Malcolm Gladwell thinks the end of football is near. How the NFL and Microsoft could prove him wrong.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft announced a partnership with the NFL to “upgrade interactive TV viewing of pro football games”:

Fans will get new television viewing innovations, including the ability to watch games, Skype video chat with other fans, view statistics, access highlights in real time and gather fantasy information about players and teams — all on a single screen. For those who prefer multiple screens, fans can get an even deeper experience on mobile devices and tablets with SmartGlass technology.

The agreement was announced at Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal, which allowed day one reviewers to gush about how the new device can be so much more than just a video game console — you can also use it to experience football, or more excitingly, fantasy football [emphasis mine]:

The company is also working with the National Football League to develop an app for Xbox that lets players interact with their fantasy football teams while watching a live game. – NYTimes

Microsoft is clearly determined to sew up some of the best content for the Xbox One: it just revealed a special, multi-year partnership with the NFL. The two are working on an optimized experience that better integrates fantasy football, including score displays, onscreen updates and Skype. – Engadget

Xbox and NFL Will Bring Fantasy Football to Life – Mashable headline

Xbox and the NFL even got in on the act. In a promotional video featuring a conversation between Roger Goodell and Xbox President Don Mattrick, the NFL Commissioner asks, “So Don, how will this experience be better on the Xbox for NFL fans?”

Mattrick replies, “With Xbox, we’re gonna have exclusive content that we will use with smart glass, with Kinect, with some of the innovations our creative teams are doing, to bring fantasy football to life, to be able to interact with others, to do things using all the devices in your living room as you’re participating with your friends.”

But don’t let the emphasis on fantasy fool you: the partnership’s impact will not just be felt on Season 5 of The League. Microsoft is also coming to the sidelines of real games, as they happen:

The next step after that, perhaps as early as 2014, will be bringing technology to the sidelines on tablets.

“When you think about the sidelines, what is most important for us is how you make the game of football better, make what the coaches and players do better, using technology but preserving the competition,” said Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media. “The challenge is how to bring technology to make it a better experience for them and for the fans.

“You can start with how we communicate with each other, whether it’s game officials or coaches. Coaches can look at formations as they develop. We’ll look at how do you do the still photos better, get more into real time? Is there a more efficient way to give replay officials a way of doing reviews better through technology?”

So pretty soon, Microsoft technology is going to be helping coaches call plays and referees review calls. How much is the NFL paying Microsoft for all this helpful technological wizardry?

The deal is worth $400 million over five years for the NFL, according to a person familiar with the agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because financial details have not been made public.

In other words, the NFL isn’t paying Microsoft for its technological expertise — rather, Microsoft is paying about three teams’ worth of salary cap to the NFL for the privilege of providing this service. So what does Microsoft get out of the deal? Well, the exclusive Xbox content, and of course, publicity:

Branding of Microsoft products on the hoods of the referee’s on-field instant replay station and other sideline areas will begin this season.

On the one hand, the entire NFL will look more like Sounders FC. On the other hand, NFL replay booths and the league’s referees in general are definitely the sort of associations Microsoft should be paying big money to establish…? What’s the over/under on how long before some play-by-play guy blames a badly-reviewed call on the blue screen of death? [As I’ve noted before: the infamous Seahawks-Packers MNF game that brought back the original refs was supposed to be backstopped by a replay booth manned by a non-striking replay official. But go ahead, keep blaming it on the replacement refs.]

Questionable as this last call may be from Microsoft’s perspective, I thought the NFL’s decision not to take the agreement even farther was possibly even more puzzling. The NFL, as you know, is deeply worried about its potential liability to former players who suffered head injuries while playing in the league. It has been desperately changing rules left and right to shield itself from that liability, most recently banning running backs from contacting defensive players with the crowns of their helmets. But that won’t be the last rule change you’ll see in the NFL, and I believe the league’s partnership with Microsoft points in the direction of the future: now that every Xbox will come with built-in Kinect, why expose your players to actual hits when you could always just make the entire league look like this:

football kinect

And if you thought the infamous picture from the MNF game with one ref calling touchdown and the other calling touchback was confusing, I would urge you not to look to closely at what that guy on the right is doing. In other words, I have no idea why he thinks the guy about to score a touchdown is thinking pass.

(I don’t think he’s a real NFL player.)

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