of analysts giving their take on what’s going on.

To give the fan the access to that feed is essentially going to let the fan have a window into the referee’s mind as to what’s important. What is it specifically that they are looking at? As you know, the fan — sometimes a call is made on a technical issue, whether it’s inbounds or out of bounds, whether it’s a bobble occurring in the hands at the time the foot comes down, which may be more important than whether the foot is down or not. That’s what that camera will be isolating on and that’s very exciting for the fan to see.

So that gives you an idea of where we’d like to head with this, to give the fan that type of content that you see that is so unique. Prior years were stats in a box, highlights in a box, 'Red Zone' feed — all the sorts of things that can make the in-game experience very rich, if they are available, are being put in the stadiums, which can be accessed by the fans.

PFW: Just a quick follow-up. You said you don’t anticipate the networks using the replay feed in their broadcasts. To be clear, do you mean that they won’t be showing, frame for frame, what the stadium fans see? Or that the footage will be different? I was always of the belief that the officials were going off the network footage for their replays.

EG: Yes, we’re not anticipating giving this under-the-hood feed directly to networks. That doesn’t mean they can’t put their cameras on the video board. You think about it from the network standpoint, during that time they typically are having a television timeout; they also have an analyst who is highly knowledgeable giving their many takes about the officiating. They are treating the television viewer to that analysis, as well as to various camera angles.

That’s really a different opportunity that the broadcaster has than the in-stadium opportunity of what the fan has. The fan can be looking at the ref on the box, looking at the coach on the sidelines and looking at the video board — it’s just a different experience, which is why we are making it available in the stadiums and not for television.

The footage that the networks show is the same as what the replay officials see. But what the replay officials choose to look at may be different from what they choose to show on television. It’s almost as if you were at home with your DVR — you can fast-forward, rewind, play it slowly, whatever you want.

PFW: You mentioned connectivity earlier. In speaking to several fans — many of them current or recent season-ticket holders — it was fascinating to hear how many of them mentioned how important improved mobile connection and Wi-Fi capability was to them.

EG: In regard to connectivity, it’s one thing to have great stats, great replays, great highlights, data, fantasy (information) available in the stadium. It’s quite another to make sure that somebody can connect to it. So we’ve got this big push on at the league level and at the club level to increase the bandwidth and improve the ability to connect to it. Along those lines, we have six or more stadiums that are going to be offering an integrated system between DAS, the Distributed Antenna System, which is for cell-phone traffic, and a Wi-Fi system, which is for Internet traffic.

We’ve had the DAS systems growing, and these are made-up numbers, but you’ll understand what I am trying to say here — a DAS with 10 antennas is not as capable as one with 20 or 30 or 500. The more antennas you get and the more carefully they are engineered, the physics of what the signal-gathering strength is and how the interference exists between phones and antennas that are in proximity, generally, the better the engineering, the better the coverage.

For Internet access, the bandwidth quickly overwhelms the cell-phone capability. Therefore, a Wi-Fi system for Internet connection, it turns out that in our smartphone world — and I don’t know how technically adept you are — the user never knows whether the smartphone is using the Wi-Fi system or the DAS on a cellphone call or (using) the Internet.

Unless it makes you pay for access for one, or it gives you a code, if they don’t do that, your smartphone is capable of bouncing between the two. So, when the traffic via the cell system goes way up, the (switch) can seamlessly be done by the Wi-Fi system. And if you don’t have that Wi-Fi system, it’s like plumbing — everyone gets backed up if everyone flushes at the same time.

But there’s more than one way to put in DAS and Wi-Fi. So we have six or more clubs that have various methods of DAS plus Wi-Fi this year, some of which were in before this year. We did this at Lucas Oil Stadium; we worked with the municipality, the (telecom company), we did an integrated system at Lucas Oil, and it worked well. The Patriots have had a really good DAS and a small Wi-Fi, and they’re now doing a bigger Wi-Fi, but they are not doing it by the telecom company. They are having it done by a Wi-Fi engineering firm, and they will integrate the system themselves.

At the Meadowlands, they are doing an integrated system installation and upgrade by the telecom company. New Orleans is doing an integrated DAS and Wi-Fi, albeit in a different system and in a dome. Dallas has an integrated system. There’s one more I am forgetting off the top of my head (Carolina's Bank of America Stadium).

But there are six or more (teams), and our objectives in doing this are that we can test these systems under game stress, learning from that and getting it out to the rest of the clubs and our technology partners so we can improve conditions.

PFW: It sounds like this issue was at or near the top of fans’ concerns about improving stadium conditions.

EG: You are correct. It is the top. And we have been working on this for a couple of years, but frankly, the technology was not there at the time to do this. And the technology last year was not as good as this year, and I dare say the technology will be changing rapidly over the next five years.

We’ve got to do the best we can to increase the connectivity while being cautious to not make adjustments that would limit our ability to get to the next level the next year and the year after that.

PFW: What are the various ways the league polls its fans and gleans that information? How do you collect data of what they most value in terms of improving their experience at a game — both on the club and league level?

EG: The answer to that question is yes, it’s done (by) clubs — some of them do it on an informal basis. We, as a league, do it on a formal basis. We have a fan-tracking research and analysis; when I say tracking, we’re not so much tracking their activities, but we are asking them what they are doing, why they are doing it, why they care. We do this throughout the year to develop trends, and we get very good feedback for us.

We also find that the (telecom companies) also do it in this area, other technologies do it, (media) do it. So we get a lot of sources, and it all points to the same thing and that’s connectivity is very important, but you have to get it right. You can’t do an installation and stop. You have to go through with it the right way.

PFW: Some NFL cities have 10-year waiting lists for season tickets and sell out every game; others are struggling to fill their stadiums on a weekly basis. Are you finding that there are not necessarily universal concerns or challenges league-wide, but rather that there are some issues that are unique to one particular team or a handful of teams only?

EG: That’s very fair to say. I think you’ve put it well. I might actually shade it, though — and this is not just ‘league speak’ — rather than say there are issues from one area to another, I might say there are different opportunities. The reason I am parsing words is that there is tremendous upside in this. We’re not looking at this as the glass is half-empty.

People are going to the stadiums. We’re talking about … people are saying we’re having trouble selling tickets. You look at the big picture, and the overall percentage of the seats that are sold, I am not sure that there is a parallel in the entertainment world.

So, what we look at carefully is the trend. The trend is telling us that either: 1) people are having an ever-better experience at home, so on the margins, maybe there’s a little choice to stay home; 2) In some places, the traffic is getting tougher. There’s the price-value relationship, there’s the connectivity …

And you’re right: The opportunity is different in every place. I’d say opportunity far outweighs the challenge. New fans want to go to the games. What you have to do is give them enough of the reasons to want to go to the games, as compared to wanting to go to something else.

We’re really encouraged by the fact that if they decide not to go to the game, they’re tuning into the game and not choosing a different activity. That’s good for the league and the clubs. It’s an enormous opportunity, and we’ve got to get it right.

PFW: What do you think the result will be with the more liberal blackout restrictions this season? What is the ultimate goal here?

EG: Well, the ultimate goal was not really pointed at blackouts. We don’t have that many blackouts. Before this new policy, we had (fewer) blackouts than we did 10 years ago, than we did 20 years ago. This is much more about flexibility to the clubs in managing their manifests, and the manifests have to do with their obligations on our sharing rules, how they market their tickets and to whom they market their tickets.

Sometimes, somebody is going to have a particular area of design challenge. I’ll make this up, but there could actually be one area of the stadium where you cannot get connectivity. Why have that group of tickets in the manifest? Take them out (of the equation) — why put a fan in there and have them be unhappy? Why create a sharing obligation on a seat that you really don’t want to sell?

This is a much more flexible way for clubs to be able to deal with their manifests, particularly so that they are not locked into a single manifest throughout the year. I would actually argue that this is fan-friendly because you have a lot of clubs that actually want to reduce their manifests but don’t want to give up the opportunity available to fans to for that marquee game.

Think of it in these terms: Why are clubs building standing rooms? Does somebody prefer to stand?

PFW: Of course not.

EG: No, they are building standing rooms to put more fans in their stadiums to be there for that big game. I look at the manifest change as a flexible tool to allow standing room. I don’t think of it as a blackout tool.

PFW: Has the NFL done research and found out if there is a correlation between building new stadiums and improved attendance?

EG: I have not seen anything studied in those terms.

PFW: Tying the last two things together, do you think having more flexible blackout rules maybe encourages teams building or considering building new stadiums — and building more capacity with standing room, as you talked about — to increase their capacities, maybe in the way Dallas did a few years ago?

EG: No. I don’t think so. First of all, this is not a new blackout policy. Out blackout policy hasn’t changed. I don’t mean to be —

PFW: Earlier you had said the words "new policy" in regard to the blackout rules. I was just going off of what you said and the fact that clubs were offered a different plan they could opt into this summer.

EG: No, you’re the first person who has struck that theme. I spend a lot of time with clubs and municipalities on stadiums. No one has ever voiced that, ‘Gee, I could build a bigger stadium with more flexibility.’ I don’t think that’s the trend.

People are really wanting to right-size their stadiums for the market that they have. They recognize that having an 80,000-person stadium where the right size is 65 (thousand) is a serious mistake to the revenue-sharing issues, the blackout issues. Let me ask you: Would you rather be going with your four friends in the 65,000-seat stadium that’s filled with 65,000 fans? That’s choice A. Or would you rather go with 65,000 and not selling at 80 (thousand)?

PFW: I choose A. Assuming my four friends and I can all get tickets together for a reasonable price, sure.

EG: That’s right. Now flip that back to the club owner. Flip that back to the player. Flip that back to the broadcaster. That is what is exciting. I think that people who are building stadiums are really trying to right-size it for the market, and when they right-size it for the market, then, of course, they are optimizing their revenue.

I don’t see it at all where people are doing their calculations based on the blackout policy. It’s never been in the lexicon in the years I have talked to people about stadiums.

PFW: Another concern of fans that I spoke to was unruly behavior, fans getting out of control, drinking too much, people feeling threatened by wearing opposing teams’ jerseys, etc. — I know this also applies to NFL security, but how do you create a safer environment or a more family-friendly environment? I had many people tell me they never would take their teenage and younger children to an NFL game.

EG: We are never going to stop focusing on this. We don’t ever think the clubs are going to stop focusing on this. This was the very reason we put in our fan code of conduct, an enforceable policy related to these things. In addition to the code of conduct, we have the clubs reviewed openly every year. We give the clubs feedback on what is happening and what the practices are, and we are seeing all over, in different markets, they are finding ways to attack these problems and come up with solutions and show results.

It’s not to say that we have gotten to the point where the stadium environment is sedate or doesn’t present any of these problems. It is to say that we are improving, and improving at a good pace, but we are not going to stop. It’s really important that the stadium environment — from parking lot to parking lot — from the time you get in to the time you leave, it’s really important that everyone can enjoy it.

PFW: One other big chorus from fans I spoke to was cost, naturally — but it wasn’t always the cost of the ticket that offended people the most. It often was buying an $8 beer or paying $30 for on-site parking. I know this is controlled by the individual teams, but is there a way to rectify these issues or cap these costs somehow without clubs losing that revenue?

EG: No. The club, just like any other entertainment operator, has to understand there is a tradeoff between revenue and the perception of value. I don’t think that is an oversimplified statement for you or for me. I am agreeing with it; there’s sort of a tipping point, and clubs have to find that.

I will say this: I think in the years leading up to the mid-2000s, there was a period of time in America and in sports and in entertainment that maybe entertainment operators didn’t have to look at that as carefully as (they do) in the environment we currently have.

I can tell you that clubs are looking at this and they do not want to be in that category of entertainment operators that are labeled as bad price value. Now, that doesn’t mean we are going to have a league policy because these things are best left up to the clubs. But it does mean that they are going to be looking at this, they are looking at this, and they are going to make sure that their fans — the fans that come to the stadiums — see it as a good price-value combination.

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