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How the NFL and its stadiums became leaders in Wi-Fi, monetizing apps, and customer experience

Learn how sports stadiums and professional sports leagues have embraced digital transformation to make stadiums the best place to watch the game again.
Written by Teena Maddox, Contributor

The interior of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Image: San Francisco 49ers

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

In the past two years, fan expectations have changed dramatically when it comes to connectivity and Wi-Fi in stadiums. Fans are consuming Wi-Fi bandwidth as fast as the stadiums can provide it, and their appetites seem insatiable.

TechRepublic last covered this topic in-depth in April 2014, when we heard from industry sources that in order to keep millennials coming to live events, that generation expected fast Wi-Fi connectivity at stadiums--while others outside of that generation appreciated it, but didn't demand it. Two years later, everyone, regardless of age, expects seamless connectivity at a game, concert, or other entertainment event.

The need for more data capacity is especially being driven by people using devices with better cameras. Instead of photos being taken at 8 megapixels, as they were just two years ago, now smartphones such as the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7 feature 12-megapixel cameras, which create files that are 13% larger or more. Videos being uploaded to Snapchat, Periscope and other social media platforms are also boosting the need for more capacity.

The NFL was among the quickest to realize that all of their fans wanted connectivity, not just the younger generation. Michelle McKenna-Doyle, CIO of the NFL, said, "When we first started talking about this, it was about the tolerance level for our younger fans. It was certainly a lot less for accessibility and connectivity for other fans. Now it's every person who attends a game. [The Millennial issue] was a hypothesis we had, but it got shut down pretty fast when even in our fan surveys it came up over and over again when we didn't have the connectivity."

The Minnesota Vikings just built a new high-tech stadium in preparation for Super Bowl LII in 2018, and John Penhollow, vice president of corporate and technology partnerships for the team, said, "Every fan has a different reason they want to connect and communicate with someone who might be in the stadium or out of the stadium so that's our job to make sure that the connectivity is ready for them."

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At the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the facility has undergone a facelift this year to update it for the new season and higher capacity needs of fans, said Fred Kirsch, publisher and vice president of content for the team.

"There's an expectation from fans. Being connected through their device is their expectation whether it's music or sports. They want to download information to enhance what they're doing, they want to share with friends. They want to be connected with the outside world. If you don't have good connectivity it might not destroy the event but it detracts from it. We want to make sure we've done everything in our power to make the event as good as it can be," Kirsch said.

Who has Wi-Fi and who doesn't

There are only three NFL stadiums that do not have Wi-Fi installed: NRG Stadium in Houston, Qualcomm in San Diego, and O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. NRG has a deal in place with 5 Bars to have Wi-Fi installed before the football season begins this year, so that it can be tested prior to hosting Super Bowl LI in February 2017. Both Qualcomm Stadium and O.co are seeking to replace their existing stadiums with new buildings in the near future, so spending millions to upgrade at this point isn't financially feasible.

Having only three NFL stadiums (from among 32 teams) without Wi-Fi is a far lower rate than in 2014. "Two years ago it was all but 12 or 13 stadiums, and now we've made significant progress. We didn't have to do a lot of hard pressure to get it done once it really became clear to [the stadiums] that it was a fan expectation. We were able to help them partner with Verizon and Extreme Networks who put together various partnerships for the clubs as well," McKenna-Doyle said.

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"Super Bowl 50 [in 2015] was our first Super Bowl in one of the brand new stadiums that has come on in the last few years, and what a difference it made, so we could add all these augmented services to our fans," she said.

The services include the ability to order food from your seat, determine the length of the closest bathroom line, watch instant replays, upgrade your seat location after arriving in the stadium and even watching behind-the-scenes footage available only to those in-house and using the stadium or team app.

Super Bowl 50 resulted in 10.1 terabytes of data usage transferred over the Wi-Fi network at Levi's Stadium on game day. That's the equivalent of 6,000-plus hours of HD video or almost 1.2 million 2MB images. This smashed previous data usage records, and was a 63% increase over the amount of data usage the year before at Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona.

"To see how much they downloaded and uploaded really proved a point: They will consume as much as you give to them. You have to decide at some point what is the right balance, but I think it's proven the point that Wi-Fi is a utility like water and power, and now it's not an optional thing that you add," McKenna-Doyle said.

Extreme Networks, the official Wi-Fi analytics provider of the Super Bowl, said that the top app category at Super Bowl 50 was social media, and the most accessed was Facebook, followed by Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Periscope.

"People expect connectivity everywhere these days. In the US, somewhere between 65-70% of travelers are choosing not just the airline but specifically the plan to travel based on whether or not it has Wi-Fi. That's a pretty startling stat when you think about someone is going to change their travel plan or break their loyalty to their chosen airline based on whether it has Wi-Fi," said Mike Leibovitz, director of the office of the CTO for Extreme Networks.

How to build a high-tech stadium

The amount of cable, access points, and beacons installed at a new stadium is astounding. While some arenas are retrofitted to accommodate better Wi-Fi connectivity, the best results naturally come from a new stadium built from the ground up.

Levi's Stadium, which opened in July 2014, features 400 miles of data cable, more than 12,000 physical network ports, more than 1,200 Wi-Fi access points, approximately 1,200 Bluetooth beacons, and a backbone of 40 Gbps of available internet bandwidth.


Some Wi-Fi access points are underneath the seats at Levi's Stadium.

Image: James Martin/CNET

The technology works particularly well at Levi's Stadium because, from the beginning, the tech vendors were brought in to strategize and architect the stadium around the role technology would play, said Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst and president of Creative Strategies, a tech research firm.

"They brought in and built the fiber optic networks, the cable networks. They were able to put the wireless systems in as part of the build of the stadium. That gave the [partners] like VenueNext an incredible opportunity to innovate because they were working with an optimized backend that they could then do this custom-level software application," Bajarin said.

"Why that's important is that in most other stadiums what happens is it would be more of a retrofit. Most stadiums are 20-30 plus years old. You're going to have to do a significant rewiring of the infrastructure to bring this in, while the 49ers built this as part of the design. VenueNext was a custom software vendor at the time. They were able to work with the [team] knowing clearly what was available and then with the 49ers themselves, they architected the software solution, which included all of the incredible Wi-Fi connections," he said.

SEE: Scoring big with mobile coverage for the NCAA Final Four

"They had a tremendous architectural infrastructure to work with, so the 49ers could say they wanted coverage for the parking, they wanted the beacons, and [to have a fan] with the app be able to be guided to their seats [and] be able to order food from their seats. They could fundamentally do all of this as a part of the stadium design," Bajarin said.

"Levi's Stadium was kind of a test bed for us with understanding [access point] placement," said Marcus Wehmeyer, a professional services solutions architect with Aruba and the architect for the beacons installed at Levi's Stadium. "Some companies still put directional antennas covering the seats mounting above shooting down [toward the seats]. We had limited experience with APs mounted under the seats. We convinced Levi's Stadium to go this route."

Wehmeyer also worked with Texas A&M University to install a new high-density wireless network at its revamped Kyle Field. The first game was played at the renovated stadium in September 2015. Additional venues he has consulted on deployments with are the Kansas State University stadium (Manhattan, Kansas), the Moda Center (Portland, Oregon), United Center (Chicago), American Airlines Center (Dallas), Nationwide Arena (Columbus, OH), and Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, North Carolina).

At Levi's Stadium, the access points are installed with one for every 100 users. At Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, Aruba increased the density to one access point for every 75 users, he said.

One of the variables that must be considered with different stadiums is temperature. Sunny Santa Clara is different than Texas, with the blazing hot summers and colder winters in the Lone Star State. Aruba even developed a new product just to accommodate the varied climate in Texas, Wehmeyer said.


Cisco has creative options for antenna placement in order to ensure the best coverage.

Image: Cisco

One of the reasons stadiums need blazing fast Wi-Fi connectivity is that users have less time to conduct their interaction online, with less time to transmit their data than if they were at home or in the office--since they're using it while watching an event.

Under-seat AP mounting isn't always the best way to go, according to Joshua Suhr, solutions architect for Cisco. In a session at Cisco Live in Las Vegas, he explained that it all starts with design, and you have to chose the right antenna for the job. He said the problem with under-seat mounting is that it is more expensive to install, and the maintenance is costly, since the holes for the mount will regularly shrink and seal up, and need to be re-opened again.

Another option that he often recommends to clients is to put AP's on handrails, and hide them under a sign or a panel, for aesthetic purposes. Suhr suggested that teams could sell the blank space to sponsors for advertising.

Cisco also offers a dual-band stadium antenna that's primarily used for overhead coverage and works best for people using devices in a 30-foot to 65-foot distance. A wide dual-band patch antenna is used for people 30 feet or closer to the antenna. "We'll use this on low walls at stadiums, but we don't want it to be obvious or people will swarm to it," Suhr said.

Cisco offered the two products--one for close-up use, and one for farther out, but "we realized we needed something in the middle," Suhr said.

The result is Cisco's new dual-band patch antenna that sweeps out 15 feet to 30 feet to give fans connectivity to overlap the coverage areas for the other two antennas, the dual-band and the wide dual-band patch, he said.

Troubleshooting in a stadium once antennas are in place is also crucial. When Cisco first began installing Wi-Fi antennas in stadiums, they placed them under the concrete. Site surveys showed that it worked well, but then when fans entered the stadium, there would be problems with connectivity, Suhr said.

"It showed a nice small coverage area. But we were surveying with a laptop, not a smartphone. The laptop has a really good antenna so it [connects to] that AP really well," Suhr said. "We're taking a pretty hard stance and saying 'don't do that.' We know that's a bad solution. We tried it."

The access points help improve connectivity in the stadiums by ensuring that each spot in the stadium has coverage.

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How they do it in Minneapolis and New England

Stadiums are building more capacity than fans need at the moment, in anticipation of rising data usage demands, and for those who already have Wi-Fi in place, they're busy with periodic upgrades.

Minneapolis is home to the new U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings football team will play. The stadium opened on July 22, and the first big event to test the new Wi-Fi capabilities was in mid-August, with a Luke Bryan concert, and the first game will be on August 28. The stadium will host the 2018 Super Bowl.

The stadium worked with Verizon to provide a distributed antenna system (DAS), CenturyLink provided the Wi-Fi connectivity, and Cisco provided LAN and Wi-Fi access points, with a total of 1,300 APs throughout the stadium, Penhollow said.

The stadium doesn't use under-seat mounts for APs, unlike Levi's Stadium. "We will have antennas and access points mounted under the LED board and vertical spaces, etc. Down low we will put Wi-Fi access points in essentially a clamshell enclosure and install those into the handrails. There's a portion of the building down low that will have access points embedded in the handrails. You're starting to see this launching in baseball stadiums, too," he said.

"We will have stadium-wide Wi-Fi. All 66,200 fans could theoretically jump on. Reality is they won't but we're going to watch the trends. We will shoot for half of the building on Wi-Fi at any one time," said Penhollow.

"In 2016 we'll be overbuilt a little. But we know that technology is moving so fast that now is the time to put the pipe in and put the infrastructure in. If trends keep moving up with people jumping on to the Wi-Fi system we'll be ready. We will build a strong enough pipe to more than cover what we need in 2016 or 2017. We believe we have enough to cover the 2018 Super Bowl which we'll be hosting, but I'm sure by late 2017 if things are still changing, we will need more infrastructure."

SEE: Super Bowl 50 smashes data records with 10.1TB flying across Wi-Fi

The added capacity isn't so that fans tune out of the game, but so that they have the ability to use their mobile devices when they want to.

"We don't want people to be staring at their phone for the 5 hours they're with us, but the key for us is that we want to make sure that you the fan when you need to use the phone, you can. But when you're looking for a piece of information whether stats on the Vikings, or something else, we have to make sure our system is strong enough with no gaps in coverage," Penhollow said.

Gillette Stadium--home to the New England Patriots--underwent a facelift to provide free Wi-Fi for all fans, Kirsch said.

"For 2016, we are upgrading all our Wi-Fi in the bowl to the latest generation of radios, 802.11ac, which gives you a lot more space. In layman's terms, it turns a six-lane highway into a 24-lane highway. You can put more AP's in the same areas, which obviously makes the coverage better for everyone," Kirsch said.

"We'll be going from 300 to 400 access points to well over 1,000 access points for 2016 and the new radios and this new generation of Wi-Fi makes this possible. We'll be ready for the NFL season," he said.

The initial installation of Wi-Fi took place in 2012, and after four seasons, it was time to upgrade again. "It's just the time. The technology is at the point now where we can do it. We want to make sure that our fans have the best. It's a significant investment but it's worth it," he explained.

How teams are monetizing apps

More teams are monetizing their apps by selling merchandise, food and drinks to fans, as well as tickets for future games. This is another reason it's important to have a strong Wi-Fi connection and plenty of beacons in place. The beacons pinpoint where a fan is located within the stadium. By knowing this, the team can send messages about discounts, whether on merchandise or hot dogs at that moment in the stadium. The beacons also allow the stadium to give helpful information to fans such as how long the nearest bathroom wait is going to be.

VenueNext and YinzCam are two mobile platform developers used by many professional teams and arenas to boost profits through additional sales and advertising. All of these options make it easier for fans to spend money, and for stadiums and teams to make money.

Executives at Levi's Stadium hired VenueNext to create the app for the stadium and the 49ers. Fans are able to order food directly to their seats, buy tickets, and participate in fan loyalty programs. Video replays are also available, as well as restroom wait times for locations closest to the fan. When the Super Bowl came to town in February 2016, VenueNext created a new app for the NFL for the event, with features honed just for that massive crowd, including celebrity cam live feeds and express pickup of Super Bowl merchandise at the on-site team store.

"When you provide in-seat ordering of food and beverages, you certainly increase the size of your check or the multiple checks that you have," McKenna-Doyle said, as teams make more money with the more food and drinks that are ordered from each person.


Fans use the in-house app at Levi's Stadium.

Image: San Francisco 49ers

But as teams and venues learn to maximize apps for profit, there's still the need to make sure customers benefit too.

"The balance we have to continue to strike is there are ways to monetize the app, but it's all about the fan experience so it can't become one more way to shake the last quarter out of their pants--it has to be a real benefit for fans and the way they interact with the game and the things the stadiums have to offer," McKenna-Doyle said.

As more teams get apps, the NFL is working on a program to create standard best practices for each app to cover, including basic functionalities that fans expect. "You want people to stay in touch with you, not just when they're at the game. The Patriots have been really creative with that with their app. The Seahawks have been really creative, too," she said.

For instance, New England Patriots fans can set an alarm on the team app to have their favorite player's voice wake them up as their alarm ringtone. Plenty of fans have chosen to hear Tom Brady's voice wake them each morning. Other loyalty programs with various team apps include tie-ins with local businesses who advertise on the app.

On average, 18,000 to 20,000 Patriots' fans use the app at each game. That's a significant portion of the 66,000 people in the stadium. And most those that don't use the app, still use their phones and expect connectivity, Kirsch said.

A gold mine of analytics

John Paul, CEO of VenueNext, said the apps give a plethora of data to the teams. "The paper ticket of the old days was a great anonymizer. I might buy a ticket, but I give it to you to go to the game. By putting mobile tickets on people's phones, [the venue] starts to learn who is at the game. So they can better market to those people who are coming to the game."

"The 49ers knew that 17,000 people are their ticket base that come to their games. Now they know data about 200,000 people after 2-3 seasons," he said, multiplying 17,000 people per game by two to three seasons worth of unique visitors. "They also know what time they got there, what they ate, what they bought. They can send an offer to someone who is a season ticket holder."

Paul said, "The data is valuable. The 49ers have $2 million in increased revenues or decreased costs by using our app."

It's important to get as many people as possible to use the app. "46% of the people used the app at the Super Bowl. The NFL wanted to have their own app. They called it Super Bowl 50 stadium app. The NFL branded it. It did similar functionality to the other apps. It talked to our backends. If you download the Orlando Magic app, that will look different to you, but it uses the exact same backends that we have at Levi's Stadium, but they're hooked up to Amway Center," Paul said.

SEE: FCC vote opens spectrum for 5G connectivity, boosting IoT and mobile video

"We've added more content into that [Levi's Stadium] app because they chose to have a single app. The question is always what do you name the app. Do you name it after the venue or the team? The 49ers have chosen to have one app for Levi's Stadium. And the 49ers app. Because there are people all around the world who want to follow the 49ers but don't want to buy a hot dog at the stadium. We linked the two apps," Paul said.

The Orlando Magic professional basketball team is using their team app to expand the base of fans they know are in the stadium. As soon as someone logs on, their personal information is shared with the team.

"The Orlando Magic already have an analytics platform. When you go to an Orlando Magic game as you're leaving they'll figure out what kind of fan you are. Are you a season ticket holder? Are you from out of town who probably won't be there for more than a week, so as you leave they might give you an offer for the very next game? They don't want to make that offer to a season ticket holder who already has tickets. They give personalized offers," he said.

With the Orlando Magic, there's an option where fans can return their season tickets and get the full face value in credit through the app. The team resells the seat, and the season ticket holder has credit, called Magic Money, for food or drink or other merchandise at a future game.

"The fans just love it. 80% of the food being bought on the mobile app, people are using Magic Money. People feel like they're getting real value for their season tickets. It helps the team make sure the seats are full. All teams want their venue packed. They can put fans in those seats, and that makes a big difference in their bottom line," Paul said.

The app is expensive, but Paul declined to specify the cost, although one source tags the price at $1 million. Paul said, "I've given 100 presentations to 100 customers. No one has ever said to me, 'I'm not interested.' They might not be sure when they can afford it, when they might do it, but no one has said, 'It's a bad idea, we won't do it.' It's only a question of when, and with whom."

How much data is enough?

One of the questions is whether there should be limits placed on the amount of data available to fans.

McKenna-Doyle said, "As technology becomes more and more [widespread], I think two things will happen. You get to provide greater bandwidth in a stadium because it gets less expensive and more readily available. And secondarily with the use of not only our own app but third-party developed apps, including Facebook, Snapchat, and the like, they're getting a little smarter about how they package up their data, so it's not so intense and bandwidth-heavy because they want use of their apps everywhere. App manufacturers are becoming more conscious of how to make their stuff more efficient."

She added, "The third prong that will continue to drive [data limits] higher are new devices that are beginning to make their way into the market that have a different chipset that make for more efficient streaming and things like that [which] aren't so bandwidth heavy."

And why do fans need so much Wi-Fi connectivity? "It matters because our fan-first mentality is they have to be able to transition very famously from the home to the stadium. We always maintain the best place to watch a game is in an NFL stadium. Having the connectivity and the type of apps they expect continues to be a top priority for us because it's a top priority for our fans," she said.

Wehmeyer said that the amount of connectivity they can put in a stadium isn't limited by what the client asks for. Instead, it's limited by the number of available channels. "For a long time, doing requests for proposals, customers like VenueNext and owners would say, 'I want each fan to be able to upload 1 megabit per second.' It doesn't work that way in the real world because of physics. You have a certain number of channels you can transmit on with the access points. You have a certain amount of space in a venue with only so much bandwidth."

If more airtime was available, then the fans would use it, he said.

"The FCC is looking to grant more unlicensed channels to us and that's what allows us to increase the capacity and the numbers you would get from a stadium. If, in 2 or 3 years, the FCC allows us another 6 or 8 channels, we'd be able to do much more than 10 terabytes because the users would have more data to consume."

But Wehmeyer agrees that the quandary and the question remain: "It does cost money to have those fast links, etc., and at what point is it enough?"

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