NFL uses eye-tracking technology to study how fans watch games

Monday June 26th, 2017

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In an effort to learn more about fan preferences, the NFL has looked at where eyeballs are peeping when the game is being played.

“We’re really starting to study how people are watching games, and we’re doing it in really, really interesting ways,” NFL COO Tod Leiweke said at GeekWire Sports Tech Summit. “We’re actually going into people’s homes and replicating the game experience trying to watch everything from what their eyes are following to what their behavior is during commercial breaks. And that’s a big change from putting meters in a few homes in a billion-person marketplace.”

Dean Blandino, the former NFL senior vice president of officiating who also had served in the league’s instant replay department, spoke of the technology being used earlier this month when asked by Colin Cowherd on The Herd if the NFL has become more celebration-friendly and why.

“Well I think that part of it is trying to reach the millennial and this new age of fans and having more fun,” Blandino replied. “And there was a committee, I was part of that committee with different people at the league office in looking at our game, looking at in-game downtime, looking at how our fans watch the game, looking at eye-tracking technology and where their eyes are going.

“It definitely has been something that’s ramped up. I would say it started even earlier than six to 12 months. This has probably been two to three years in the making.”

From that level of research, the NFL can conceivably listen to its fans and learn about what they want out of the game viewing experience. Leiweke offered examples of how technology also can help implement those strategies.

The NFL announced in March that it would eliminate referees on the field going “under the hood” to review replays and instead replace those sideline monitors with handheld tablets. Speeding up that process was part of the decision-making on adding Microsoft Surface devices for referees to use.

“We’re going to try and make that moment happen more quickly,” Leiweke said. “We’re not going to wait to come back from the commercial break to have the official deem a play good or not good. And so that’s the part of listening to fans and what I was kind of telling you about. The kind of focus groups and studies we’re doing now, we’re really trying to understand this because there’s another generation coming behind this that is different.”

Leiweke identified Next Gen Stats as technology that fans want. Zebra has receivers installed in NFL stadiums that communicate with RFID transmitters inside the shoulder pads of each player that provides those stats such as speed and distance.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a letter to fans in March wrote that the league in an effort to improve the pace of the games would institute a play clock following the extra point when television does not take a break and consider one for after touchdowns are scored.

“Together with our broadcast partners, we will be working to meaningfully reduce down time and the frequency of commercial breaks in our game,” Goodell wrote. “We will also be giving our broadcast partners increased flexibility to avoid untimely breaks in the action. For example, we know how annoying it is when we come back from a commercial break, kick off, and then cut to a commercial again. I hate that too. Our goal is to eliminate it.”

Learning about what fans want helped lead to fewer commercial pods, as according to Leiweke, it was discovered while fans liked watching commercials to a certain extent, more needed to be done to lessen the number of breaks in the action.

“They want a pace of play that doesn’t want to see us chopping things up,” Leiweke said. “It’s that commercial break after a PAT, and so you’re going to see next year us really working hard to tighten up that game presentation and present the game with more of that pace in all aspects — commercials, promotional messages, and even officiating.”

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