Reinventing football

  @FortuneMagazine October 31, 2013: 6:44 AM ET
NIN18 49ers tech team

From left, 49ers stadium-tech guru Doug Garland, president Gideon Yu, owner Jed York, and analytics maven Paraag Marathe

(Fortune)

"You want a 49ers Dog? How about a drink with that?"

Doug Garland pulls out his iPhone and gets ready to take my order. After I confirm that, yes, thank you, I'd like a hot dog and Coke, the general manager of stadium experience and technology for the San Francisco 49ers taps his screen and waits. We're sitting on the 45-yard line, five rows up from the sideline, during a recent game. With 12:50 to go in the second quarter, the 49ers are leading 10-0, but the Minnesota Vikings have the ball. The home crowd groans as Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart barrels around right end for a six-yard gain -- then cheers when the play is wiped out by a holding penalty.

Neither of us is eager to make a run to the concession stand. And Garland is about to show me why -- today and in the future at 49ers games -- it won't be necessary. Using the new app that his group has been developing, he's going to order food to be delivered right to our seats. There's just one small problem -- the app won't load. Instead, it offers a message: "No data connection." Undeterred, Garland borrows a phone from one of the other dozen or so team employees who are testing the app's functionality on this chilly Sunday evening at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, and successfully places the order. Minutes later, with 8:17 left before halftime, a runner arrives with our hot dogs and Cokes, nicely wrapped and bagged. So what if we're missing straws?

"Hey, not bad, right?" says Garland, 53, a veteran of Yahoo, Google, and Shazam who joined the Niners this year. "This is version 1.0 of the app we're testing here. But we're already on to 2.0 back in the office. Like any startup, we're trying to rapidly iterate."

Imagine if Silicon Valley created a football franchise. The owner/CEO would be barely more than 30, and he would talk a lot about learning to embrace failure. The president would be a veteran of Facebook, Yahoo, and YouTube. The coach would be interested in what analytics could tell him about his two-minute offense. The COO would be finding ways to harness the power of Big Data when negotiating contracts. And, of course, the team would play in a brand-new, solar-powered football palace with Wi-Fi robust enough to make folks in the Googleplex jealous -- enabling fans to use a mind-blowing mobile app that might just redefine the live sports experience.

Welcome to the San Francisco 49ers, startup edition. With a history dating back to 1946 and a glorious past that includes five Super Bowl victories, the Niners are one of the National Football League's most venerable franchises. But under the leadership of owner Jed York, 32, the team has undergone a complete reboot over the past few years.

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