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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The good and bad of Microsoft’s NFL marketing deal

Microsoft has a big marketing deal with the NFL. As a part of it, coaches and players use Microsoft Surface tablets on the sidelines during the game. As marketing ideas go, it’s not a terrible one, since the NFL is wildly popular and it provides Microsoft with an opportunity to get the Surface in front of people who might not be aware that Microsoft makes a product that is an alternative to the iPad.

Unfortunately, when the marketing deal began, game announcers would describe shots of coaches peering into their tablets as involving iPads, not Surfaces. The NFL and Microsoft sprung into action, sending corrective notes to the TV networks and ultimately adding Surface branding on the devices themselves.

That presumably ended most of the iPad confusion. But football is still live TV—there are still going to be some less awesome incidents involving the products in question, like the time Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tossed his Surface in anger. But hey, all PR is good PR, right?

Anyway, yesterday during the AFC Championship Game, there was a technical malfunction that made the Surface tablets on the New England Patriots sideline stop working. Which led to several minutes of announcer discussion about what was wrong with the Microsoft Surface tablets and whether the Microsoft Surface tablets could be fixed. Uh, but all PR is good PR… right?

Apparently the source of the malfunction has been found, and it wasn’t the Surface’s fault at all, as I’ve been informed by a statement that just appeared in my Inbox from Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesperson:

Near the end of the 1st quarter, we experienced an infrastructure issue on the Patriots sideline that impacted still photos for the coaching tablets. The issue was identified as a network cable malfunction and was resolved during the 2nd quarter. The issue was not caused by the tablets or the software that runs on the tablets. We have experienced no issues with the tablets this season. Any issues were network related.

I also received an official Microsoft statement:

Our team on the field has confirmed the issue was not related to the tablets themselves but rather an issue with the network. We worked with our partners who manage the network to ensure the issue was resolved quickly.

I have to say that I actually feel bad for Microsoft. This was apparently an event entirely out of their control—who was in charge of testing the network cables, people?—and yet it opened up their product to mockery. Will people remember the Monday afternoon quarterbacking about the bad network cable, or will they just remember the failure of the day before? Probably the latter.

That’s the risk you take with any high-stakes, high-visibility product placement such as this one—but Microsoft’s relationship with the NFL seems to be star-crossed. It’s almost enough to send a superstitious NFL coach straight to an iPad for comfort.

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