SAPPHIRE NOW Unplugged: Digital Experience Is Winning Play For San Francisco 49ers


On the eve of the virtual National Football League (NFL) draft, Al Guido, president of the San Francisco 49ers football team, had this reassuring message for fans: Football won’t disappear.

“We will play again, and we have the resources and the technology at our fingertips to be able to make these decisions,” Guido said. “We don’t all have to be in the same room doing it. That these draft picks can’t have their hug on stage with Roger Goodell doesn’t change the fact that they’re going to be drafted in the National Football League.”

Guido cannot be faulted for considering himself luckier than some other sports and entertainment industries. The football season does not begin until July or August, giving the league precious time to plan for what comes next.

Judging by the recent conversation he had with DJ Paoni, president of SAP North America, Guido and his team are ready for pretty much anything – a must-have in these times of uncertainty. Their talk was among the fascinating digital broadcasts available on demand as part of SAP’s premier customer conference, SAPPHIRE NOW Reimagined.

Winning Digital Fan Experience

Going digital amid COVID-19 was not entirely revelatory for the San Francisco 49ers. The team embarked on a digital transformation about 10 years ago while building a new stadium, hiring more employees, and bringing in a host of technology innovations for an amazing fan experience.

“We had to have that digital transformation in all of our software platforms and how we communicate with each other,” Guido said. “So we felt like we were properly set up to do this. Obviously, it’s not perfect. I’d rather be face to face. But we’re communicating on a daily basis through conference calls.”

The pandemic has shifted the team’s already revamped digital fan experience into the stratosphere.

“We’ve actually been able to get closer to our fans because of the… digital transformation that we’re going through. You see all of these early adopters on every piece of new technology,” Guido remarked. “I now know more about our fans than frankly I probably did prior because of this. With our customer service team, we made sure that we were even more proactive in reaching out.”

Communication Circles Get Bigger

Counterintuitively, social distancing has also expanded the football team’s arc of communication with important partners. It was part of a deliberate strategy to stay informed through internal and outside experts.

“I started a task force not just our executive team but folks outside of our organization, from whether it’s the governor’s office or our local state politicians…even having the chief medical officer from the national football league join our calls,” Guido said.  “We’re trying to be as smart as possible here and knowing that none of us are scientists in the world of NFL football. Where we were getting our information was important and how we acted on it.”

In Praise of Micromanaging

Guido finds himself more entrenched in the details of his business, given the fast-moving nature of the pandemic and its whiplashing impact on so many things. Ruefully admitting that micromanaging is typically vilified, he nonetheless points to its value during the pandemic.

“I find myself more entrenched in the business now than I ever was. I’m speaking to the highest ups in the National Football League around the planning and processing,” Guido explained. “And if that dictates a timeline on our marketing staff that they wouldn’t have otherwise known if I wasn’t in that call, then that’s great news for all of us.”

Players Persevere

When asked how football players were staying in shape, Guido distinguished between current, injured, and prospective team members. Returning players were busy with home workouts and virtual check-ins. Since physical therapy was an essential service, injured players were getting rehabilitation services. The next challenge will be onboarding drafted players. One bright spot was college football, despite some caveats.

“We’re lucky in the sense that the college football season wasn’t impacted by this,” Guido said. “Our scouts…have been on the road all year looking at this talent that’s going to come out. We also heavily rely on film. What’s been most impacted is some of the medical. For those players, we’ve been trying to do as much as we can within our medical staff to get that information because normally we’d … have that player visit our shop, and maybe go through [on-site] workouts.”

Giving Fans Something to Cheer About

As for what re-entry looks like for the San Francisco 49ers, Guido says that fans can count on a number of contingency plans that reflect the organization’s customer-first commitment. More than anything, the goal is to make sure fans stay healthy and safe – besides winning games, that is.

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