Football is big business, and the Super Bowl is the biggest of the big. The National Football League, a PC Week Corporate Lab Partner, spent two weeks building a miniature village near the site of the Super Bowl, complete with stores, houses, offices, an amusement park and a satellite-dish forest. And this village is becoming increasingly computerized.
The day before the Super Bowl, NFL officials took us on a tour of the official statistics control center. During the game, this small room is a hotbed of activity as each play, participant and result is entered into a Xenix-based multiuser system. This system, written by a small consulting firm called Emphasys, runs on a network of Zenith MultisPort laptops. During the game, statistical summaries are selected by the NFL and synchronized with the in-house game monitors scattered in the press area and elsewhere around the stadium.
Each team has a PR director tied into the system, fielding press queries. Summary statistics are output on a laser printer each quarter, then copied and delivered to each press attendee. The copy center alone would shame most medium-sized companies.
Why is a system like this important? Rapidly provided information is money. Better, faster and more complete information improves the quality of news stories about the event. The Super Bowl lives and dies on the attention it gets from the media, and the more good stories out there, the more excitement and enthusiasm. That translates into more consumers of the NFL’s product.
As with most custom systems today, the NFL’s statistical capture, summarization and delivery system is showing its age. The selection and display of data is controlled by only three people. To find out a particular fact, reporters can either wait for it to be displayed on the television over their heads, go up and ask one of the PR directors or wait for the quarterly batch-results report.
With new wireless technology from companies such as RAM Mobile Data and Ardis, along with handhelds like the HP 95LX, consumers of that data could have their own front end. But that would be expensive and take time to implement. Other users, too, would love to have real-time access to the data. Imagine sitting in your living room and selecting custom statistics from your pocket communicator.
The information and immediacy in that NFL system is worth gold. A properly designed and executed database and querying system, perhaps using Prodigy or CompuServe, could be a big revenue generator. But the NFL wants to control access to that data, for fear that it will be used by fantasy football leagues and others for gambling purposes.
Unfortunately for the NFL, the cat is out of the bag. It would be relatively trivial for an entrepreneur to outfit a roving staff of data gatherers at every NFL game. Using commercially available wireless technology and some of the new handheld computers, these data gatherers could provide real-time statistical summaries and details directly to computer users around the world.
The NFL’s data, now a jealously guarded asset, would be theirs no longer. After all, data belongs to whoever gathers it. And data is becoming more and more valuable every day.
Only by packaging it and selling it will the NFL be able to hold onto its data. The NFL’s active distribution would create another significant barrier of entry. And, of course, the NFL would retain significant power over how that data is used.
Access, summarization and distribution of data is becoming one of the growth industries of the 1990s. Don’t let someone else steal your data out from under you. If you “productize” your data first, it will be that much harder for others to do it. It may be painful to let that data out, but it will be even more painful if someone else does it first.