Venue Technology Summit: Venues Endeavor To Meet Fans’ Connectivity Expectations

In the three years that it took for Miami’s Marlins Park to go from vision to reality, tablets were invented, smartphone usage exploded, and 5-GB devices were right around the corner. In-venue WiFi networks are no longer a luxury for the few but an expectation of the many, installed initially to alleviate data pressure on cellular networks before morphing into conveyance vehicles for exclusive in-venue content.

All that raises the question: How can venues keep up?

At SVG’s Sports Venue Technology Summit in Miami, a panel comprising vendors and end users alike addressed the multitude of challenges that venues face in ensuring the connected-fan experience.

“WiFi is an expectation that the fans are coming to expect throughout all leagues, and it’s to compete with the home experience,” said panel moderator Chip Suttles, Seattle Seahawks’ VP of technology. “In the near future, I think you’re going to see that, although you’re trying to create that unique experience by being at a live game … fans want that second-screen experience at the game as well.”

From left: Miami Dolphins’ Tery Howard, Venue Research and Design’s Bob Jordan, Cisco’s Gene Arantowicz, and Seattle Seahawks’ Chip Suttles, who moderated the panel.

Cisco addresses the issue of in-venue wireless connectivity with its Connected Stadium WiFi. Gene Arantowicz, senior director of business development for the company’s sports and entertainment division, divided Cisco’s progression in the in-venue WiFi space into three phases.

“Our first foray into this was simply building a really high-density WiFi network for the San Francisco Giants so that [cellular] carriers could get data off of the cellular network,” he said. “And during that time frame, we learned a lot. We learned [that] just the average enterprise WiFi deployment is not good enough [for sports venues].”

The lessons learned in this first phase led Cisco to develop stadium-specific antennae, hardware, and software. If development of stadium-specific technology is phase two, Arantowicz sees delivering live video over WiFi as phase three.

“Imagine being in an NFL venue,” he supposes, “where you can actually look down [at your mobile device] and watch NFL RedZone channel [or access] live audio, live data.”

Miami Dolphins SVP/CIO Tery Howard introduced the idea of placing filters within the WiFi network to limit what content can be accessed in the venue.

“It’s one thing to make a call and send a text, and it’s another thing to watch the RedZone,” she said. “Do we filter [or] control what we are going to put on the pipe for our fans when we introduce WiFi? Because why should we cripple the experience of someone whose looking at stats if someone is watching a movie because that’s what they want to do when they’re in our stadium?”

Venues must increasingly do battle with the at-home experience in order to get fans in seats. Several years ago, the Miami Dolphins introduced Fan Vision, a wireless handheld device that streams 10 video channels over a dedicated spectrum, to fans in Sun Life Stadium. Although Fan Vision has proved successful with those who have used the devices, the Dolphins have been conservative about installing WiFi.

“When we [venture into WiFi deployment], we want to make sure that it satisfies or exceeds the expectations of our consumers and fans,” Howard said. “We have to make sure that we understand the data, that we understand what type of behavior our consumers are going to be experiencing within those devices, and then make some reasonable expectations in terms of how we’re going to introduce it.”

This season, the Dolphins will pilot-test a network designed by AT&T and Cisco that mounts access points in handrails. Stadium architecture figures prominently into WiFi network design, and panelists agreed that this “racetrack” design could be a game changer, not only for football venues but for other sports as well.

“I think the ballpark is the hardest. Behind home plate is your challenge because [of] your distance from any form of overhang [and because it’s] your most expensive seats in the ballpark,” says Robert D. Jordan, managing partner, Venue Research and Design. “That’s why I think what Tery has going on in Sun Life [Stadium] is really going to translate extremely well to baseball, especially in those very small, defined areas.”

Fan expectations figured prominently throughout the panel discussion. In-venue WiFi networks pose inherent design challenges, including installation expense, access-point location, and simultaneous-use threshold (Marlins Park’s wireless network is configured for 25% capacity). Those factors are especially challenging in one-time use venues, such as NASCAR tracks and golf courses. However, all agreed that WiFi has become integral to daily life and must be supplied in order to keep fans coming back.

“Eventually, it’s going to be an expected service, just like you don’t see ‘We have color TV’ outside a hotel any more. It’s an expected thing,” says Arantowicz. “This … will extend to the stadium. You don’t want to check your life at the door just because you go to a sporting event.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the Sports Venue Technology Summit in Miami!

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