The Grill: NFL CIO uses analytics to improve player safety

This CIO is bringing analytics to the gridiron to improve player safety.

How do you keep Wi-Fi up and running for 80,000 fans at the Super Bowl? That's just one of the challenges Michelle McKenna-Doyle faced this year as CIO for the National Football League. These days, analytics is driving innovation at the NFL, and McKenna-Doyle, 47, is leading the charge -- whether the job is collecting statistics with sensors that track players on the field or monitoring player safety through lab analysis of helmets that took a pounding during games.

Michelle McKenna-Doyle

Golf to play; NASCAR to watch.Android, iPhone or BlackBerry? iPhoneWhat's your favorite vice? Red wine. I'm heading out soon for a trip to the wine country.What's your favorite nonwork pastime? Reading.What do you consider to be the best book ever? To Kill a Mockingbird. I love classic historical fiction.Is there something not many people know about you? I love to drive really fast cars and once dreamed of being a racecar driver.

What IT-driven innovations are you focused on right now? The technology coming along is creating a way to, perhaps, innovate in how the game itself is played. And certainly in player health and safety -- how we can track what is happening and the overall wellness of players is one of our primary focuses.

This year, we tested instrumentation on players in games. We gathered the data and we're looking at how to use that. We've also tested helmet impact analysis in the lab. Our chief medical officer is bringing forth all sorts of new ideas of things that they want us to test.

We're also testing next-generation statistics, which uses instrumentation to track players' movements on the field and collect stats. All of that is under way, and you'll see more of that in the next year or so.

Do you plan to capture every movement of every play on the field with instrumentation? In tests you can watch the trail of a player and you can overlay that with the play called. You can see the route they were supposed to run and what they actually ran. Coaches love the thought of being able to take that and have one-on-one coaching with the players.

In your career, you have held executive roles outside of IT.How has that helped you in your role as CIO? At Disney, I started in finance and worked through all of the different divisions. That gives me an advantage in terms of being a successful CIO. I speak the language of the business first and the language of technology second. I am a translator.

Do you see most CIOs today coming from other parts of the business, as you did, or coming up through the IT ranks? Unfortunately, it's people coming from other parts of the business. That's disheartening to the smart people I have working for me in technology. They need visibility. My team did a leadership assessment, and several people put in their plan that they wanted to be CIO but none of them knew how they were going to get there.

Will you rotate aspiring CIOs into other areas of the business to give them that visibility? Yes. In fact, the NFL just started a rotational program. But if your bench isn't deep enough, you can't afford to let a technical skill move, and it's hard to get that deep bench because IT budgets are constrained. It takes courage to say, 'If I'm going to have a successor, you need to bring someone in so I can let this person rotate.'

How else is IT driving innovation and adding to the bottom line? Analytics is where you drive top-line revenue. IT professionals have the ability to see a cross-section of the whole organization. You [could] have this division of the company pursuing this goal and that division pursuing that one, and they're not necessarily aligned. Because we're building both of those solutions, we can raise the issue and talk about where we're going to put all of our investment.

But does IT have time to look for those opportunities? It takes a willingness to do it and a leader who will give you the time to do it. If your day is spent analyzing equipment performance and you don't have a chance to do that kind of analysis, then how do you ever get there?

What I am trying to form at the NFL, as I did at Constellation Energy, is an IT-focused analytics job. Marketing has research, but IT holds the keys to all of that data. Not only do you have to train yourself on how to build good databases and how to build a data warehouse but also to understand the data well enough to know which things it makes sense to link together for the insight it gives you -- that is something that an IT person can see and help prioritize.

What other analytics-focused projects are you driving? We're looking at player performance. [For example, when teams get ready for the draft] there's all types of data to look at around statistics and players and doing predictive analysis in terms of this person looks like this person and if I lose this person in the draft who's my next guy that's most like him. We pull that data together, keep it up to date and publish in real time. Scouts are just starting to use it.

How do you deal with connectivity and mobile in the stadiums? It's a big challenge for Wi-Fi. When you have 80,000 people all going at the same time it puts a challenge on connectivity. We're leading the charge on that and helping the stadiums figure out how they can keep fans connected.

If you're at the Super Bowl, why would you be watching your phone? It's a generational thing. My 15-year-old daughter sat next to me at the Super Bowl and she was on her phone the whole time. She loves football; she was very excited about it. But she was just as engaged with talking to her friends online about what she was seeing. That's not going to change. It's only going to become more prevalent.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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