In Silicon Valley, a Time-Honored Sport Looks to the Future

In Silicon Valley, a Time-Honored Sport Looks to the Future

SAN FRANCISCO — On any given Sunday during football season, the N.F.L., a league that promotes itself as a standard-bearer of innovation, produces games that are analog at their core. The leather ball has been stitched the same way for decades, and the chain gangs hold the first-down markers like crossing guards at a busy street corner. The players smash into one another in a way a fan from a century ago would recognize.

Yet the league, a $12-billion-a-year business, seems to be perpetually searching for the best and latest technology to help it deliver that analog product to its nearly 200 million fans, who are increasingly tech-savvy.

The juxtaposition can be jarring.

Enormous linemen push off one another in a shoving match that recalls something that could have taken place among heavyweights millenniums ago. And then those linemen head to the sideline and grab a tablet computer to scroll through high-definition photographs of their play.

The collision of old and new is constant during the season, but it has been ever-present here in the cradle of the country’s high-tech industry in the lead-up to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday.

In a region filled with private equity titans, dreamy entrepreneurs and futurists, the N.F.L. has been eager to show off its technological chops this week.

On Tuesday, it hosted a round table called Future of Football (sponsored by Microsoft, a league partner). On Saturday, the league will hold a competition at Stanford University for 12 start-ups trying to win financing for products designed to improve the watching of the game at home and at the stadiums and to develop “Tomorrow’s Athlete.”

The Super Bowl host committee has also raised millions of dollars in donations from a range of technology giants, including Apple and Google, two companies not normally associated with the N.F.L. or other sports leagues.

Google is paying for its shuttle buses to ferry Bay Area fans to and from the game. Apple is also running company buses to the game, and it has donated iPhones and laptops to the Super Bowl host committee. Still, neither company has pulled out the stops to throw its brand around here in the same way as many other companies.

Brian Rolapp, the league’s executive vice president for media, is paid to rub shoulders with the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and any other company that will deliver the N.F.L. to fans in a way that complements, but does not dilute, its principal product: the games.

While the league may be eager to deliver football to its fans on whatever device they want to use, he said, it is reluctant to let that technology bleed too far into the game.

“A lot of that comes from the No. 1 objective, is to keep the competition pure,” Rolapp said moments after attending a panel discussion that included a description of HoloLens, a headset being developed by Microsoft that will show games in “augmented reality.”

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