As the Green Bay Packers celebrated their 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears in this year's NFC Championship Game, Wayne Wichlacz, the Packers' director of information technology, was already thinking ahead to Super Bowl XLV. But he wasn't worrying about the Pittsburgh Steelers' ferocious pass rush or speedy wide receivers. Rather, Wichlacz was mentally going over the setup of an on-site IT environment in a suburban Dallas hotel that would serve as the team's Super Bowl IT operations center.
Wichlacz's goal was to recreate, in smaller scale, a faithful replica of the IT operations at Lambeau Field. This literally required a lot of heavy lifting: Wichlacz's 10-member IT team coordinated the transportation, from Green Bay to Dallas, of 80 coach and staff HP laptops, 15 printers and four HP Proliant servers for video and file sharing. All this equipment was packed up in three large ruggedized cases and loaded onto the plane as ordinary luggage.
Wichlacz's team arrived in Dallas on Monday before the Super Bowl, unpacked the equipment and set up two separate high speed networks, one for the team's business operations and the other for video. When Wichlacz arrived three days later, he was pleased to find no technical issues that might distract the Packers' coaches from their game day preparations.
For Wichlacz, who joined the Packers in 1993 as its first IT staffer, the smooth functioning of the team's IT operations was nearly as satisfying as the Packer's 31-25 triumph in Super Bowl XLV.
"The team that's most organized usually wins the game, as the saying goes in the NFL," Wichlacz said in a recent interview. "Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is very much a stickler for having the same routine for everything, including technology operations."
Wichlacz was also with the Packers for the team's 35-21 Super Bowl XXXI victory over the New England Patriots in January 1997. Brett Favre was the Packers' quarterback in that game, and the team's IT operations were simple: The Packers had just four PCs, two printers, one copier and a Remote Access Server (RAS) connected to two MicroVAX servers, according to Wichlacz.
Back then, Lambeau Field's IT was essentially a 10-day-per-year operation corresponding to the team's eight regular season and two preseason games. Now, fueled by the Packers' booming Pro Shop and special events businesses, Lambeau Field is open 350 days per year, and the Packers' IT operations encompasses e-commerce, e-mail marketing, CRM and data warehousing technologies, Wichlacz said.
The Packers run all of this on 80 Proliant servers with Lefthand Networks storage, about half of which are virtualized, said Wichlacz. The team works with Green Bay-based HP partner Camera Corner/Connecting Point (CCCP), whose CEO Rick Chernick is a member of the Packers board of directors. Wichlacz says the expertise Camera Corner/Connecting Point brings to the table has helped the Packers focus on their core business: winning football games.
The Packers are also cautiously exploring opportunities to weave cloud computing into their day-to-day operations. The team uses Microsoft CRM Online to run its fan registration system, and it also uses the cloud-based antispam that's part of the NFL's integrated Microsoft Exchange network.
"We're slowly picking and choosing cloud as the application and business need warrants," Wichlacz said. "But we are, from an infrastructure standpoint, still in house, and I don’t see us pushing that in the near future."
The Packers are steeped in NFL tradition, and so the team's renovation of Lambeau Field prior to the 2003 season didn't include a ton of technological bells and whistles. At 46 feet wide by 23 feet high, Lambeau's video screen is one of the smallest of any NFL stadium, although the team is planning an upgrade in 2012.
Wichlacz is currently overseeing the installation of a new audio system at Lambeau Field that will feature clearer sound and speakers distributed throughout the stadium bowl.
Technology has certainly had a beneficial impact on the NFL but the game is still won and lost between the lines, Wichlacz acknowledged. "For coaches, the game really hasn't changed at all in terms of how they analyze opponents and plan for upcoming games," he said. "Where technology has changed things is that coaches can ask more questions and do so much more analysis than in the past, with the help of video, computers and databases."
Video is a particularly useful tool for NFL teams: Coaches rely on game and practice video to make strategic decisions, and advances in digital video and networking are helping them get this data more quickly than in the past. At the stadium on game day, television crews are starting to utilize fiber optic camera interfaces, Wichlacz said. "That's the next revolution from a stadium perspective and we're starting to see it now."
The Packers' practice facility in Green Bay includes a high speed network connection to the team's main data center, Wichlacz said. "Our video guys shoot practices just like they do during the game, and since they're plugged into the network, the video is recorded on the video servers in our data center," he said. "So when the coaches leave practice and go back to their offices at the stadium, they've got the practice video right there."
Next: Packers' Team Mentality Includes IT