After the National Football League took over management of its own digital strategy in 2009, searching for ways to extend, promote and profit from its Web site and other digital properties beyond video and other traditional sports content, "we started to realize the strategic value of fantasy football," says Vishal Shah, a Penn grad (2002, biology) and ex-Silicon Valley venture capitalist (TBG Capital) who's now Vice President of Digital Media at NFL's New York headquarters.
"Football is a complex sport, with 32 teams" and their full rosters, and many player measurements fans can track: "It's not necessarily intuitive off the bat," says Shah, who grew up a Giants fan in suburban New York.
That opens a path for technology. Fantasy football, in which players picked starters from various teams based on printed tables of their past performance statistics, had acquired a cultic following since the 1980s. NFL wanted to use new computer technologies to draw users together, attract first-time fantasists, and connect them more closely to the league through improved data speed, depth and interface quality. The league saw it as "a great way for fans to interact with our sport and dive deeper, and drive consumption," as, for example, Eagles fans add favorite players from other teams to their player choices and weekly starter decisions.
That brought the NFL to SAP AG, the giant German software company whose American headquarters is in Newtown Square. SAP's Hana databases and StreamWorks interfaces made possible the user-friendly and speedy data upgrades the league wanted, Shah says. "They weren't historically known for customer touchpoints. But behind the scenes they power a lot of capabilities." (SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott talked about his company's extension from corporate to user computing and its efforts to build a household brand in my Philadelphia Inqurier story last December. Read it here.)
Last fall the league and the company began a multi-year marketing sponsorship in which SAP provides the software and NFL the marketing. They launched an online analytics dashboard at NFL.com/Honors in January to show fans a "Fantasy Football Player of the Year" selection process that is also available for fantasy-football participants to compare players and choose their teams.
"SAP is expanding into sports and entertainment," says SAP spokesman Jim Dever, and has signed contracts with the San Francisco 49ers, NY Jets and NY Giants, and the NBA among others. At SAP’s yearly Sapphire customer convention in Orlando next week, co-CEO Bill McDermott will join NBA coo Adam Silver, 49ers ceo Jed York, and UnderArmour ceo Kevin Plank, among others, "to discuss how technology is changing the fan experience."
With the expanded database and analytic power SAP lends, "there's a lot of levers you can pull" to rate players, says NFL's Shah, including minutiae such as how well a particular receiver performs in domed stadiums vs. open-air stadiums. The idea is to make statistics, not just instantly searchable and accessible, but also "visually elegant" through fan-friendly tools. Cloud computing links users "in a stable, scalable platform as SAP leverages their applications for our fan base. It's about bringing these mundane data sets to life."
How does working for the NFL's digital arm compare to Silicon Valley venture capital? "It's a ton of fun," says Shah. "My technology heritage is being extended into the media. We live and breathe the sport. We're here serving the passion of millions of fans."