The thunder of the line running down-field at kickoff. The clash of helmets ramming together. The stealth movements of a wide receiver. The mere mention of the National Football League (NFL) conjures up images of strength, speed and agility, so it makes sense that the talents showcased on the field are the qualities the league values as a business.
Ready, set . . . wait
"NFL Photos is the still photography division for the NFL," says Paul Spinelli, director of photographic services (NFL Photos), National Football League. "We have three million images in our library dating as far back as the turn of the century. Every image you see in NFL publications originates here. We have more than 500 freelance photographers who've worked for the NFL over the years. They cover games and other events and submit their work exclusively to us. We split the photo sales with them if their work gets picked up in print. Or, if a photo runs in one of our publications, we pay the photographer a space rate."
For NFL Photos, "servicing customers" means sharing things like players' head shots with a large number of news organizations, including ESPN, FOX, CBS and ABC, in addition to print and electronic media outlets.
"In 1998, we began working on an NFL-head shots program, [for which] each of the teams would photograph their players, coaches and top executives," recalls Spinelli. "We'd receive negatives and slides in black-and-white and in color. . . . We had to scan the images, color-correct them and burn them to a CD-ROM that was distributed to each of the media channels. It was very labor intensive, and we weren't able to get the CDs into the hands of the people that needed them until as much as eight weeks into the season."
The technology draft
As the saying goes, there had to be a better way. After spending considerable time investigating how to best manage the images, Spinelli at last came upon an ASP (Application Service Provider) that offered the type of functionality his organization needed to ensure faster time-to-market for the more than 3,500 player photos.
"With [WebWare] MAMBO, we capture the images digitally, color-correct and distribute photos via the Web to media organizations for television and print uses," Spinelli explains. "It was a good solution to our problem. This year, we were able to speed up the process by shooting with digital cameras and distributing the photos online."
"The images arrive as RGB files. Our prepress supplier, Western Laser Graphics, produces digital proofs for us to edit and spell check," Spinelli adds. "The photos are saved in file formats that are optimized for print, TV or the Web. Eventually, they are uploaded to WebWare's server."
Spinelli estimates the cost of implementing WebWare MAMBO was about four percent of the cost to design, build and manage a system on their own. He says, "We calculated the costs for hardware, software and personnel, and decided that if we were going to do it ourselves, we were going to have to cut a lot of corners, because we had a specific budget. … [W]e realized that we didn't want to reinvent the wheel."
"The NFL could have spent millions to do it themselves," explains Lauren Flanagan, WebWare's chairman, CEO and co-founder. "Now, they're able to guarantee global access to their images and reach a larger audience. They're also able to ensure that the journalists who need access to images have the most up-to-date archive available."
After working with WebWare MAMBO for a few months, Spinelli also realized that an in-house solution never would have been able to handle the volume of server requests it would have to process. "After we got up and running, we sent out a broadcast e-mail about the photos, and we got 2,500 hits the next day. It would have crushed the servers [we considered buying]."
Indeed, working with an ASP allows NFL Photos to expand their offerings. "Our solution is completely scalable," Flanagan adds. "We can accommodate as many as eight million concurrent users."
Looking forward to next season
Choosing an ASP in favor of designing its own media management system has alleviated NFL photos of many IT headaches.
"Slowly, we will migrate away from producing team head shots on discs, in favor of online distribution," Spinelli predicts. "That will save us a considerable amount of time and money."
"The Head Shots Project" is only the beginning of the NFL's Web plans. If the three million archived photos are digitized, they would be available through the site, as well—some for free, others for a fee.
Another key to the success of the NFL solution is the metadata schema. Metadata, descriptive data attached to asset files and stored in a database, is essential to critical asset management functions, such as quick searching, retrieving and usage reporting. Flanagan explains that the metadata captured by the system will enable customers to generate an almost limitless amount of custom reports. He says, "The NFL will be able to find out which publication used images and when. They can track what images are most often used. [T]hey'll have greater insight into who they're serving and be able to calculate ROI."
Metadata will also allow NFL Photos to better categorize and form collections of its images, such as all photos taken during a particular season, or from a specific team, or even a single game or event.
"We've been listening to what our clients want," Flanagan says. "We realized that they want an out-of-the-box solution, but one that is configurable to suit their specific needs. We've created a very rich and intuitive GUI (Graphic User Interface) for WebWare MAMBO that allows the users, depending on their level of access, to configure the solution themselves. It's simple to use—kind of like a FileMaker or AppleScript application—but it runs on top of an incredibly robust Oracle platform."
"We've really enjoyed working with the NFL to develop their archive," Flanagan remarks. "They're one of those customers that gets it! We're honored that they chose our solution."
"We are certainly considering expanding our relationship with WebWare," Spinelli confides. "I like to think that [partnering with WebWare] was a perfect marriage of photography and technology."
-Gretchen A. Kirby (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president and CEO of P.A.G.E.s, a writing and publishing consulting firm based in Abington, PA.