VTS 2010: Catering to the Connected Fan

According to the latest Nielsen numbers, one in four Americans now uses a smartphone — and many of those individuals also happen to be season-ticket holders at major stadiums and arenas. The modern sports venue must find new ways to cater to these handheld devices now in the hands of fans at every game.

SVG’s Sports Venue Technology Summit last week at New Meadowlands Stadium invited leaders from Cisco and Verizon’s Sports and Entertainment sectors to discuss the latest techniques for keeping “the connected fan” engaged on game day. While a growing number of in-venue apps are popping up all over the country, large venues have struggled to meet the growing demand for connectivity — whether via WiFi network or cellular service.

The Jump to High-Density Wireless
Venues like the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Consol Energy Arena have implemented high-density WiFi networks that promise to alleviate the pressure put on cellular carriers when thousands of fans in a single venue struggle to get cell service.

“The real challenge is how to get that high-density coverage inside the bowl area, where people are sitting,” said Stuart Hamilton, senior director of innovation, Cisco Sports & Entertainment Group. “The key is to get the cell sizes as small as possible. A cell is roughly equivalent to an access point. In the bowl area, you want to have directional antennas that essentially shrink the cell size down, so that you can put in as many access points as you can to get the maximum capacity for the users. That’s the basic principle behind high-density wireless.”

Cisco and New Meadowlands Stadium are currently in the midst of developing a high-density WiFi network. This is no easy task. Hamilton estimates that the venue will need to cover a total of 550-600 access points in order to have WiFi coverage for all the bowl areas, concourses, club seating, and back-office space.

Maximizing Cellular Capabilities
In addition to the HD WiFi network, New Meadowlands has enlisted Verizon to help solve its cellular-service issue. Fans have long complained about the inability to get service at major venues, and New Meadowlands is no different.

“We have a lot of desire to find out how to really make this work for both the venues and the fans,” says Don Spaulding, global managing principal, Verizon Sports and Entertainment. “We’re doing some interesting things with cellular technology to make the experience better than it is today.”

At the forefront of these efforts is Verizon’s new 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network, which is expected to be available in 38 major cities by the end of the year. Besides expanded coverage, the next-generation network promises ultra-fast data rates for viewing and sharing video.

“Our LTE 4G network should provide a lot of benefits, and you should see improved performance in a lot of these venues,” says Spaulding. “But we also recognize that, even with LTE, you’re still not going to be able to have perfect live-video service at an 80,000-person venue.”

Still an Evolving Business Model
Building out these cellular networks and WiFi infrastructures requires a significant investment on the part of venues and service providers, which brings up the obvious question of how to monetize this newfound connectivity.

“There’s a whole new bunch of business models that will come out of this,” said Hamilton. “Once you have an app downloaded, you can build on that — stats, concessions, and so on. How much can you then charge for that, and how much are people willing to pay? I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet.”

Another question that has yet to be answered is what type of device is best for this in-stadium content: fan’s own handhelds or a new device provided to fans, such as Kangaroo TV’s FanVision. This argument is highlighted at New Meadowlands, where the Jets currently offer the FanVision handheld device (which features NFL RedZone, replays, and stats) to selected fans, while the Giants are developing a mobile app with Verizon that features similar content. FanVision runs on its own broadcast network; the Giants’ app will be forced to use cellular and WiFi connections.

“This is where the market hasn’t really figured itself out yet,” says Spaulding. “Do people want a separate device to do this, or do they want use it on the device that they already have? I don’t know the answer to that. Our current goal is to make it work on the devices they already have. If the market changes, then maybe we’ll make it work for that. But so far, we’re hearing that people want to use the devices they already have.”