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Technology: The NFL's Friend or Foe?

Technology is the ultimate promotional tool even as it pulls fans physically away

1. New Meadowlands: The Most Expensive Stadium Ever Built—and the Most High Tech, Too In one respect, the National Football League is constantly waging a war against technology. The onslaught of relatively low-priced LED HDTVs, 24/7 online streamed sports, and new pro football apps for mobile devices that seemingly come out each day have undoubtedly contributed to attendance figures at most of the NFL's 31 stadiums that are many percentage points lower each year. Outside the stadium, technology is the NFL's frenemy—the ultimate promotional tool even as it pulls fans physically away. Within stadium walls, however, technology is the league's BFF, keeping fans constantly engaged, streamlining operations, and extracting tens of millions of dollars in new revenue streams from sponsors. So when the league cut the regular season ribbon on its $1.6 billion New Meadowlands property in New Jersey over the weekend, it was more than anxious to show off all of its newest high-tech toys. Together, joint tenants New York Jets and Giants and technology providers Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Verizon (VZ) have now presented to the world an estimated $100 million technology infrastructure at New Meadowlands Stadium, an effort that Jets owner Woody Johnson deems "more information-rich than any sporting venue has ever been" and his peer, Giants President and CEO John Mara, describes as "the most plugged-in, high-def, technologically advanced sports and entertainment venue in the world." Cisco has continued to refine its StadiumVision technology, which integrates digital video, dynamic signage, and wireless technology throughout thousands of in-stadium HD video displays (more than 2,200 in New Meadowlands) and has also found a home in Dolphins Stadium, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Yankee Stadium, and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, among others. In parallel, Verizon is powering facility and team-specific wireless applications. Going a step further in New Jersey, StadiumVision products help the joint tenants rapidly shift back and forth as needed from Giants blue to Jets green, personalizing the venue for two disparate fan bases and different team sponsors. The process, according to The New York Times, "involves 746 changing elements and almost 350 workers and generally takes nearly a week." (Although the venue team managed to pull it off in less than 12 hours between Sunday night's and Monday night's games.) What's more, for the first time in a big way, the technology infrastructure at New Meadowlands is designed to take full advantage of 3D as it matures. Steve Ross' Largesse

While not as sexy as 3D broadcasts, much of the new technology in the new stadium streamlines operations, running security and monitoring concessions, merchandise sales, parking, and ticketing in real time, to identify immediate needs and upselling opportunities. And as high-tech gravy for the fans, the Jets, at least, have accepted an offer of 5,000 free FanVision mobile technology units from Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross, who purchased the company after he deployed the technology at Dolphins Stadium. FanVision hand-held devices allow attendees to access replays and stats, fantasy football content, other NFL games, and the NFL's popular RedZone channel. They will be distributed to Jets club seat and suite holders and sell for $200 each in other parts of the venue.

Technology can't solve all the NFL teams' issues. It can't, for example, hide the large swaths of empty, presumably unsold club seats visible during both the Giants' and Jets' nationally televised games on Sunday and Monday night. By enabling both tenant teams to customize blank screens and digital walls, technology also leaves those spaces glaringly neutral—a good friend of ours, a longtime Giants season ticket holder, claimed he hated the new stadium because it had no character. And technology couldn't keep the Jets from being defeated in their home opener by the Ravens. But there's no holding back progress, and in the long run it's a terrific thing for fans to be able to access their favorite team whenever, and however, they want. Character will come with age and memories—and those empty seats? Nothing a trip to the NFL Playoffs can't solve. 2. Sunshine on My Shoulder (Pads): Sports Leagues Combine to Embrace Solar Power By using new technology to harness the universe's oldest power source, America's major pro sports leagues have joined together to send an important cultural message in the battle against climate change. Together, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS delivered a letter encouraging their teams and facilities to begin using solar power as they continue the effort to "green" North America's professional sports. The leagues also distributed a comprehensive solar development guide produced on their behalf by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) outlining the work necessary for each stadium to add on-site solar power generation to its energy mix. "The distribution of solar power development guides by all professional sports leagues reflects a real cultural shift in our thinking about energy that is taking place throughout the business community and the nation at large," says NRDC Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowitz. "Professional sports leagues have stepped up on behalf of our troops. They have stepped up for civil rights. And now they are stepping up for the environment." "Our sport was born outdoors, in winter weather, and many of our players began skating on frozen lakes and ponds," adds NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "We are acutely aware that our league, as well as all sports leagues, needs to be responsible stewards of our planet." Embracing solar power not only sends a strong message to millions of fans and event-goers, it could also have a big impact on the teams' bottom lines. The solar development guide co-authored by NRDC and BEF leverages the examples set by Los Angeles' Staples Center (which meets 5 percent of its total energy via solar energy) and U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, two leading arenas already taking advantage of solar panels. If all arenas and stadiums had solar installation equal to Staples, for example, they would: Reduce carbon emissions comparable to taking 8,340 cars off the road; Create enough electricity to power roughly 4,812 American homes for a year; Save the equivalent of 33,970 barrels of crude oil per year. "Renewable on-site energy is becoming an increasingly popular consideration among our sport's clientele," says Kirk Teske, chief sustainability officer at HKS, a leading architecture firm that is currently integrating three 100 kw wind turbines into a collegiate athletic master plan that will produce an estimated 450,000 kwh of clean electrical power. "Professional and collegiate organizations alike are beginning to understand the positive messages these systems can convey about their organization—especially to their younger fan base. Solar and wind power systems are powerful ways for sports organizations to educate their fans about clean alternative energy sources—sources that can reduce our nation's dependency on imported fossil fuels, improve air quality, and reduce greenhouse gasses." 3. While on the Dark Side … Despite advances in solar technology, this season we could literally be entering the Dark Ages of the NFL. At least 11 NFL teams, according to USA Today, could be facing at least one TV blackout in their home markets this season, as the NFL continues to battle your couch and wide-screen plasma TV for your football soul. The league has been fighting a downward trend in stadium attendance for the past handful of years and had a five-year high number of regular-season match ups—22 games, or 8.6 percent of the NFL total—blacked out in 2009. The NFL's blackout policy prohibits games from airing on local stations in the host city if the game is not sold out at least 72 hours before kickoff. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only NFL team to have their season home opener blacked out in the local market—only an estimated 47,211 paying fans were in attendance to see the Bucs beat the favored Cleveland Browns—the Browns themselves and other teams, including the Bengals, the Cardinals, and the Chargers, all playoff teams in 2009, could be facing local blackouts in upcoming weeks. The immediate outlook is especially grim for San Diego, where approximately 13,000 tickets remain unsold for Sunday's home opener against Jacksonville, including, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "nearly 11,000 non-premium seats that count toward determining whether a game is blacked out … almost twice as many as anyone can remember the Chargers having less than two weeks before a game." What's worse: Even more nonpremium tickets are still available for the team's second home game, against the Arizona Cardinals on October 3. In Ohio, the situation is so alarming that Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown on Monday wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to reconsider the league's blackout policy. "While fans cannot wait for the start of the season," wrote Brown, "I am concerned that supporters spanning Ohio's small towns and urban cities will be deprived of the chance to watch the Browns and Bengals compete on television. While I understand the need for the league to sell tickets and maintain an attractive television product, NFL blackout policies should be revisited as our nation faces the worst economic crisis in generations."

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