June 3, 2023


Business&Finance Specialists

Surface saver: How Microsoft’s offer with the NFL turned into a advertising boon for its pill

5 min read
Seattle Seahawks vast receiver Tyler Lockett evaluations a engage in on a Microsoft Area tablet. (GeekWire Picture / Kevin Lisota)

In hindsight, Microsoft’s decision to ink a 6-determine sponsorship deal with the National Soccer League in 2013 was a shrewd advertising and marketing transfer. Tune into a NFL sport now and you’ll probable place coaches and players using a Surface tablet to critique past plays. Millions of men and women watching football in the fall are exposed to Microsoft’s units, which have develop into a everlasting part of the 102-yr-previous league.

But when the offer was signed, it was a large chance. And Xbox, much more than Floor, was the focal issue.

But the partnership finished up shifting football for good and possibly saved Microsoft’s pill brand name in the course of action. It now serves as a marketing scenario research for a productive athletics tech partnership.

“It’s a really feel great tale,” explained Brian Hall, a former Microsoft exec who assisted direct the Surface business enterprise when the NFL deal kicked off. “It’s been a good result.”

Previously this NFL time Hall shared behind-the-scenes insights about the offer. “This factor experienced Each prospect to fall short alongside the way!” he tweeted.

Former Seattle Seahawks coordinator Tom Cable reveals a preceding perform to a lineman throughout a recreation. (GeekWire File Picture / Kevin Lisota)

The offer, worthy of a described $400 million more than five many years — and afterwards extended in 2020 —  was originally set up to be all about Xbox, in accordance to Hall. Microsoft required to use the partnership to showcase how men and women could use their Xbox to enjoy live video games and access fantasy soccer stats.

“For supporters, the NFL on Xbox will provide the most total way to get pleasure from reside soccer by bringing the initial thoroughly-integrated fantasy football knowledge to the Television set, exclusively by way of Xbox,” Don Mattrick, then-president of the Interactive Leisure Company at Microsoft, stated in a push release at the time.

That vision — applying an Xbox to observe live soccer — under no circumstances caught on. The hottest Xbox Series X|S consoles aren’t even capable to connect to a cable or satellite receiver.

The Floor, meanwhile, was a a great deal different story — but the to start with couple of yrs on the subject didn’t just go easily.

‘iPad-like tool’

After the offer was introduced, it took a 12 months just before the tablets ended up ready for in-video game use. Microsoft had to develop a custom made, ruggedized, weatherproof edition of its “tablet Pc,” which experienced just debuted to the public in 2012. The NFL’s opposition committee also had to approve the use of these types of technological know-how.

It was a rocky start out, to say the least. In 2014, commentators referred to the Surface as an “iPad-like resource.” A single thirty day period afterwards, quarterback Jay Cutler termed the equipment “knockoff iPads.” Invoice Belichick and Aaron Rodgers made headlines for throwing the tablets (the products can stand up to these types of power, by the way).

Then, in 2016, the New England Patriots weren’t equipped to obtain their tablets for the duration of a activity against the Denver Broncos.

A column headline from the Chicago Tribune, from that yr: Microsoft Surface area, NFL marketing flop. At a expense of only $400 million.

The deal was turning into a internet marketing catastrophe. But these fumbles may well have been a blessing in disguise for Microsoft.

Folks were chatting about the Floor. It gave the corporation a opportunity to teach the general public about its new hardware.

The timing of this was important as the Area model “needed work,” Hall explained. Sales of the very first few styles also weren’t conference expectations for Microsoft’s challenger to Apple’s iPad.

At some point, NFL announcers stopped calling the tablets iPads. Microsoft ongoing to refine the unit, introducing new features these types of as actual-time collaboration involving the coaches’ booth and sideline. Groups can now accessibility images in 2-to-3 seconds immediately after a play.

Microsoft stayed in the game, so to talk. And it compensated off major.

“We experienced tenacity,” mentioned Microsoft sports marketing leader James Bernstrom. “We preferred to get it accomplished.”


Absent are the days of sending even now images on a wire from the coaches booth to the field — certainly, they really did this — or waiting valuable minutes for a printer to pump out black-and-white thermal illustrations or photos to assessment prior performs with a 3-ring binder.

“The device is these an significant software in permitting us to do our jobs the finest that we can. It’s flawless,” stated Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur in a video clip the NFL revealed before this yr demonstrating how the tablets have aided gamers make key in-sport improvements.

Microsoft now powers 269 NFL events each and every year with much more than 2,000 Surface area units and 170 Windows servers put in at 30 stadiums.

In the meantime, the NFL’s acceptance and viewership proceeds to climb. The 2021 Thanksgiving online games posted their maximum viewership figures given that 1998, with an typical of 29.7 million admirers watching, up 9% from previous yr.

The Floor was even highlighted in Microsoft’s Super Bowl advertisement two years in the past.

“It has been substantial for the Floor brand name,” Bernstrom explained of the partnership.

If it wasn’t for the NFL, the Surface brand may perhaps not have existed considerably longer, in accordance to Hall.

“The NFL deal probably prevented dumb things from taking place,” he mentioned.

The Floor spouse and children has grown from just hybrid tablets to include laptops, desktops, whiteboards, and even a dual-screen Android product. It is become an significant small business for Microsoft, which utilizes Surface pcs, tablets and devices as a way for the enterprise to advance new type variables in the industry, providing a blueprint for other components makers to comply with.

The Surface-NFL deal also laid a foundation for a selection of sports-related partnerships concerning Microsoft and other leagues like the NBA, PGA Tour, La Liga, and much more.

So what is up coming for the Surface on the sidelines? There are a several promising alternatives.

It may well just take time — obtaining NFL coaches to accept and undertake in-game tech can be a sluggish approach — but immediate video replays on the tablets would be a big action-up from static illustrations or photos.

Increased real-time data these kinds of as Upcoming Gen Stats at coaches’ fingertips could incorporate a dynamic new layer to in-video game approach.

Just one detail is specified: the Surfaces are below to remain.

“We’re generally thinking about what could be up coming,” Bernstrom reported. “And with our engineering, the sky’s the restrict.”