"How's your laptop?" Curbelo asks.
"It's done, fried," Thomas says. "I need a new one."
"Well, if you need help loading software or anything, we're here."
"Great," the linebacker replies.
"Some clubs give out laptops, but we don't," Curbelo explains as he walks through the locker room and onto one of the team's two scrimmage fields.
"The players move around a lot, and the computers are delicate. But we'll help them if they need anything" -- even if it means dealing with multiple notebook brands and operating systems. In other words, when the team's star linebacker wants tech support, he gets tech support.
But while the Dolphins aren't providing players with laptops (which some clubs use instead of paper playbooks), the team still leads the league in aligning technology and pig-skin. Over the past six years, the Dolphins have more than doubled the team's IT spending with Director of IT Tery Howard calling the plays. Now IT is changing virtually every aspect of the club's business practices, from recruiting players to selling tickets. In football parlance, Howard is driving technology down the field.
"You think of football, and you don't exactly think of IT ... [but] we're very progressive," says Howard, a daughter of Cuban immigrants (see The Making of a Miami Dolphins Technology Leader).
Ramping I.T. Up a Notch
Before she arrived in 1999, the Dolphins' IT department consisted of two staff members and three servers. Its job was to keep the phones ringing and the back-office software from crashing. Howard won't say how much the team spends on IT, but the New York-based National Football League (NFL) isn't known for being at the vanguard of technology. "Team management in the NFL is much less important than in other sports," notes Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a professional sports consultant. "The NFL is so popular that teams don't have to work that hard in marketing, and the league is more centralized. In terms of technology, baseball has pushed the envelope more than any other sport. The NFL is in the middle."
But today, technology suffuses the entire Dolphins operation. The team's IT department has beefed up considerably. There are now three staffers, two assistants and two consultants, and the data center has grown to 11 servers. New customer relationship management (CRM) software, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) pilot program and a marketing deal with Verizon in exchange for telephones are all part of the package. "We place great value on the IT department," says Joseph A. Bailey iii, CEO of Dolphins Enterprises LLC. "Tery is the quarterback for us."
Howard's game plan wasn't simply to throw more money at IT, although that was part of it. The real challenge was conceptualizing how to leverage the Dolphins' key assets, primarily the Dolphins brand. "We needed more hardware and better vendor relationships," she explains. "I asked myself, 'What resources are underutilized?' The answer was the NFL and vendors. We needed to build a foundation. We needed to spend some money. We needed another server. I figured vendors would love to come out here."
If the road to the Super Bowl is a long one, so has been Howard's effort to make technology a strategic asset in an industry where brute strength usually reigns. But her experience is also an example of what can happen when management gives the ball to a technology chief who wants to run with it. "The old focus was just on making the operation run," Howard says. "Changing that focus was a great challenge."
This was first published in September 2005