Football Fans Sack the NFL's Digital Ambitions

For several years now, National Football League officials have worried that watching a game on TV has become so much fun that people will start to prefer it to a trip to the stadium. Its solution, it seems, is to co-opt the best of the living room: wire up stadiums and make sophisticated mobile apps to mimic the sensory overload that comes from scrolling through a smartphone while flipping channels at home. In an ideal scenario, teams can connect with fans via apps that do everything from stream highlight reels to monitor the length of the bathroom lines. About 20 NFL stadiums are already Wi-Fi-enabled; the league recently told the laggards they have to get up to speed within 18 months.

That said, wireless connectivity in stadiums is a deceptively difficult technical challenge, and the NFL’s own research suggests it may not immediately yield the results it expects. Extreme Networks is now working with the NFL to analyze activity on in-stadium Wi-Fi networks, evaluate network performance, and track which websites and apps fans are using. The company recently ran tests in the stadiums for the Lions, Eagles, and Jets/Giants.

The findings undermine the league’s assumption that hyperconnected fans are constantly lusting for added video highlights and analysis. The busiest period of the game comes around kickoff, and consists mostly of people posting status updates to Facebook. Throughout the event, Web activity is about 65 percent uploading, with Facebook activity dwarfing everything else. (Incidentally, Extreme ran a similar test during a concert that drew mostly teenage fans, and found that the crowd was using their phones almost exclusively for selfies.) During the test in New Jersey, Extreme found that the most popular location was Apple’s App Store. The NFL guessed that this might be evidence of an effective promotion for the stadium’s own app. Nope. People’s iPhones were just set to update their apps automatically once they connected to a Wi-Fi network.

What people don’t seem interested in were exactly the services NFL teams are developing to compete with television. Sports news sites like ESPN had surprisingly little traction. The teams’ own apps barely registered. This could be seen as troublesome for NFL teams with aspirations of becoming media companies, because fans who don’t use their apps will be depriving them of valuable information like their e-mail addresses or their beer preferences. Ambitious plans for marketing programs based on reaching fans through smartphones seem like a heavy lift.

On the other hand, this could be kind of liberating. Luis Perez, the chief financial officer of the Detroit Lions, said the results might cause the team to reconsider how much time and money it needs to spend perfecting some elaborate mobile application strategy. “We have something the at-home experience will never have,” he says. “That sense of community, that vibe, that energy. There’s something about the stadium you can’t replicate at home.”

This doesn’t mean not having a functioning network, but Perez seems ready to acknowledge that the Lions don’t really know what their fans want. He compares it to tailgating—the team isn’t out there hawking Lions-branded beer or setting the ground rules for cornhole games. “The best tailgating is where you just give them the parking lot,” he says. “They’ll figure it out.”