Venue Operators Connect Today’s Fans, Prep for Tomorrow’s Bandwidth Demands

Whether a venue is in the planning stages or more than 20 years old, in-venue connectivity is a constant concern without a clear solution. Facility operators must contend not only with the at-home experience but also with the bandwidth demands of fans at the game. Connectivity, in the form of WiFi networks, distributed antenna systems (DAS), or a combination of the two, must address the data needs of today as well as anticipate future data consumption. After all, the ability to make a call, text a friend, or post a Facebook status while attending a game is expected.

The San Francisco Giants, early adopters of in-venue WiFi, offer proof of how rapidly demands for bandwidth increase. In 2004, AT&T Park became the first WiFi hot spot in sports, installing 121 access points to cater to the laptop-wielding tech crowd. That network has since expanded to 760 access points, more than doubling last year’s count.

“This is our tenth season now at AT&T Park with full WiFi network from the gates of Willie Mays Plaza to the shores of McCovey Cove — because we do have to serve a few kayaks — and we have learned quite a few lessons,” said Bill Schlough, SVP/CIO, San Francisco Giants, at last week’s SportsBusiness Journal Facilities & Franchises conference in Brooklyn. “Back in 2004, the only folks who were using the WiFi were some of these Silicon Valley geek types that had laptops with the WiFi card, and you’d have maybe 50 or 100 per game. It continued like that for a few years until the iPhone came out, and that really changed the game.”

Now nearly everyone who attends a game has at least one and often more WiFi-enabled devices on them as they walk through the gates. And they expect those devices to work, because life does not stop when the game starts.

“It used to be, our main focus was making sure everyone in the ballpark could make a phone call. Then, it was, make sure everybody could text. But we’re beyond that today,” Schlough continued. “You have to be able to call, you have to be able to text when you come to our games, but, beyond that, more and more of our fans want to share photos, they want to see what else is going on in the world.”

In order to encourage fans to use the WiFi (and alleviate pressure on the DAS), the network must be easy to access and faster than cellular providers.

“As fast as the cellular networks are improving, the bandwidth is improving for them as well. That means, if you’re just connected to AT&T or Verizon, you’re downloading at a rate of 15 Mbps-20 Mbps,” explained Chip Foley, director of building technologies, Forest City Ratner. “[We] needed to be faster than that to encourage fans to get on our WiFi. We have two 1-Gb circuits coming in, and we’re bringing down somewhere in the range of 40 Mbps to 50 Mbps.”

He sees Barclays Center’s WiFi infrastructure as more than a fan amenity: it is a way to provide exclusive in-venue content that encourages fans to attend games.

“The framework is working. Now it’s up to us at the venue to create unique content,” said Foley. The Barclays Center app, powered by Cisco StadiumVision Mobile, has proved to be one way of successfully leveraging in-venue WiFi, not to mention to experiment with a few GoPro cameras. “We’re trying to find what works best for our fans, what’s going to bring them back.”

Baseball stadiums and basketball arenas are hardly the only sports venues to face connectivity issues. With a capacity of more than 100,000 spectators, Daytona International Speedway faced a monumental task. As Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, explained, “We can fit 15 MetLife Stadiums inside of our property. We’re uniquely challenged in trying to provide the appropriate capacity for all of our customers.”

The need for WiFi connectivity in NASCAR and other motor-racing venues is twofold. On the one hand, teams use the network to communicate with the driver, pit crew, headquarters, and more. On the other, because of the noise level in a NASCAR venue, spectators rely on the network to communicate with each other.

By boosting in-venue connectivity, creating exclusive content, and enhancing the fan experience, facility operators hope to keep fans returning to the venue. Such measures are pivotal when the at-home experience is so accessible and tempting.

“Our main competition is the television product at home,” said Jim Nolan, SVP, finance, administration and operations, Kraft Sports Group. “The NFL is unique, where all teams are essentially playing at once and people have gotten comfortable being at home: not paying to park, not investing all their time, not paying the high rates for beer, and being able to watch every game. To a certain extent, our competition is ourselves. … When we looked at WiFi [for Gillette Stadium], we said we need to, first and foremost, give our fans something that they’re doing already.”

According to Nolan, the New England Patriots plan to offer unique camera angles on its video board as well as take advantage of the NFL’s push to allow cameras in the locker room at certain times. Although the Patriots are certainly not lacking in fan support, Nolan noted that sports are cyclical; teams must always be prepared for the possibility of a poor on-field product that does not draw as many fans on its own merit.

At the heart of the fan experience is, of course, the game itself. In-venue connectivity is expected by the smartphone-wielding masses, not only for communicating but also for preserving the experience.

“The way that I used to remember events that I’d go to when I was younger is the ticket stub. I’ve got almost every ticket stub of every sporting event I’ve ever been to,” said Chitwood. “Except now, there are no ticket stubs. You remember by the content you capture on your mobile device. It’s just a different way to remember.”

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