Sports Teams Wire Up the Stadium to Pull Potatoes Off the Couch
Doug Garland faces a formidable opponent. As the general manager of stadium experience and technology for the San Francisco 49ers, he competes with the comforts of the living room, where most football fans prefer to park themselves on Sunday. Fast Wi-Fi, affordable snacks, no lines when nature calls.
To help level the playing field, he has a plan of attack. He’s putting the bathrooms in the cloud.
Attendees at the new stadium in Silicon Valley, set to open for next year's season, will be able to download a 49ers app on their smartphones to check the wait times at nearby men’s and women’s restrooms. A green light means run for it; red, hold it just a bit.
A new breed of connected devices that collect and transmit data is gradually creating a smarter stadium, home, office and, perhaps eventually, everywhere else. Research firm IDC estimates that 212 billion devices around the world will be connected to the Internet by the end of 2020. They make up the awkwardly named Internet of Things, or machine-to-machine applications, where electronics communicate with each other through wireless networks.
Live-entertainment companies are catching on, and sports is a logical early adopter, with its statistics- and gizmo-loving fans – and with football stadiums leaking customers. Attendance at National Football League games has been dropping for years, like attendance at many other sports. As many teams struggle to fill their bleachers, the home-viewing experience has become a monster business.
ESPN alone generates $9 billion a year in revenue, primarily from advertising and fees from pay-television operators. On any given Monday night during football season, 17 million people tune in to watch the game on ESPN, an average that has been steadily increasing. To protect its lucrative TV business, the NFL changed its blackout rule last year, lowering the threshold for how full a stadium must be to ensure it gets shown in the team's local market.
"We compete with the couch at home, and the couch is very comfortable," Garland says. "The game that you get to see on your large, flat-panel television is richly produced with lots of content and media that make the game more interesting and more meaningful."
Franchises from various leagues — including the 49ers, basketball's Brooklyn Nets and Major League Soccer's Sporting Kansas City — are taking live sports into the Internet generation. To start with, they're blanketing their home fields with Wi-Fi to get fans online and dozens of connected devices around the site to enhance the live experience. Wireless cameras and microphones have been around for decades, but with smartphones nearing a saturation point in the U.S., sports organizations are leveraging their existing connected electronics and adding new ones to raise their game.
Sports lovers have already proved there's an appetite for the connected stadium. As many as a quarter of attendees at Nets games connect to the Barclays Center's wireless network, according to a spokeswoman. But getting them to download the team's app to try out some of the in-house features has been a challenge. Jayne Bussman-Wise, the digital director of the Nets, says the team is promoting the app to season ticket holders and on the arena's website, and adding exclusive features such as camera angles and seat upgrades to attract more fans.
The 49ers have big ideas, but many of them are still in the planning phase. For one, the team intends to create a feature in its app to allow users in the new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara to see which of their friends are attending a game and where they're sitting.
For his bathroom-line monitor, Garland hasn't yet figured out which combination of connected devices and services will be used. The 49ers have looked at using cameras that would wirelessly report to a system that predicts the wait time, Garland says. The team is also exploring measuring traffic based on wireless signals from people's mobile phones in a particular area, as many mapping services do to predict traffic on the road. There's also a lower-tech solution, such as stationing attendants nearby equipped with iPads to monitor the line.
One thing the 49ers already have figured out in advance of the stadium opening is ordering food with a mobile phone. Fans will be able to choose whether to have a meal or a beer delivered to their seats by a runner or held at the closest concession stand — handy when you need to make a pit stop. The team is working with Micros Systems, which makes the point-of-sale systems used throughout the stadium, to connect the cash registers to the cloud. A trial of the service is running now at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Mobile food ordering has also been implemented at the Nets' Barclays Center in New York, the Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field, Stanford Stadium in Silicon Valley and the University of North Carolina's Dean Smith Center. They all use a system created by Austin, Texas-based Bypass, which deploys tablets in concessions that can communicate with software on smartphones.
Fans at these and more than a dozen other stadiums can pull up a menu from the cloud and pay for food using their phones, then skip the line at the concession stand to pick up their orders. Most of these stadiums don't employ runners, as the 49ers will, so hungry sports fans have to get up. The Nets' Bussman-Wise says she's happy with the service but declined to disclose usage statistics. The Nets and Barclays Center apps have been downloaded more than 150,000 times combined, said a spokeswoman for the team. A Stanford spokesman said the team wasn't available to comment.
To lure fans away from the living room TV, some high-tech franchises are offering a richer "second screen" for live sports. In addition to team stats, apps from the 49ers, Nets and Sporting Kansas City let those attending games view exclusive live video feeds or replays. The latter two teams were among the first to do this by using a product from Cisco Systems called StadiumVision Mobile, which allows viewers to switch camera angles and rewind the action. Bussman-Wise says the Nets have installed cameras in certain places expressly to wow users of its app, such as the "Slam Cam," a durable GoPro camera installed on the backboard.
Connected devices can improve a sports outing, but purists aren't always receptive to technology that changes the game or the way people see it. Instant replay for referees to review potentially bad calls isn't universally loved. It can slow the game down. Hockey fans in the mid-1990s were concerned about high-tech distractions when News Corp. began using a puck with a chip inside to highlight the puck's movement in TV broadcasts. The FoxTrax technology, also known as the glow puck, survived for just two seasons.
FIFA, soccer's governing body, also faced a backlash for using high-tech equipment. Balls with embedded chips, designed more for the refs than the viewers at home, weren't reliable, and players complained they were bouncing differently from regular balls. FIFA shelved the connected balls for more than six years until officials approved a new type of goal-line technology at a special meeting last year, according to a FIFA whitepaper published in November.
Two of the four approved tracking systems that have been in use since last year, called GoalRef and Cairos, place invisible magnetic fields around the goal. The system detects a small chip inside the ball when it crosses the goal line and transmits a signal to wristwatches worn by the refs in less than a second. Next year's World Cup in Brazil will be the first to use goal-line tracking, provided by Germany-based GoalControl, which places seven high-speed cameras pointed at each net to detect when the ball has crossed.
Armchair referees who want a closer look at the action don't necessarily need high-speed cameras. At some stadiums, they can just switch seats. The Nets, which already offered paperless tickets in the team's app, added Pogoseat on Nov. 1, a feature allowing attendees to upgrade to a seat closer to the court by paying within the mobile app. Basketball's Golden State Warriors also use the San Francisco-based startup's seat-upgrade tools. Major League Baseball added a similar feature, called Seat Upgrade, to its app this past season.
The implementations aren't always seamless. Users of the Nets' official mobile app who punch in their credit-card information to order food would need to enter the same info again if they wanted to use Pogoseat, because the services are operated by separate companies and aren't linked, Bussman-Wise says. It's a challenge all organizations will face as their deployment of connected devices becomes more elaborate.
"There are dozens of software systems — your point-of-sale system, your ticketing system, your fan-inventory system," Gideon Yu, the president of the 49ers and the former chief financial officer at Facebook, told Bloomberg TV last month. "All of these systems need to talk to each other. They don't."
Another challenge for the stadiums is taking full advantage of the flood of data collected by the different technologies. "The systems for managing the data flow need some work," Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research, wrote in a report published in October. "A smarter stadium would have this data — and lots more, thanks to ubiquitous sensors."
Learning to crunch a flood of new data points could produce new revenue streams and ways to keep fans coming back to see their favorite teams live, says Jagdish Rebello, an analyst at IHS ISuppli. Compiling comprehensive profiles about stadium goers based on their habits could also allow teams to bring sports into the real world, Rebello says.
"Once you know that this person is at this particular stadium, watching this particular event, you can try to figure out what other things are important," Rebello says. "The business cases are amazing."
Sporting Kansas City’s Uphoria app lets fans earn loyalty points for trivial tasks, all in a bid to learn more about users to better target merchandise and concession sales. “Our team is all about data,” Robb Heineman, Sporting's CEO, told Bloomberg Businessweek this year. “It’s about collecting, repackaging and utilizing that information to drive incremental revenue.”
The Nets are testing a digital loyalty program with 4,400 of its season-ticket holders. They can accumulate points when entering the arena or watching video through the app. Recently, the Nets began offering bonus points as an incentive to get people to enter through less-trafficked ticket gates. Anything to help fans avoid another line.