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Volume 23 No. 28
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Owners extend suspension of blackout rule

NFL owners last week voted to extend the league’s suspension of the TV blackout rule for another year.

The NFL last year provisionally dropped the controversial rule, which blacked out locally games that were not sold out. The one-year suspension had expired, so the league needed to act.

Asked why the NFL would not just drop the blackout policy entirely, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league wanted more than one year under its belt to make that decision, but he also noted blackouts were rare, or nonexistent, in the last years the policy was in use. There were no blackouts in 2014. In 2013, there were only two. Results for 2015 likely would have been similar: none, or very few, of the league’s 256 regular-season games being blacked out.

VIEW OF THE FUTURE: Virtual reality is the hot technology in sports, and the NFL is beginning to experiment with the devices. Last year was a test year for the league, collecting footage that was shown to users at the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Eagles President Dan Smolenski tests a VR headset during a demonstration Tuesday.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
The league has not chosen a VR vendor but did have a variety of devices on display at this year’s annual owners meeting for owners and other executives to try on and watch the footage from various games. The images provide viewers with a perspective of being on the field, on the sidelines or even in the locker room.

The league’s plans for 2016 are still developing. It’s an initiative being driven at the league level, not by individual teams.

The league also is eying augmented reality, which allows for a quasi-VR experience while continuing to be able to see your current surroundings. That compares to using a VR headset, which puts the user in the middle of the action, but that person then cannot see his or her actual physical environment.

TRACKING EXCITEMENT: The NFL plans to roll out a new consumer research effort this season that will collect fans’ biometrics to gauge their reactions and track what they are looking at. The NFL is working with MediaScience, which conducted a test of the program at the Pro Bowl. Twelve fans there wore biometric bracelets, patches and glasses that captured where they gazed. About 200 fans also did so from home watching the game on TV.

The preliminary data showed that fans’ reactions split not by gender but age, said Julie Perlish, the NFL’s vice president of consumer insights and research. She had a display of the devices at the annual meeting.

The technology holds out the prospect that the NFL can measure what draws fans’ attention, including if, for example, they notice a particular sponsor’s logo. The biometric patch monitors blood flow and pulse and would thus be able to tell when a fan got excited or, inversely, was bored.

Fans aren’t the only ones who will use biometrics this year. The San Francisco 49ers, under new coach Chip Kelly, plan to use biometric patches to take readings from players’ sweat. The 49ers become the first team in the NFL to do this and are using patches from Kenzen, a Silicon Valley company that won a $50,000 grant from the NFL at the Super Bowl last month as part of the league’s “Shark Tank”-like technology competition, 1st and Future.

“The people in San Francisco had already been dealing with them for a long time. I just kind of got on board at the last part of this,” Kelly said. “It’s a training staff and strength coach deal.”

AROUND THE LEAGUE: Greg Aiello has been answering reporters’ questions for the NFL since 1990. No more. As part of a shift in the communications department, Aiello now will handle internal communications, meaning communications between divisions like NFL Films, NFL Network and league headquarters. Brian McCarthy takes Aiello’s former role, and many of his business press PR functions will be assumed by current staffers. The shift was directed by Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton White House spokesman who took over as executive vice president of communications at the league in January. He replaced Paul Hicks, whose time running communications included the player misconduct scandals and left the league last September to join PR firm Glover Park Group. …

The NFL may say it wants to play a game in China in 2018 — and the Los Angeles Rams were touted last week as a likely target for such a trip — but many hurdles remain. There’s a substantial time-zone difference (Beijing is 12 hours ahead of New York), the fan base for football in the country is modest, and culturally, even the largest American companies have found the nation difficult to navigate. “It was put out there, and obviously it is generating a lot of contrasting opinions,” said New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch. “Between length of travel, time difference, the cultural challenge — at every level, it would be very challenging.” The idea is strongly championed by Goodell, though, who sources said has rebuffed those who mentioned the issues in staging a game there. If the league does go, the NFL might open its season there to reduce the stress on the two teams making the trip. …

Jim Irsay’s Indianapolis Colts play in London this season. In the days before the game, Irsay plans to travel to Paris to display his Jack Kerouac scroll. Irsay several years ago purchased the original manuscript of Kerouac’s classic, “On The Road.” The writer famously wrote the novel on a scroll so his train of thought would not be interrupted by replacing the paper in his typewriter. … Call it Midwestern values: Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan said the team is not marketing in-state in St. Louis, wanting to give the Rams’ aggrieved fans some time to heal. Donovan also said the Chiefs are talking to two companies about buying field naming rights to Arrowhead Stadium. The team is handling the sponsorship sale.