If you are an avid sports fan, you have definitely seen various Microsoft products appear in some form or the other – be it on television as an advert, on an NFL game’s sidelines, or on the track in a NASCAR race. The reason behind this is the massive investment that the tech giant has made in the field of sports, which has greatly influenced other aspects. After signing its first five-year, $400 million contract in 2013 with NFL, the company has gone on to sign deals with NASCAR, PGA Tour, and Real Madrid, among others.
In order to understand Microsoft’s reasoning behind these sports partnerships, popular news website GeekWire interviewed Microsoft’s two long-standing executives – Yusuf Mehdi, the Vice-President of the Corporate division and Chris Capossela, who is the Head of Marketing.

The duo emphasized upon Microsoft’s two-fold objectives, which was to use Microsoft products to improve the strategy and overall business of teams and leagues, enhance its market exposure at the same time.

And after having spent 3 years in the sports market, it seems that Microsoft is happy with the results and current achievements. According to story published in the News Center very recently, an increasing number of coaches as well as players now tend to use the surface tablets on sidelines to see their past plays. Regardless of whether you watch the game in person or on the television, you must have observed coaches and/or players on their tablets at some point or the other. Although fans of the conventional black-and-white printouts on the sidelines still exist (for instance, one coach was using both the tablet and the paper printouts), the surface tablet commands immense popularity, and is on its way to becoming THE gadget to view past plays on.

According to Capossela, having big players like Drew Brees, among others has revolutionized the way the game is being played on the sidelines – something that is indeed a big success.

However, the journey behind this success hasn’t been easy, with Microsoft having endured numerous NFL Surface-related marketing criticisms in the past few seasons. In 2014, the Surface was blatantly called an “iPad-like tool” by commentators. About a month after this, Jay Cutler, who played quarterback for the Bears called them as knockoffs of iPads. And as if that wasn’t enough, in the opening game in 2015, Al Michaels even called the Surface an iPad live on national television.

Yet, in a surprising turn of events, what could have been Microsoft’s greatest PR disaster turned out to be an advantage.

Mehdi explained how the controversy has actually proven to be beneficial. As the Surface got compared to other, at the time more established products, it made people actually want to look into what the controversy really was, and finally realize the fact the there was a new, more up-to-date device from Windows – right there on the sidelines. He added that this “controversy” actually gave a much-needed boost to Surface Tablet sales. Besides players and coaches, the Surface has also been used for business purposes – both by the teams and in the entire league.

The deal with the NFL, however, is not just about the Surface tablet – it’s way more than that. For instance the NFL’s official game console is Microsoft’s Xbox One, and die-hard fans may already have noticed a couple of Xbox NFL ads that were aired.

In addition to all of this, Microsoft is also set to launch an all-new bot for fantasy football. This bot uses the heavily invested-in fields of AI and machine learning. The bot was revealed last week in Atlanta, when Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft brought on Deion Sanders, the famed NFL player on stage.

Microsoft also has various apps related to sports on the horizon, such as the HoloLens headset that uses augmented reality. Earlier this year, Microsoft revealed a video that demonstrated how sports fans can use HoloLens when they are watching games on the television. According to Mehdi, the HoloLens has great potential for allowing fans to see things from the players’ perspective. For instance, instead of yelling at the television and wondering the reason why Russell Wilson could never see the defender, the viewers will now be able to see things from Wilson’s perspective and at least be closer to understanding why he did what he did.

Caposella too is very optimistic, to the extent he even helmed the deal as “a great adventure,” adding that the involvement of Microsoft technology in the league is far more deeper than when they first started – something that they had all sincerely hoped for. He added that while the partnership with started out focusing on sponsorship, the one with Real Madrid leaned more on how technology could allow the club be more efficient at connecting with fans and running the business. This deal is similar Microsoft’s PGA Tour partnership, which is using technology from Microsoft in various innovative ways.

Mehdi called the sports deal with Microsoft an essential learning curve, elaborating how the data analytic-oriented Microsoft platform will allow sports teams to make accurate analyses in real time, and how Microsoft in turn can evolve and better itself through the users’ feedback.

Meanwhile, Caposella noted how sports leagues and teams are now looking forward to how technology can be used to enhance the viewers’ experiences. Emphasizing on the fact that live sports stands as one of the last-surviving places on TV where people genuinely want to tune in, teams are now trying to find out different ways to engage the audience, with full realization that technology has an instrumental role to play in it. Mehdi further added that the best part of these partnerships is the fact that they keep Microsoft in interaction with the sports leagues, which enables them to search for places where they can add and/or improve, and take suitable actions.

Apart from the partnerships with PGA Tour, Real Madrid, NASCAR and of course, the NFL, Microsoft is involved in other projects, such as using the Bing-like technology for making predictions related to sports, and paying hometown-professional soccer-teams to put their brand names on the jerseys worn by players. Additionally, a plan to make eSports investment is also present in the offing.
Mehdi said that they would like nothing more than to build their fan-base and earn fans with their products, adding that since Sports teams are aware of the concept, the two worlds can easily learn from each other.


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