NFL teams look to stay in the game with fan-focused tech

It may seem out-of-bounds to speak ill of a thriving $9 billion industry, but attending a National Football League game in person can be a downright miserable experience. You’ve got 70,000—or more—fans packed into a relatively confined space. It might be raining or snowing or frigid from swirling winds. And few seats can truly provide a compelling perspective, or at least anything that can top what you get from the comfort of your couch, with climate control (thermostat), instant replay (your DVR), and concessions options (get that refrigerator stocked!) completely within your grasp.

And yet, league-wide attendance is pretty much maxed out every year, coming in at around 17 million, give or take a couple hundred thousand, each and every season. That’s because each team only gets eight home games—compared to, say, the 81 that baseball teams host—so every contest is a premium product.

Nonetheless, the NFL doesn’t seem content to rest on this constant and steady influx of fans. The allure of the comfy couch is not to be underestimated, so the NFL and its 32 teams are placing a higher priority on improving the in-stadium experience. Integrating new and better technology, naturally, is a key pillar of that strategy.

Streaming highlights

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made that point clear last month, when asked about the challenges facing a typical NFL owner these days. “[Football] does such a great job on television, I think that’s really our biggest competitor,” he told CNBC, sounding like a manufacturer whose successful product was its own worst enemy. Seeing how well live video has been embraced by baseball fans on their mobile devices, Ross has signed off on an effort that began in late August and will be rolled over the next 12 weeks: The Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium, which was originally built in 1987, is now being outfitted with a high-density WiFi infrastructure. When fully implemented, it will allow all fans to pull up live streaming video to their smartphones and tablets, as well as watch in-stadium instant replays and check in on highlights from other games.

FanVision devices can deliver live replays, numerous video angles, stats, and other info to fans at NFL games.

It’s an effort that hits home for Ross, who started a company called FanVision that has been bringing in-game video options to NFL fans for two years, thanks to a smartphone-like device that costs $249. It costs $5 per game after that, although fans can rent a unit at the stadium. In exchange, fans get live replays, numerous video angles, statistical info, access to the NFL’s RedZone Channel airing nonstop highlights of other games, and more.

Eleven teams will have FanVision access this season, and though Ross himself obviously benefits from every team that becomes a FanVision partner, he views the startup as a necessary complement to the tech-savvy fan experience.

“Today, the fan is different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and life is changing so fast,” Ross said in that CNBC interview. “To get fans to come to our stadiums, we have to keep up with that and give them a reason.”

Broadening bandwidth

Such bandwidth demand can certainly put a strain on IT resources, especially since football stadiums host the largest crowds of any American sport. When San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain tossed a perfect game in June, the 43,000 people at AT&T Park went into such a bandwidth-hogging frenzy that more than 70GB was uploaded via the park’s Wi-Fi. With 334 wireless Internet access points and nearly 200 DAS antennas, which do not require authentication, the system held, but it served as a warning for teams in other leagues that being prepared for unexpected bandwidth demands is always a smart idea.

The Indianapolis Colts made sure they had a similar hybrid installation in place for Super Bowl XLVI last February, although that game featured twice as much upload (145GB) than Cain’s perfecto. The NFL wants every stadium to have such combined Wi-Fi/DAS infrastructure in place for opening day 2014, although most stadiums will likely see progress of some kind during the 2013 season.

Jeff Berman, head of the NFL’s digital media division, knows that his position depends more about integration than development, and that progress may be slow but it must be steady. Though the league doesn’t yet have the sort of blanket W-iFi that other sports are now employing, they’re trying to find other ways to immediately provide “world-class, extraordinary fan experiences,” Berman recently told Bloomberg West. This past August, the NFL teamed up with Google+ to integrate the search giant’s Hangouts video conference capability into NFL.com fantasy football draft rooms, so players drafting from cities around the country can do so with added facetime.

Game plans

This mobile app from the Baltimore Ravens lets fans at M&T Stadium order concessions, report disruptive fans, and access other in-stadium information.

Much like the Colts, the Baltimore Ravens are employing increased bandwidth this season, thanks to a new 4G network from Verizon Wireless. And fans who download the Ravens’ new mobile app (iOS/Android) can watch real-time breaking news, access a searchable concessions map of M&T Bank Stadium, and even report disruptive fans.

The same goes for the New England Patriots, who offer four live video feeds from their mobile app (iOS/Android) for fans seated in certain premium areas. The San Francisco 49ers, who’ll be moving into their own tricked-out stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley in 2014, also feature a free Gameday Live app (iOS/Android) that provides real-time replays and NFL RedZone, provided you can access W-iFi from within decrepit Candlestick Park.

In time, the greatest potential for enhancing the in-game experience could be when near-field communication (NFC) chips are widely integrated into all the leading smartphones and fans can just wave their iPhone over a sensor and pay for all their concessions with minimal effort. (That won’t be happening with the latest iPhone: Apple’s iPhone 5, unveiled Wednesday, doesn’t feature any NFC functionality, though iOS 6, arriving next week, adds a new feature called Passbook. It’s still unclear as to how Passbook will work, but fans could theoretically store electronic versions of their game tickets on their phone and display them on-screen at the gate for entry. That’s still theoretical, for now, though.)

Near-field communication features are more popular among European carriers thus far, but some US handsets are starting to come with built-in NFC. When that feature comes stateside in full force—and it’s as easy to access as anything else on a phone menu—fans will have fewer reasons than ever to leave the confines of their seat.

[Photo of Gillette Sadium courtesy of Mike Liu / Shutterstock.com]

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