Be authentic and enthusiastic — When introducing sports teams to the new stats and analytics application, we were offering innovation to help evolve the scouting and coaching analysis process that had been around for some time so they could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. We were enthusiastic about what we had to offer, and we extended that enthusiasm with teams’ staff members until the NFL and dozens of major college football programs were using our product and services. The payoff was when you saw how excited the teams’ staff members were when they began using the application!
New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.
As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing John Pollard, Vice President of Zebra Sports Business Development, Zebra Technologies.
John Pollard serves as the Vice President of Business Development for Zebra Sports, where he oversees Zebra’s role as the “Official On-Field Player-Tracking Provider” for the NFL and leads the company’s team engagement efforts with the NFL, NCAA, as well as other sports around the globe. In addition to his management responsibilities, John continues to work directly with league and team personnel — including coaching, personnel and analytics staffs around the NFL and college football — helping organizations use statistical, analytical and player-tracking/performance data and technologies to work more efficiently and support informed decision-making.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve been fortunate. I grew up in a mill town in Central Maine. My parents were both educators. My town and neighbors were hard-working and caring people. I had some incredible teachers and simply the best football coaches a kid could hope for — they all encouraged and supported me during my adolescence. They were my compass as I navigated my teenage years. I carry all their lessons with me every minute of every day.
I started my career at Bausch & Lomb, in Rochester, NY with the Ray-Ban division. I was fortunate to work for and with some excellent managers and mentors. During my almost 10 years with Ray-Ban, I served in various inside sales, marketing, and regional sales roles and experienced my first taste of working with the sports and entertainment industry. Our team executed several special sales and marketing initiatives including the product placement and cross promotion with Sony/TriStar films and the first Men in Black movie in 1997. We sponsored several Summer and Winter Olympic Games — work that included product placement, brand promotion, and global sales campaigns. Other product promotion, marketing and sales campaign occurred with NASCAR, MLB, the PGA Tour, MTV Spring Break, and Professional Beach Volleyball.
It was at Ray-Ban that I first learned the value and importance of coordination between the various departments and disciplines within a company. I love being part of a team. Compelling customers, building brands, growing share, developing sustainable revenue growth is truly a team sport. Long-term brand health and revenue opportunities require sublime orchestration of quality products, an alluring and enduring brand story, and coordinated efforts between product, brand, and the sales organization.
At Bausch and Lomb, I had my first experience with business support technologies and applications including the creation of a sales and product deliver forecasting application. Using these new tools, I was struck by the power of technology and intrigued how these new applications and the incredible resulting knowledge could help me do my job better.
Since that time, I have never lost my thirst for helping customers and partners do their jobs better, more efficiently and effectively with the help of new technology and information resources. I’ve continued that journey and my career path has taken me to some of the world’s most influential and recognizable technology companies including Oracle and Microsoft. I’ve worked with IRI and STATS where I served some of the biggest consumer products, manufacturing, and sports organizations in the world. That is the essence of what I do today in helping sports and entertainment organizations conduct their business with solutions that help provide better visibility to their everyday business activities with emerging and invaluable decision-support tools.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2007/2008, I cultivated a new role at Microsoft leading an initiative to implement various products and services from Microsoft and its partners in high-touch, experiential environments such as airport lounges, national hotel chains and other hospitality environments as well as sports and entertainment venues. My team and I implemented Microsoft technologies in the players’ lounge at the New Orleans Saints training facility. This was a time when well-appointed player locker rooms and facilities were a new, emerging idea. Saints’ GM Mickey Loomis and Head Coach Sean Payton wanted to up-level their facilities for their players. During the project, we began discussing how various technologies including software may enhance their player and team research, analysis, and development efforts. The conversation led to a meeting with various members of the Saints’ personnel, scouting and coaching staffs — including Terry Fontenot, now GM of the Atlanta Falcons and Ryan Pace, GM of the Chicago Bears. Encouraged by Mickey and Sean, together we devised the first-ever application that married unique player and team statistics with game video. The resulting application allowed the Saints’ executives, coaches, and scouts to evaluate players, self-scout, and game-plan opponents in an extremely efficient way. Work and processes that could take hours could now be completed in seconds.
The Saints won their first Super Bowl in 2009/2010. Over time, more teams across the NFL bought and implemented the application that was conceptualized that day at the Saints’ facility. The application was adapted to D1 college football for over 50 NCAA D1 football programs. Today applications have evolved, there are numerous companies offering data and video management and analysis applications. The information resources have evolved from manually inputted data from scouting and coaching assistants to play-by-play stats, to advanced statistics from service providers, to now sports science/performance and player tracking information. The combination and coordination of data, statistics, and analytics, software-driven decision support tools and game and practice video management had its genesis in Metairie, LA, inspired by the support of Mickey and Sean, and shaped by contributions from two current GMs in Ryan Pace and Terry Fontenot.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” — C.S. Lewis
In both my personal and professional journey, I have come to learn that there are two key ingredients to true progress — failure and mistakes. These ingredients — combined with the willingness to introspect, reflect, apply, and keep trying — seems to be a good recipe to help me work toward being a better person, colleague, teammate, employee, friend, and member of my community. Early in my life, I thought failures and mistakes were the definitive end to whatever ever road I was on. Today, through lots of personal work and professional development, along with support from family, friends, and colleagues, I have learned to appreciate the journey, never stop dreaming, regale in the missteps, and keep trying to be better in whatever capacity, every day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gil Brandt. The Hall of Fame Personnel Executive for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1988 and now a personnel expert and contributor to NFL Media and Radio Host for Sirius XM Radio’s NFL channel.
Just weeks after the New Orleans Saints won their Super Bowl championship in February of 2010, I attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis to demonstrate the application the Saints helped develop and use during their championship win. The world had learned of the application and the Saints’ involvement through some published media stories. At the NFL Combine, teams were lined up outside our conference room to get a demonstration.
Gil, who was a primary contributor to the creation of the Combine, walked into our demo room. Of course, I knew who he was as he had helped formulate the model for scouting and player evaluation that teams use today. Gil and the Cowboys were the first team to use computer technology to help organize and evaluate player scouting data, allowing for the consideration of each players’ unique abilities and traits. I had watched Gil and his Cowboys teams for years starting as a kid watching Super Bowl 10 in my NFL pajamas.
Upon entering the room, Gil glanced around and politely asked that I show him how it works. “Show me the rush attempts by this (unnamed) Running Back” — I obliged. Gil reviewed 3 or 4 additional tests/ suggestions, each with a more precise game situation and a different player. After the last demo, Gil exclaimed that anyone who doesn’t buy this is making a mistake. He then turned to me and said, “I’ll be back”. He exited the room but soon returned and thus started an invaluable friendship, mentorship, and collaboration that has lasted over a decade. Gil has always been there to encourage and support my ideas. He has offered me invaluable insights into the game through unrivaled experience and success. He opened his world to me to help me better myself as a person and what I do in my professional life. My relationship with Gil and being invited as his guest and attending his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 are both a personal and professional highlight that I will forever cherish.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Good Will Hunting.
The timing of the release of the film coincided with a time in both my personal and professional life where I was open to the messages. There are some parallels in the plot line with my personal story. Born and raised in Maine, I spent a great deal of time during my younger years in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I am proud New Englander. The sensibilities of the characters, their communication style, of course the unmistakable accent, and the unwavering nature of the loyalty of the friends and to their community all struck me to the core. There is an intense and deep loyalty to those friends close to you and to the region that resonates in New England. I am sure other parts of the country have similar traits but for me it’s New England. The story of Will exploring the unknown, embracing his unique talents, self-sabotaging behaviors, confronting his fears and realizing that if he follows his heart and breaks out, leaves Boston, and explores more in the world that he is not turning his back on his friends and his home, he is in fact honoring them and himself.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Be authentic and enthusiastic
When introducing sports teams to the new stats and analytics application, we were offering innovation to help evolve the scouting and coaching analysis process that had been around for some time so they could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. We were enthusiastic about what we had to offer, and we extended that enthusiasm with teams’ staff members until the NFL and dozens of major college football programs were using our product and services. The payoff was when you saw how excited the teams’ staff members were when they began using the application!
Honor the power of team
I think it’s important as a leader, particularly when introducing new ideas and initiatives, to exude energy and optimism and fully enroll internal teammates behind the vision and mission. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I believe helps fuel a work team. That same energy can help see you through challenging times. With new ideas and innovation comes inevitable challenges of trial and error. We all need a north star to occasionally remind us of our course. We also need a cohesive support team to help bring ideas to fruition. When I was part of the team that launched a new brand experience initiative at Microsoft, I crafted the initiative from a stretch goal I submitted as part of my yearly commitments. An entirely new cross-functional team was formed in a short amount of time. Additionally, we were doing something that had never been done to scale at the company. We had to enroll numerous colleagues across various business units from Microsoft to help support the project. We also needed an excellent partner network to help us implement these physical environments at locations around the world.
Embrace new thinking
To innovate you need to be open to new ideas, build a deep understanding of the subject matter, and have passion, courage, and perseverance. You must also be decisive once you determine your goal. When we were devising the application that brought statistics and video together for football and other sports, we knew we had discovered something revolutionary. Yet, it was extremely challenging to bring the new idea to an established business and throughout all our meetings, we received invaluable feedback and knowledge that we were able to utilize to our advantage. Ultimately, we had most of the addressable market using our services.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love sharing my story with others as a source of inspiration for what they too can contribute and achieve. Over the years, I have participated in speaking opportunities to share my insights with students of all ages as well as with groups of professional peers. I am always willing to be open and share my story in the hopes that it may help inspire others. I plan to continue to allocate more of my time over the coming years to connect with students and professionals and share key learnings passed onto me by my many mentors and experiences.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?
What I’m most excited about is the collection of player and ball tracking data and the emergence of the next generation of real-time analytics to enhance both fans and the media’s appreciation for the game as well as to improve team and player performance and safety.
It’s also exciting to see the continued innovations in fan experiences technology available both via mobile and in-venue. The industry has taken incredible strides over the past few years. I think fans are going to continue to be excited and compelled by what they are offered on their personal devices as well as when they visit their favorite team’s venue!
How do you think this might change the world of sports?
We are seeing the changes occur in real time as more teams leverage player tracking and performance data in their everyday decision making. Teams are using tracking data to help develop and train their players. Players are increasingly fluent and interested in their performance data to help guide and inform themselves. And we are seeing coaching staffs increasingly leverage player tracking data as reference material in their scouting and game-planning activities.
The NFL’s Next Gen Stats product is a fantastic example of innovation. Through the creation of an entire new set of statistics and analytics, via reports and specialized visualizations, both fans and media now have a resource that provides them unique aspects of the players’ and teams’ capabilities by quantifying performance in a manner that has never been done before. Today, broadcast partners utilize Next Gen Stats to support the storyline of the game and they are shown on stadium screens, giving fans in attendance access to information and insights and bringing them even close to the game.
It is exciting to see what the NFL is doing related to player health and safety and using player tracking technology as well as other technologies to help protect and develop players while also supporting efficient game play. We are inspired by the league’s efforts and commitment to player health and safety, and we look forward to continuing to support the league as they move forward with related initiatives.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Tracking technologies in sports is here to stay and only going to grow in use and value. Inevitably questions do arise regarding how else tracking technology could be used to help support actual game operations on the field, on the sidelines, and in the stadiums. While we are excited about the potential benefits technology can offer in these areas, it is important to exert patience and pragmatism when introducing new technologies and information sources. Sport leagues around the world have been around a long time. There are so many important things they must consider when introducing new idea such as competitive balance, quality of their product, integrity of their game, etc. We, as service partners, must honor these considerations.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?
The health, safety, and career longevity of athletes across all sports and all levels. There are increasing demands on both professional and student athletes today, but especially those who compete at the highest levels. As the On-Field Player Tracking Provider for the NFL, Zebra’s goal is to provide the technology and data that can help support and monitor player performance and potentially help reduce injuries. We salute the ongoing work the NFL is doing in this area.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I was fortunate to meet with Steve Sabol of NFL Films. Steve had heard about the analytics and game video application we had created and was interested in learning more. I initially had an hour booked with Steve. I ended up spending over half a day with Steve, a testimony to his graciousness. During my visit, Steve shared the journey that he and his father Ed Sabol took in creating NFL Films. There was so much shared in that conversation. He told me that based on the innovation we’d created that I inevitably will end up meeting with and presenting to many executives across sports. He left me with this bit of advice. When presenting your idea to an audience, never end the presentation with “Are there any questions?” Steve stated that he and his dad learned this lesson in presenting the concept of NFL Films. If you end a presentation with an open-ended question, inevitable someone will want to speak up and possible question the validity of your concept. He urged me to simply deliver the value message of our service and then thank those who attended. I have leveraged this tactic to great effect over the recent years. I wish I’d known this ‘before I started’!
- It takes a great deal of time to successfully execute on an innovative idea. It would be nice to have known how to apply a little more patience. Ultimately most things have turned out well; however, earlier in my career, some of my team’s energies could have been better allocated on past projects if we exerted a little more patience.
- Appealing to an internal audience with the novelty of an idea has short staying power. I have learned you really must apply concentration and care in enrolling all the necessary stakeholders behind a new idea. This takes time and calls on one’s ability to research and understand the points of view and value levers of your colleagues and partners. This skill also comes over time, with experience, and as I like to say, “real world reps”.
- I wish I was told how to appreciate the many small steps it takes to execute on a larger idea. With the help of some fantastic mentors and through first-hand experience, I have learned to better enjoy the journey toward executing on a plan. I try to ensure my colleagues and I regale in the small successes that lead up to the desired end state. This keeps up morale and helps build the necessary momentum that is required to execute a plan.
- It is important to seek out mentorship and support. Do not be afraid to reach out to the people you look up to such as industry influencers. I have found that many people in these roles enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience with others!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to contribute some of my energies to expand the reach of and expose STEM education to underserved students and communities. I have begun work toward this goal, starting with small steps that I am able to reasonably accomplish. The authentic and unbridled excitement that kids exude when you talk to them about technology — and in my case, technology and sports — fuels the soul! The ability to make a difference by inspiring a child, opening doors, and setting the stage for the next generation of innovators is something I can see dedicating myself to through the rest of my career and beyond.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Reed Hastings, Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Netflix. Mr. Hastings is from New England (Boston). He attended college at Bowdoin College (Maine). He is an established innovator whose multiple contributions have disrupted and endured. I happened to be living in the Bay Area when Netflix launched its DVD services. I can’t claim to be its first customer, but I was an early and enthusiastic adopter! I would love the opportunity to talk to Reed and learn more about his path, the trials endured, and the crossroads faced on his path toward founding Netflix — a service that today has over 200 million subscribers.
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