High-Tech Sports Fandom

Stadiums are moving into the hyper-connected age with a new breed of novel, networked experiences.

This NFL season is a turning point in stadium technology, with more pressure on owners and network operators to make fans feel as safe and comfortable as they can, while providing a unique experience that justifies the ticket price. Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, now five years old, is one of the defining venues in this realm. The stadium became a living lab for new media after Dallas-based AT&T put its name on the building more than a year ago.

With 10 new stadiums in 12 years, the NFL is embracing a steady tech evolution. It’s a key strategy at a time when the league is under pressure to restore its public image and win back ticket buyers who have been turned off by the NFL’s missteps in domestic abuse cases, player safety, and heaven-knows-what-else by the time you read this column.

In Santa Clara, California, the newly-opened Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers) was the talk of the sports world during the NFL pre-season because of its fast Internet speeds and the fact that its mobile app features the ability to see in-game, high-def video replays. In Dallas, the pressure was on AT&T and the Cowboys to create their own set of tech bragging rights. “What fans want to do is connect with the game, and everything about the game,” says Esther Lee, AT&T’s senior vice president of brand, marketing, advertising, and sponsorship. Lee says AT&T created a “connection point” that could “elevate the whole game experience.”

The company calls it “Live FX,” a massive, network-connected, interactive digital display. It uses a 130-foot-long series of 40 rotating LED panels with 140 strobe lights distributed across the back.

An AT&T Stadium mobile app is used to “power” the display. The app has a few things you’d expect—parking and venue maps, directions to your seats, and ticket purchasing on-demand, to name a few. Unlike in San Francisco, replays aren’t beamed to mobile devices; they’re shown on the stadium’s 600-ton, 160-foot wide HDTV and its two end zone-facing scoreboards.

Live FX’s polling capability, still under development, will provide instant responses to questions and reactions to in-game activity. Now, fans can send their “game face” photos to the screen during specified times. Lee says fans love the recognition they get for leading a cheer or otherwise standing out.

The Live FX board’s main feature makes use of the “Unite this House” button inside the app. The button makes the phone vibrate and its LED flash fires like a strobe light as a sort of call-and-response to the Live FX board. The board flashes brighter and with more intensity as more fans join in. The light show, along with the vocal cheers, gradually rise and sustain until the noise level and visual effects overwhelm the cheers of the visiting team’s fans. 

Giving customers too little or too much technology—or the wrong kinds of connection options—can be disastrous. 

AT&T’s system sets an interesting precedent in how walls, signs, and public spaces can be used to create an environment that’s “aware” of the people and activity nearby. Social networking of the future could involve similar publicly-shared experiences.

“I think each and every venue owner will be doing something of the same sort, and if they’re not working on it now, they will be shortly,” says Scott Mair, senior vice president of network planning and engineering at AT&T. 

The promise of something like Live FX, analysts say, is a network that won’t drop the ball under pressure. “The key concern would be the broadband quality,” says Barbara Kraus, director of research at Dallas-based Parks Associates. “AT&T is planning to add access points and strengthen coverage indoors. However, if the broadband is insufficient to handle traffic, it could turn people off.”

When AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, the stadium’s wired network and its big HDTV carried the headlines. It had one of the largest single-building IPTV networks ever, connecting nearly 3,000 displays. Wireless connectivity was available with 244 cellular antennas. Now the stadium has about 1,500 Wi-Fi access points and a more than 1,300-antenna DAS (distributed antenna system). AT&T says that would provide cellular and data adequate coverage for a city the size of McKinney.

“Stadium networks now look nothing like what was being deployed in 2009,” says Paul Kapustka, editor of Mobile Sports Report, a website that tracks stadium network technology. “Providers of all types have consistently underestimated capacity needs, so networks now are being built to handle orders of magnitudes more traffic. Connectivity is necessary, not just in the seats, but in the parking lots and in concourses, too.”

Technologies like small cells, distributed antenna systems, and Wi-Fi routers and access points are hidden all around AT&T Stadium. For AT&T, small cells and DAS help boost, collect, and route cellular signals, and Wi-Fi provides yet another option for network access that is closer to and carries more data per user than most cellular options. On Sept. 7 during the Cowboys home opener, between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., AT&T carried more than 158 gigabytes (GB) of data on its DAS. That’s just one hour, on one part of one network, in one building. Meanwhile, on the AT&T Stadium Wi-Fi network, during that same day and hour, fans generated 723 GB of data. In all, AT&T Stadium carried more than 2.76 terabytes of data traffic on its Wi-Fi network and more than 889 GB of data traffic on its cellular networks that day—roughly equivalent to 10.3 million social networking posts with photos.

Mair says the soaring data usage is why AT&T never really stops building its network at AT&T Stadium, or any of the other venues it operates. He notes that mobile data traffic on the company’s national wireless network increased more than 50,000 percent from January 2007, the year the iPhone debuted, through December 2013.

Know Thy Fan

But connectivity is not the reason we go to games, is it?  “I can’t think of a bigger mistake than trying to integrate smartphones just because you can,” wrote Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in a 2011 post on his blog. “The last thing I want is someone looking down at their phone to see a replay.”

Football has time for replays, but hockey and basketball fans might find too much device detail distracting. And don’t mess with the tradition of European soccer. In August, fans of the Netherlands’ PSV Eindhoven soccer team famously protested the introduction of Wi-Fi at its home stadium, holding a large banner that read, “F**k Wi-Fi. Support the Team.”

Business owners can learn a lot from this range of reactions. Giving customers too little or too much technology—or the wrong kinds of connection options—can be disastrous. You have to know what business you’re in, first, before attempting social media campaigns, online ads, or using network connectivity as a selling point. In the case of AT&T and the Cowboys, the Live FX video board shows off the stadium’s network, but in a way that makes fans face the field and use their devices to lead cheers. 

What’s coming up next? How will teams and venues do even more to connect with fans (and connect fans to one another)?

Kraus at Parks Associates says video sharing is rising in popularity, and venues will have to accommodate it. Her company’s research shows that although photo sharing is the No. 1 use for smartphone messaging app users, nearly 30 percent are using video sharing at least once a month. Mobile devices have increasing storage space, too; the new Apple iPhone 6 comes with 128GB right out of the box. “Video sharing enables consumers to share a moment with someone right now and provides a sense of instant gratification for sharing experiences where the emotion or excitement can’t be fully communicated in text or a still photo,” Kraus says.

According to Kapustka of the tech website, anything that shortens lines should score points with the public. He suggests that mobile apps for stadiums should allow for seat upgrades, and provide in-building directions, food delivery, and the ability to find and connect with friends. Also, he says, as back-office systems in stadiums evolve, look for venues and teams to provide individually targeted offers based on purchasing history and customer loyalty.

The key will be getting and using fan information wiselysomething that most stadium networks either don’t do well or don’t do at all, Kapustka says. “Once a team, an owner, or a network operator has opt-in information from fans, the opportunities are limited only by imagination.”

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