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The Connected Fan

Today's sports stadiums are wired for a better fan experience to "compete with the couch"
  • January 28 2013

James Smith/Dallas Cowboys

The Barclays Center, the brand-new billion-dollar home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is all about creating a high-tech experience for fans. It’s full of tricked-out features to make it easy for fans to view, capture and share content at the game: in-arena WiFi, 4G LTE coverage, 8,000 square feet of LED signage, a three-story-tall center-hung scoreboard and a 360-degree LED marquee that encircles the outer pavilion. With all this connectivity (courtesy of Cisco Connected Stadium), fans are able to use their smartphones to watch the game from different camera angles in real time. And if they’re hungry, they can order concessions and pick them up without standing in line. It’s a living, breathing second-screen environment.

At sports stadiums across the country, new technologies are emerging with a promise to deliver a more immersive fan experience—one that resembles the multi-screen viewing experience that sports fans can now get at home. Sports marketers call this “competing with the couch,” a reference to the living room’s array of devices, which afford a multitasking fan the ability to check scores and stats, watch replays, post to Twitter and Facebook and more.

In fact, when Cisco surveyed sports fans in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand last fall, it found that more than half (57 percent) said they preferred to watch games at home than attend a live sporting event. While at a stadium, they want the best of the “at-home” experience, such as having access to HD video, seeing replays or having the ability to see a camera angle different from the view from their seat, the study found. Separately, a recent ESPN poll found that only 29 percent of NFL fans said they would rather be at the game than watch at home, down from 54 percent back in 1998.

“The value of being at the event just doesn’t carry the same weight as it did 10 years ago,” says Chris Mascatello, EVP of technology sales and services at ANC Sports, a provider of in-stadium technology, adding that arenas now need to be able to appeal to mobile-device-toting fans. “We live in an iPhone age where people want to know what’s going on at all times.”

Improvements to on-site technology have also spawned new sponsorship opportunities. Anheuser-Busch, for example, recently tested a new mobile app at Gillette Stadium (New England Patriots) and Sun Life Stadium (Miami Dolphins) through which fans can receive team trivia and integrate their own photos with those of team mascots and cheerleaders. Consumers must scan a Bud Light image, either on building signs or materials provided upon entrance to the stadium, to access the content. At the Barclays Center, game-developer 2K Sports sponsors micro-content—snippets that attendees at the game can share via social media. The giant video screens at the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field broadcast give-away games for sponsors like Krogers.

“Every piece of technology at the stadium has a dual purpose: to promote the best possible fan experience, but also to be monetizable through corporate advertising,” says Dave Bialek, president of ANC.

At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers host “sponsored moments” with brand messages appearing on a giant center-hung HD scoreboard, as well as on screens installed on a 1,000-foot LED ring around the lower perimeter of the building. Allowing a marketer to “own” a venue through digital signage has lured new sponsors and provided added value to existing packages, says Terry Tiernon, VP of corporate partnerships at Pacers Sports & Entertainment.

“Fans aren’t just looking for sports-related information during games,” Tiernon says. “They might want to know if mortgage rates have dropped or what the winning Powerball lottery numbers were. This real-time communication is great for fans and a great opportunity for sponsors to jump in.”


Creating a wired environment

The whole notion of a “connected” fan has only recently been made possible, as sports stadiums have upgraded their cell phone networks and WiFi distribution systems. Sporadic coverage has long been a problem for many stadiums, in which signal capacity struggles to keep up with the sudden increase in population density brought on by tens of thousands of attendees at an event.

In general, older stadiums are undergoing modifications to existing networks, with varying degrees of success. “It’s not the newness of the stadium that determines functionality, but the underlying technology and system refresh capabilities,” notes Joe Inzerillo, SVP of multimedia and distribution at MLB Advanced Media. He cites Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs) and Dodger Stadium as examples of older parks that undertook massive IT rebuilds that worked. The much newer and well-outfitted AT&T Park (San Francisco Giants), he says, is one of the best—when pitcher Matt Cain threw a perfect game last season, it could handle massive amounts of uploads as fans tweeted and shared images of the experience from in the stadium.

Barclays Center, by contrast, uses a “neutral host” Distributed Antenna System (DAS) to allow customers of four major U.S. wireless carriers to get service throughout the building. “Technology has opened so many doors for us,” says Jayne Bussman-Wise, digital director at Barclays Center. “We have to match the expectations that our fans have for the quality of experience when they come to a game.”

One expectation is the pristine viewing standard set by high-definition television. Stadiums have been engaged in a bit of one-upmanship ever since 2009 when the Dallas Cowboys introduced the sporting world’s largest HD center-hung scoreboard, which, at approximately 72 by 160 feet, stretches from above one 20-yard line to the other. “When it comes to HD video, bigger is always better,” observes Tiernon.

It’s not just a matter of impressing fans, but creating new outlets for marketers. When the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins opened the state-of-the-art CONSOL Energy Center in 2010, Cisco installed 781 HD screens and 44 digital menu boards that allow for customizable branding and promotions from a centrally located command center. Thus, the team and its marketing partners can deliver targeted campaigns to a single display, targeted zones or at specific moments during the game.

“Our 50 [stadium] properties around the world expect to provide an immersive video experience,” says David Holland, SVP and general manager of the Sports and Entertainment Solutions Group at Cisco. A decade ago, he notes, there were relatively few video monitors inside stadiums. Now that costs have come down, marketers have opportunities “to create fan-facing solutions throughout the venue,” says Holland.


Social interaction

By using technology to foster deeper social interactions, many teams believe they can get fans to come to the park earlier. stay longer and spend more. Not to mention, the insights they garner by mining this data—such as assessing the tone of gameday tweets or analyzing the timing of video downloads—can be shared with sponsors.

Miami Marlins fans are encouraged to tweet using team references in order to get their comments posted on the big scoreboard. Such tweets typically rise from five per minute to anywhere from 25 to 50 per minute in the hour prior to the start of a ballgame, says Alex Buznego, manager of digital and social media at Marlins Park. “We view social media as a natural way to facilitate conversations and accelerate the sharing of content,” he says.

Major League Soccer team Sporting Kansas City has received positive feedback from fans on in-stadium social gaming, in which attendees at Livestrong Sporting Park participate using their smartphones or stadium-provided remote controls. Trivia or action games can include incentives such as seat upgrades, says Asim Pasha, co-CEO at Sporting Innovations, which develops technology solutions for Livestrong and others.

The more personalized the content, the greater the likelihood of connecting with a fan, says Pasha. MLB’s Inzerillo agrees. He cites the At The Ballpark app as an example. Downloaded more than 1 million times last season, it lets fans personalize their experience with mobile check-in, social media, customized offers and rewards, and exclusive content. At some stadiums, fans can use it to order food. It also now includes a paperless ticket component.

“It’s all about knowing your fans and what they want to do,” says Inzerillo.