Balancing innovation and tradition: The NFL’s challenge, and its blueprint for the future

By Natara Holloway
Innovation and execution from every angle can result in a seamless and entertaining product on the field.getty images

We have a saying in NFL Football Operations: It’s the innovation that you don’t see that makes the game great.

That sounds counterintuitive — hear me out.

The NFL is moving forward, but the game remains the same; only it’s faster, more accurate, more efficient, higher quality — improvements our fans can sense on Sundays, even if they can’t pinpoint what’s different. Innovation is behind all of that. 

Take the NFL sideline, a tightly packed workspace for players, coaches, trainers, equipment staff, doctors, game officials, game operators and media. It’s our nerve center for game days. Sideline technology, amenities and configuration all directly affect the quality of action between the lines.

The game is better today because of incremental advancements: wireless multichannel headsets that allow for instant communication between coaches and play callers; protective measures against the elements that help players perform at their best; new camera angles that improve the accuracy and speed of replay. All have contributed to an improved product without sacrificing any traditions of the game itself.

We’re continuing to build the sideline of the future. Ideas on the table include collaboration spaces for players and coaches to review and map out plays, risers for TV cameras to improve access and minimize gridlock, state-of-the-art wellness stations to keep players hydrated and loose. As the game advances, so must the infrastructure that is essential to on-field excellence.

Clubs are also aggressively exploring innovations within sports science, placing a larger focus on lifestyle factors: tracking sleep, stress and hydration. For example, technology that gives instant feedback on water content, or an app that provides club dietitians with instant information on a player’s food intake. These are inventive ways to build on the traditional strength-and-conditioning approach to football training — tweaks that may not be noticed by the casual football fan, but contribute to a more exciting sport.

Another example: In the past decade, the NFL’s media department has developed and refined Next Gen Stats. At the heart of Next Gen Stats are microchips in players’ shoulder pads, the football, pylons, sticks, chains and even the officials. Around 250 of these chips are active during each NFL game, capturing metrics such as speed, distance, acceleration and ball rotation. This technology gives us more than 200 data points on every play of every game.

Some of the data is used in real time on our scoreboards and during game broadcasts, which enhances the fan experience. Other stats aren’t public facing. We’re analyzing it to make football data-driven decisions, and to identify how we can improve the game, the core of which remains sacred.

Data is also central to the Football Quality Index, or FQI, a relatively new metric pioneered at the league office. Injuries, penalties, score differential — all of that information gets pulled together and aggregated to compute the FQI, which gives us a quality score for any given contest. We’re using the FQI to make adjustments and propose changes. It allows us to put the best possible product on the field.

We strongly believe this work has affected fans’ game-day experiences for the better. The excitement in the stands — believe me, I’ve seen it firsthand — shows me that we’re on the right path. 

Here’s the thing. We don’t have all the answers. We need to talk about football innovation, publicly and broadly, to get the best ideas from people beyond the NFL’s orbit. 

This past September, NFL Football Operations partnered with the Sports Innovation Lab to host a think tank bringing different, diverse viewpoints to the table. During this free-flowing conversation on everything from robotics to climate and social justice, industry experts shared their perspectives as league representatives listened in. 

We heard about how the metaverse could unlock the future of fandom, creating ways for clubs and players to build community and collaborate with the next generation of fans, unconstrained by the limits of the physical world. We heard about the potential performance and sustainability benefits of the plant-based-diet movement. 

These kinds of sessions — and the seeds of innovation that originate from them — will keep the NFL at the cutting edge.

We must be willing to listen and consider all the angles. We have also started bringing the top minds in areas outside our sports-ecosystem comfort zone — the arts, music, technology — to games. We’re getting their transformational thoughts, in the moment. The possibilities are exciting.

Finally, we’re broadening the pool of ideas even further by involving the public. While this seems to conflict with our don’t-make-it-obvious approach to football innovation, issuing an APB for proposals will help us maintain football’s status as the best, most competitive sport in the world.

To that end, NFL Football Operations will be announcing an intake process, through which innovators can submit their solutions to challenges put forth by our newly revamped Future of Football Committee, led by Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises and executive vice president of football operations for the San Francisco 49ers, and John Spanos, president of football operations for the Los Angeles Chargers. Stay tuned.

Innovation and tradition. That is the balance we work to maintain every day at the NFL. 

And when we get it right, you might not see it. 

But you’ll feel it.

Natara Holloway is the NFL’s vice president of business operations and strategy.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at

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