When Microsoft secured an expensive but lucrative deal with the National Football League (NFL) before the previous season, it was seen as a coup for the software giant. But as is often the case with such visible and high-profile deals, the downside can be devastating. And such was the case during a nationally-televised playoff game yesterday between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.
On paper, the Patriots were the losers in this game, dropping the AFC championship match 20-18 to the Broncos. But Microsoft was the real loser: Its Surface tablet was repeatedly called out as the culprit during a technical glitch during which the Patriots could not review plays and formations.
The irony is hard to overlook. Over the past two seasons, numerous announcers across multiple networks have repeatedly referred to the on-field Surface tablets as iPads, giving free exposure to an already widely-promoted Apple device. This has been problematic because Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars securing the deal with the NFL and in ongoing efforts related to the protection and upkeep of those devices, which are used on-field by the teams and by game announcers.
But during Sunday’s AFC championship, things changed. When the Patriots suddenly couldn’t access game information on their tablets, the announcers repeatedly referred to the devices as “Microsoft Surface tablets.” Microsoft finally got the exposure it had wanted. Just not in the way it wanted.
The real irony here, of course, is that there was nothing wrong with the Surface tablets.
“Our team on the field confirmed the issue was not related to the tablets themselves but rather an issue with the network,” a Microsoft statement notes. “We worked with our partners who manage the network to ensure the issue was resolved quickly.”
The Patriots lost use of their Surface tablets at the start of a single—if important—possession, and the outage lasted at least 15 minutes. And while the game was played in Denver, I’m sure there will be no accusations of cheating against the Broncos, despite the fact that their Surfaces never stopped working. Curious, that.
But you can’t beat bad publicity, regardless of the real cause. In fact, it’s unclear how much the NFL will need to artificially promote Surface to make up for this gaff.
Microsoft announced its deal with the NFL back in mid-2013, when it became “The Official Sideline Technology Sponsor of the NFL.” While it wasn’t revealed at the time, Microsoft was eventually shown to have spent over $400 million to secure the five-year deal. But what it really did was enter into a five year period of indentured servitude all in the name of product promotion: Surface had to be retrofitted with padding and other changed to survive on-field, plus special team carts and other accessories had to be designed and built.
Yet during this time, the NFL’s own announcers still kept calling the devices iPads. And TV crews have delighted in showing frustrated players on losing teams tossing their Surfaces to the ground in disgust after reviewing bad plays. (We’ve all had this experience using Windows, of course.)
What Microsoft did get right, however, was the on-field branding. As any football fan knows, the blue Surface logo is everywhere during NFL games, including on the shroud that covers the displays when referees watch replays. Today, Microsoft refers to Surface as “the official tablet of the NFL,” because something has to be the official everything of the NFL, I guess.
In any event, Sunday’s AFC championship game was a setback for Microsoft as much as it was for the Patriots. And while Surface has “failed” in other NFL games—a December matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins featured another Surface moment—this was a high-profile and widely-watched event.
Hey, at least the NFL isn’t using iPads anymore. At least not officially.