Roger Goodell’s WiFi Initiative

Roger Goodell has served as the Comissioner of the National Football League since the retirement of Paul Tagliabue in 2006.  He has often been referred to as “the most powerful man in sports.”  That’s quite a distinction.  Whether or not you agree with his positions on dispensing fines, player safety or labor relations, most would concur that he has taken a very bold “hands on” approach to many aspects of the game.

One of his recent policy positions involves the WiFi initiative introduced at the May 22, 2012 NFL owners meeting in Atlanta, GA.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

On WiFi fan initiative:

The initiative is to get WiFi in all of our stadiums both for mobile devices including telephony. We want to make sure fans when they come into our stadiums don’t have to shut down – they can bring their devices. We want them to have access to the same amount of information, have access to our RedZone channel, have access to highlights, and be able to engage in social media including Fantasy Football. When you come to our stadiums, we want to make it a great experience. That is what it is about.

On how expansive it would be:

That is the trick. We want to put it in all 31 stadiums. We want to make sure the same service is provided and the same technology is there for the fans. The costs vary from the different proposals we have. It is part of the reason we are looking for new technology partners that can help us address what I consider pretty complex problems.

On if it is realistic to expect it to be in for 2012:

No. It is possible we could get a stadium or two stadiums in, but it is a pretty big undertaking.

On if he would want all stadiums to launch at the same time:

Not necessarily. We have talked about a pilot. We have talked about New Orleans – we are in New Orleans this year having the Super Bowl there. That might be a good start. But there are several teams that are very aggressive in this area that have some very good technology available in their stadiums. We are learning from that, and our fans are engaging with it, which is the best news for us.

Goodell’s WiFi expansion initiative is often referred to as the “living room” experience.  This objective of affording everyone in the stadium the opportunity to remain fully connected would seem to juxtapose the red flag concerns I have raised regarding the potential for artificially generated stampedes.  To offer every fan this degree of hyper-connectivity and unfettered access to cellular communications would seem to violate the “essence” of emergency evacuation protocol.  Evacuation protocol requires a singular, carefully scripted message.  The potential for thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of random directives would not bode well in a calm and orderly evacuation.  Assuming the perspective of a viral blitzkrieg, this WiFi initiative would appear to trend in the worst direction possible.

I notified Roger Goodell and every NFL owner of my concerns in correspondence dated May 1, 2012.  Unlike the flood of responses I received from NCAA leadership, there was no acknowledgement whatsoever from anyone affiliated with the National Football League.  This alarming contrast constitutes a red flag and highlights the possibility of divergent agendas.  Is it reasonable to conclude that NFL ownership is more fundamentally driven by economic factors (to the detriment of overall fan safety) than its NCAA counterparts?  I believe this would be a fair characterization.

I’ll concede that if your goal is to offer stadium fans unlimited access to the NFL Red Zone package, video replays, fantasy football stats and other real-time experiences associated with the game, then the WiFi initiative would appear ideal.  But from an outlook of fan safety under extenuating circumstances, it could have particularly dire consequences.  Goodell often tells people that as NFL Commissioner it’s his job to safeguard the integrity of the game or as he puts it “protect the shield.”  I’d encourage him to take a moment, reflect and think outside the box.  The grim realities of the game: the injuries, concussions and jarring hits, could someday extend well beyond the playing surface.