Apr 23 2020

Collaboration Technology Takes the Field for NFL’s First Virtual Draft

Solutions from Microsoft, Citrix and others are central to teams’ success — and the league’s.

Thousands of businesses around the world are engaged in a massive remote work project, trying to meet their missions in fully virtual environments. But none has been quite so bold as the NFL, which tonight will present its efforts in front of millions of sports fans watching live on any of three television networks, as it embarks on its first virtual draft.

Instead of the massive spectacle it was planning in Las Vegas, the draft will instead be held online and broadcast on ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network. To create a TV-friendly event without the benefit of roaring crowds, the league shipped more than 100 “tech kits” to the homes of key participants, 58 draft prospects, each of the league’s 32 head coaches and general managers, and Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will preside from his home in New York.

The kits include Apple iPhones, tripods, ring lights, microphones, Belkin chargers and other gear necessary to turn homes into makeshift TV studios. The phones will serve as cameras. One of them will be “always on” so TV producers can check in to players’ living rooms and teams’ virtual “war rooms” whenever they choose; another will be used for interviews. Verizon is supplying the phones and the cell connections.

“It makes for a pretty nice home studio,” says Alex Riethmiller, the NFL’s vice president of communications.The project is being spearheaded by the league’s CIO, Michelle McKenna. Riethmiller says McKenna described the effort as “unlike any other undertaking she’s ever had in her career.”

How NFL Teams Are Deploying Collaboration Tech

Teams’ draft preparations have been complicated by the all-remote conditions under which they’re working. In the weeks since state governors began issuing shelter-in-place orders around the country, the collaboration solutions the teams are using — each club is free to choose its own — have been as critical for them, both in preparing for the draft and running their organizations generally, as they have been for businesses in every industry.

The San Francisco 49ers, for example, have partnered with Citrix for six years and have found its digital workspace solutions, especially Citrix ShareFile, vital to the team’s efforts to communicate about football and business matters. For example, the team’s annual Partner Summit, scheduled for next week, will for the first time be a virtual event, and ShareFile has made it possible for executives to securely collaborate on videos and other high-data files for the event in real time.

“It’s really been efficient for our team from the beginning, but especially now more than ever, as it helps us stay connected as an organization while we’re constantly sharing presentations, design documents — you name it,” says Kevin Hilton, the team’s vice president of corporate partnerships.

The 49ers, who will use Citrix solutions to communicate internally during the draft, are known as one of the more tech-savvy teams in any sport, says Tim Minahan, executive vice president of business strategy for Citrix. That’s a huge advantage in the sports industry, where leagues are constantly trying to capture the attention of younger fans with innovations in everything from in-stadium experiences to the rules of the games.

“They’re all looking at ways of capturing the minds of the new generation of fans,” Minahan says. “And I would put the 49ers right up there with anyone in terms of how they bring tech into every aspect of the experience.”

Although clubs are free to choose their own collaboration solutions for internal communications, during the draft the league will standardize on Microsoft Teams.

“That’ll be the platform that will primarily be used for team-to-team and team-to-league communication, and several teams are also using it for their own virtual draft rooms,” Riethmiller says.

WATCH: Experts break down what businesses need to have to power successful remote work.

NFL Emphasizes Cybersecurity

The league held a mock draft Monday as a dry run, and Riethmiller says the event “checked off everything we wanted to check off,” despite a minor hiccup during the first few minutes involving a few participants failing to mute their phones, causing some confusion.

A bigger worry for the real draft is security. An event as high-profile as a virtual NFL draft will draw the scrutiny of threat actors all over the world, so the league has been working hard, and in secret, to beef up its defenses. Riethmiller describes McKenna as confident, but not overconfident.

“She’s not taking a victory lap yet,” he says. “Hopefully she’ll be able to take one on Sunday or Monday.”

FangXiaNuo/Getty