Microsoft Surface’s rocky NFL partnership ultimately turned out to be a “great outcome”

Kareem Anderson

As the saying goes, “hindsight is always 20/20” and what started off as a tech community laughingstock has evidently turned out to be a “great outcome” for the Microsoft Surface and its NFL partnership.

Google Product and Industry Marketing VP Brain Hall, who once worked as both general manager of Microsoft’s Surface division and as the corporate VP of Microsoft Devices, took a trip down memory lane back in August of 2021 to retell the infamous $400 million NFL and Surface partnership, as recounted in a new post on GeekWire.

Via his Twitter handle, Hall felt compelled to recount the bumpy, but ultimately successful, tale of the Surface and the NFL pairing because of his attendance of recent Seahawk’s game.

While the internet cauterized the early visible fumbles and humiliations of Surface and NFL deal, Hall offered some behind-the-scenes info about the partnership that puts Microsoft’s focus on an entirely different piece of hardware at the onset.

According to Hall, it was the Xbox that was supposed to buoy the NFL partnership with the Surface as more of an afterthought. It would seem Microsoft initially shelled out $400 million to get people use their Xbox’s to watch live games while simultaneously engaging with their fantasy football leagues.

While the notion of using an Xbox during gameday may seem preposterous today, back in 2013, when a struggling Surface line rested in the shadows of Microsoft’s flagship gaming console, it made more sense. In 2013, before the Xbox handedly lost its branding mindshare for a generation, it launched with a very different vision, and that vision was hardcoded TV and Film integration.

The Xbox One came pre-engineered with picture and picture functionality, that was once promoted by Microsoft and the NFL as the desired way to leverage NFL Red Zone and Fantasy Football simultaneously.

Ironically, Microsoft would fumble the general Xbox execution hard enough to force the company to pivot to its fledgling tablet computer to sustain the multi-million multi-year deal with the NFL.

Leaning on the Surface line as its workhorse during the NFL partnership meant Microsoft had to endure several well documented shortcomings while refining and reiterating to get to where the devices are no longer being dribbled on the field or misrepresented as “knock off iPads.”

Microsoft and the NFL continue to market the Surface line and with each new iteration of the lineup comes additional talking points to support the general idea that the devices simply make processes more convenient.

Based on the multitude of partnered marketing materials it’s clear the Surface is helping coaches shoot formations, potential penalties queries and previous plays back and forth within seconds versus the minutes and reams of wasted paper and ink it used to, while also helping players track on-field and physical progress through visualizations on the screen.

Another relatively unknown brought to light by Hall’s trip down memory lane was how tangential the success of the NFL partnership was for the longevity of the product division.

While we see the sidelines now riddled with Surface devices currently, back in the early years it was just the Surface Pro and had it failed to meet the requirements or expectations of one of Microsoft most financially invested endeavors, it very well could have shortened the field now Microsoft CPO Panos Panay has to play on.

In hindsight, it appears worth it to for Microsoft to have spent $400 million to be called an iPad, to have create an entire meme farm of football players abusing the tablet and to have several thousand articles written about their on-and-off again prohibitions from the league.

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In the end, it wound up with Microsoft putting in 170 Windows-powered servers in 30 NFL stadiums across the US, 269 NFL-events either sponsored or powered by Microsoft, and over 2,000 Surface devices active prior to, during and after the NFL season, according to the NFL Network’s Evolution of NFL Slide Technology ad.