Inside the NFL’s Tech Playbook for the Super Bowl

Super Bowl City Opening Night Celebration - Chris Isaak in Concert
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 30: Signage and atmosphere images taken at Super Bowl City on January 30, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by John Medina/WireImage)
Photograph by John Medina — WireImage

Competition in the Super Bowl is so fierce that the NFL feels compelled to give each team their own portable data centers on the sidelines. Sharing the stadium’s permanent data center would be too risky because team spies could more easily steal digital play books or even sabotage another team’s on-field communications.

“People are very paranoid about that,” says Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer.

It’s just one of the many complexities that the NFL’s technology staff must tackle in preparation for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. Workers must spend months worrying about minute details like setting up wireless headsets for coaches to talk to quarterbacks on the field and making sure tablet computers used during the games work in warm weather.

The tens of thousands of spectators in the stadium and tens of millions more watching on T.V. take it all for granted. But any tech fumble on game day could be a major embarrassment for the NFL that could raise the ire of broadcasters, sponsors, and fans.

Although a typical sports stadium contains all the necessary equipment used to provide Wi-Fi and store huge data archives, the NFL lugs in its own just to be safe. It’s not just team members who the NFL tech team is serving. Referees running along the sidelines need their wireless headsets to work properly as do game doctors in case a player takes a crushing hit.

To get the job done, the NFL must install servers, networking gear, and cables near the field, McKenna-Doyle explained. After all, if a coach calls for a Hail Mary in the game’s final seconds, the quarterback better get that message quickly to coordinate with the rest of the team.

In addition to the portable mini data centers, the NFL brings it own servers to the game to plug into the stadium’s data center and piggy back off of some of the permanent networking gear.

The NFL’s efforts at the Super Bowl are similar to what it does at nearly every game during the season. The only the difference is that the stakes are a lot higher and the pressure that much greater.

Typically, 10 coaches stand on the sidelines with headsets that they use to talk to colleagues high up in a stadium booth where they can see the game from a different perspective, explained McKenna-Doyle. The quarterback also has an earpiece to receive instructions.

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Last season, the NFL gave referees access to wireless headsets to discuss potential game penalties, she said, instead of having to talk face-to-face on the field. The head referee can also talk to the NFL’s head of officiating in New York.

Each communication system—those of the teams, referees, and others—are isolated from one another by firewalls to prevent eavesdropping and tampering with the signals. It’s a potential problem that came up during a regular season game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. The Steelers’ coaching headsets malfunctioned, leading some observers to speculate that the Patriots had engineered the equipment failure. However, the NFL has since said that a stadium power problem and bad weather caused the error.

The headsets are connected to the makeshift data centers on the sidelines behind each team’s bench, typically up against a wall. Besides linking up the headsets, they also power the Microsoft (MSFT) Surface tablets used by players, coaches, and referees for looking at games plans and other important information, McKenna-Doyle explained.

Before adopting the tablets, the NFL would take photos of play formations on the field during the game to give teams, for example. Now, the photos are accessible directly on the tablets, McKenna-Doyle explained.

Of course, there’s always the chance that something can go wrong like during the recent AFC Championship game when the New England Patriots’ Surface tablets malfunctioned. The NFL has since said that a network cable failure caused the error and that it was fixed during the game’s second quarter.

In case the weather is too hot, the NFL has placed a small cart containing a mini-cooling station on the sidelines to keep the tablets from overheating, said McKenna-Doyle. During games played in freezing temperatures, like Green Bay, the coolers are replaced with heaters.

To be safe, the NFL placed big red signs on the mini data centers that say “Do not unplug,” in the off chance someone decides the Super Bowl is the appropriate time to charge one’s iPhone. Workers will also be on hand to ensure that no one tries to tweak any of the machinery and that the computers function properly.

“Some crazy things can happen down there in the heat of the moment,” McKenna-Doyle said.

All of the data center gear enclosures and cables must be “military grade” and able to withstand “300 plus pound guys running around, stepping on it,” she added.

During the halftime show, the mobile data centers must be moved and then quickly be set up after the game restarts, said McKenna-Doyle. Clearly, the NFL doesn’t want to risk Coldplay tripping over wires while it plays live during the halftime show.

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McKenna-Doyle seemed confident that the upcoming Super Bowl will go off without a hitch and that the league is well prepared for any possible hiccup.

“Just like the teams, we practice all year long,” she said.

In the future, the NFL is looking at adding newer features for coaches like video of team formations to go along with the still shots the teams receive on the field, she said. But considering the high-profile nature of Sunday’s game, the NFL won’t be trying any new tricks.

“The Super Bowl is never the time to do something new,” said McKenna-Doyle.

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