Interview with NFL Films CFO Barry Wolper

Smart IT investments are key to delivering winning multimedia programming in a crowded entertainment field.

John Facenda might be the "voice of God" on NFL documentaries, but at NFL Films, the source of top-rated commercials, documentaries and other video programs about football, the CIO listens to CFO Barry Wolper.

A subsidiary of the National Football League, NFL Films has recorded football images since 1962. In 2002, Wolper quarterbacked the budget process for the company’s $50 million, 200,000-square-foot headquarters and production facility in Mount Laurel, N.J. About a year later, the 32 NFL team owners voted to invest $100 million to create the NFL Network—a cable channel to show all football, all the time. The owners turned to NFL Films to oversee construction and operation of another studio in Culver City, Calif. That facility was expanded last year.

As a result of the owners’ decision, NFL Films changed its business model, taking a creative leap from documentaries and commercials into studio shows, cable specials and other programs. In the process, the company has pioneered new tools and techniques for broadcasting sports, such as the use of graphics to analyze game strategy. In order for this to happen, Wolper teamed up with CIO Dave Franza (who reports to Wolper) to deploy a new network infrastructure and applications designed to support current and future programming.

Wolper bankrolled a gigabit Ethernet voice and data backbone that delivers high-speed communications (including voice over IP) between NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel and the NFL Network’s Culver City production facility. He also funded enhancements to two systems: a digital video archival system (which stores video clips of all NFL plays from the past 12 seasons) and a broadcast asset management system (a database that indexes completed programs and segments, so production staffs have access to metadata about source material, including total running time and show subjects). The investment has scored big. Wolper declines to share revenue data, but USA Today reported last year that the future pool for revenue sharing among NFL owners, projected at up to $900 million, is expected to come primarily from digital media.

As consumers adopt new communications and entertainment technologies, Wolper says a big challenge for his organization is to keep up with viewer demand. For example, earlier this year, the NFL inked a five-year, $600 million deal with Sprint to deliver programming from the NFL Network on cell phones. "The challenge for us, and especially for our IT folks, is to figure out how to make those links between what consumers want and the ways that they are accessing it," he says.

Wolper spoke with contributing writer Matt Villano about his expectations of IT in a fast-changing, rapidly growing market for sports programming.

CIO: As a CFO, how do you perceive IT?

Barry Wolper: I see IT in two different ways. One is the historic role, what was called MIS in the old days, which is to keep the administrative operations of the company going smoothly and efficiently. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, I look to the IT department in a very important support role to give the producers of our television programs and other programming the tools they need to do their jobs well.

The biggest challenge [in developing NFL Films’ infrastructure] was trying to predict the future. We were designing our facility in the heat of radical changes going on in the teleproduction industry. Everyone still doesn’t quite understand what to make of the new world. We wanted to design a facility that would last for 30 years and have the infrastructure that would last for 30 years but nevertheless be flexible enough to endure the many changes that were sure to take place in technology and equipment.

We’re seeing some of those changes already, with high-definition television and video iPods and PDAs. It’s clearly a challenge for our IT department, which they solved mostly by their ingenuity in working with league partners such as EA Sports, and Apple to figure out ways that the creative people can exploit these new media in the most exciting ways for our fans.

What is NFL Films’ technology planning process?

Every initiative is brought before a committee comprised of our vice presidents and senior executives. Everyone has a chance to opine on a proposal and understand how it may affect users. It’s the best way to prioritize our projects, and also to give Dave an understanding of things that he needs to know before he embarks on projects.

It is incumbent on Dave to understand the needs of the users. Because ours is such a rapidly changing area, Dave and his staff are required to know all the alternatives that are available in a given situation. When you have a couple hundred people working on a thousand hours’ worth of TV shows, the tools that Dave is implementing are critical to their day-to-day, minute-to-minute activities.

Has your IT department ever fallen short of expectations?

No, definitely not. They have pulled rabbits out of hats too many times to count and people here at all levels, especially in operations, have come to rely on them and know that they won’t ever fall short of what the objectives are.

Where, in general, do you think CIOs make mistakes?

Technology is seductive. It’s easy to fall prey to the syndrome of finding solutions to problems that don’t exist. I don’t think Dave falls prey to that, but I certainly recognize that as a risk.

Have you ever funded projects you wish you hadn’t?

We all know this dynamic that as the cost of information and storage comes down, the speed of equipment goes up. Therefore, you can always wait until next year to invest in something, and presumably you’re going to get a bigger bang for your buck.

Since almost all of our production tools are computer-based, from strictly a business point of view it’s easy to preach delaying investment because the product will be better and cheaper next year. Following this to its logical conclusion, we should never invest in anything. But we know we have to. So we make technology investment decisions very carefully, weighing today’s perceived need against the current and future cost. No one is going to be able to have a perfect track record on knowing the most propitious time to invest in every aspect of the equipment you need.

So how do you manage the risk of new technology investments?

It comes down to intense preparation before we embark on any material expenditure. We try to be bleeding edge in our adoption of new technology. We need to turn incoming audiovisual information (film footage, video footage and audio), whether originated by us or from third parties, into edited segments as quickly as consumers want those segments in this new on-demand environment.

We’re competing with all other forms of media and entertainment that consumers spend time with—not just sports television, not just television in general, but the whole wide world of digital media: Internet, video games, wireless, iPods and more. In some of these areas, the NFL’s business partners have invested large sums of money to associate themselves with the NFL, so we have an obligation to provide them with what their customers want.

To do this, we have to stay on top of new developments. We have people who work closely with IBM, people who follow developments with Apple and people who keep after other big companies in Silicon Valley. We have video engineers who travel to Japan every so often to sit with the engineers at Sony and Panasonic, as well as other consumer electronics companies. We make careful, educated decisions about what we want to invest our scarce capital in, and we have a really good idea what the purpose is.

Technologies that are worth the risk are those that perform stably, are scalable and are affordable in the context of the revenue to be generated from its usage. At the same time, we have to venture at least a very educated guess about what the obsolescence factor is going to be. It’s a challenge.

What do you perceive to be your biggest challenges to investing in IT at the NFL Network?

We’re all living through the blending of traditional television with digital media. We have many mouths to feed in other areas of the company, too, so no funding decisions will ever be made in a vacuum. We’re ready to invest in whatever our users want, but I don’t see a huge investment needed [in IT] for the foreseeable future. Because it’s been designed intelligently, the digital studio can grow over time without any major overhauls.

Quickly, what’s your favorite football moment?

I’m a big Giants fan, but I think the Jets winning Super Bowl III [in 1969] has to be number one. To see Joe Namath, everyone’s hero, actually pull off what he said he was going to do—that is so rare in sports. To have that much bravado and actually come through. To me that’s still the greatest moment of all time.

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