In 2013, Microsoft struck a five-year $400 million deal with the National Football League (NFL) making it "the official sideline technology sponsor of the NFL" and the Surface, "the official tablet of the league." The NFL is now pushing Surface beyond the sidelines.
Microsoft launched Surface in 2012 as the tablet that can replace your laptop against Apple's iPad and a host of Android tablets. The Surface's versatility with a removable keyboard, pen, and context conforming UI, matching the device's tablet and laptop modes, was Microsoft's differentiator.
Still, Microsoft needed mindshare to compete in competitive tablet space. The partnership with the nation's most watched sport was conceived so that millions of viewers with eyes on the sidelines would see Microsoft's Surface in action. The partnership has suffered fumbles along the way but Microsoft passed Surface to key NFL players who, combined with passion and personal projects, are running the brand into the end zones of communities, schools, healthcare and more.
Microsoft Surface: Ready for some football
Where the NFL brought Surface to the mainstream, Surface modernized football by increasing efficiency for coaches, players, and referees on the sidelines.
For instance, the near real-time delivery of color images to the Surface replaced black and white photos that had to be printed, sometimes laminated, bound in a binder and delivered to the sidelines in the past. Additionally, referees can view instant replays right on the field increasing the game's speed.
Microsoft outfitted these "gridiron" Surfaces to endure the hardships of the 8,000-square-foot "offices" they're used in, as Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's corporate vice president, refers to the NFL sidelines. The abilities to endure temperature extremes, rain, glare, drops, and holding a charge for the entire game were all basic expectations.
The on-field NFL Surface are also unable to connect to the internet (since a local network connection for photo and video transfer of the game's plays to the Surface is all that's required for the pre-configured app), can't install additional apps and are all configured the same way to ensure no team has an advantage. Flawless connection to the stadium's network is also essential. Sadly, even the best-laid plays can be fumbled.
Microsoft Surface fumbles
In 2014, NFL commentators calling Surfaces "iPads" or "iPad-like devices" on live TV tackled Microsoft's attempts to establish mindshare against Apple's well-known tablet.
Sadly, TV networks CNN and ABC also allowed the iPad to intercept Surface's time in the limelight. In 2014, CNN anchors were caught on-air using Surfaces as crude stands for their iPads. And last year I reached out to ABC's Laura Hutchinson on Twitter after noticing anchors never interacting with the Surfaces positioned in front of them while the iPads were in constant use. Her response is below.
Hutchinson also added the iPad acts as a backup TelePrompTer and travels throughout the studio.
To add insult to injury, Bill Belichick, coach of this year's Super Bowl losers, the New England Patriots, publically slammed and stopped using Surface in 2016. Belichick said, "I'm going to stick with pictures ... there just isn't enough consistency in the performance of the tablets." Despite these troubles, Microsoft and the NFL extended its five-year partnership into the 2018/2019 season.
NFL and Microsoft bring Surface beyond the sidelines
Microsoft and the NFL have taken their Surface partnership and touched down on the personal passions of some the league's renowned players. Here's a quick list of them.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Fitzgerald established the First Down Fund which distributes 17 grants to underprivileged communities each year to bring technology, resources, the Surface, and other opportunities to schools.
Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Miller founded Von's Vision which provides low-income children with eye-care needs. Surface is used to keep the children's records, as part of a learning program, and its accessibility features are used to help facilitate the cause.
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Sherman established Blanket Coverage which brings resources to children so that they can pursue education goals equipped with tools they need. This included a Surface computer lab in Sherman's high school.
Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots
Bennett created the Imagination Agency which creates children's books, apps and films. Bennet says he's drawn to Surface because, like him, it works in multiple ways and is a device that can do a little bit of everything he wants it to do. "There's only a couple of things like that; there's a tight-end, Microsoft Surface and Bat Man's utility belt," he said. He also encourages girls, especially African American girls, to get involved in tech.
Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
Olsen created the HEARTest Yard after his son was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition. Olsen had the resources to hire life-changing direct, in-home care for his son. Through HEARTest Yard, Olsen provides similar care for sick children in families who can't afford to pay for the services. Surface and Microsoft integration in this program allow access to medical records and changes in how health care is provided to families.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson founded the "Why Not You Foundation?" which, among other efforts, partnered with Strong Against Cancer to help children with cancer. Surface is used to instantly connect with others to facilitate the foundation's goals.
Microsoft Surface and the NFL
Microsoft's NFL partnership has evolved from product placement on the sidelines to being part of game-changing efforts in people's lives. The real-life impact and the human connections established through the personal passions of the NFL's heroes may resonate with football fans and non-fans alike.