Stadium vs. the couch: High-density wireless improves fan experience

Boston sports teams share plans for new mobile apps and improving game time fan experiences through the use of high-density wireless networks.

Enterasys hosted a CIO Mobility Innovation Summit at an uncharacteristically tranquil Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. last week, where more than 100 IT executives gathered to discuss the future of high-density wireless and the use of mobility to change the fan experience at stadium events.

Jonathan Kraft, president of the New England Patriots and co-chairman of the NFL's Digital Media Committee, kicked off the evening with a keynote on business drivers for a stadium wireless network. Three years ago, the Patriots, like any other sports team, were trying to figure out how to give fans at Gillette a better experience than watching on their HD televisions from the comfort of their living rooms.

The team knew fans were using mobile devices to post updates to their social networks during games. Mobile carriers had installed distributed antenna systems throughout the stadium to improve coverage, but that infrastructure only enabled fans to make phone calls during games, Kraft said. In order to support rich media and an overall experience, the Patriots needed a Wi-Fi network that could serve 70,000 fans. Last summer the team installed a 360-access point wireless LAN from Enterasys, the Salem, N.H.-based networking vendor. That network has seen as many as 10,000 concurrent fans connect to the free Wi-Fi, allowing them to tweet and upload pictures to Facebook from the stadium. According to Kraft, lighting up the stadium with Wi-Fi was just a start.

Improving the game day experience for a live audience means different things to different stadiums and teams. During a City of Champions IT Innovators Panel at the Enterasys summit, the IT leaders of the Patriots, Boston Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox all shared their plans for augmenting the fan experience and connecting with fans via their Wi-Fi-enabled devices at their respective venues.

New England Patriots

As anyone who has ever gone to a game or event at Gillette stadium knows, moving around, finding food, restrooms, and maneuvering through the parking lot can be a nightmare.

The Patriots will be working with low energy, Bluetooth- enabled devices placed around Gillette that will sync to Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices and smartphones to help with crowd control, potentially giving fans the ability to see where the shortest lines are and avoid congested areas in the stadium.

"Viewers want to experience the game in different ways, and the Patriots will be making sure there is something for everyone," said Fred Kirsch, vice president of content for the Patriots.

Kraft hinted at a wide variety of features that the team would like to add to the mobile app that fans can download and use only on the stadium's Wi-Fi network.

"We have cameras in the stadium that you don't get on TV," Kraft said. "You can watch a feed of a camera that is zeroed in on Tom Brady."

Kraft envisions equipping a dozen players with microphones that they will wear throughout the game. Fans will be able to listen to any of these audio feeds via the app. With permission from the league, Kraft would also like to let fans listen to the radio communications between the coach and the quarterback, on a tape-delay, of course.

The Wi-Fi network would also enable fans to order and pay for food from their seats. These concessions wouldn't be delivered to the seats, because the logistics would be challenging, but Kraft said fans would get a text when their order is ready, and they could collect it without waiting in line, just by showing their phone. Mobility will also save fans from some other headaches, such as a feature that tells fans the wait times at bathrooms throughout the stadium.

Boston Bruins

With the recent lockout behind them, the Boston Bruins are eager to reconnect with their fans at the Garden, said Lorraine Spadaro, vice president of technology & eBusiness for the Bruins. The team is planning to deploy a new high-density Wi-Fi network for next season -- which will support both venue and team apps to support the in-stadium experience. "Fans are excited and want to share their experience while they are there," Spadaro said, noting that the new Wi-Fi infrastructure will be better equipped to handle more concurrent traffic.

Home viewers are privy to commentary and replay features, and live viewing shouldn't be any different, Spadaro said, noting that the Bruins are considering a mobile app that will offer specialized camera angles and audio programs. "We know the opportunities that are there to engage viewers, but we are working to lay the foundation [i.e. the wireless infrastructure]," she said.

Boston Celtics

Housed in the same facility as the Boston Bruins, basketball fans want the same features that hockey fans will be enjoying. Jay Wessel, vice president of technology for the Boston Celtics, believes there are great opportunities to engage all audience members, but especially those that fill the seats game after game: the season ticket holders.

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"We are working to create some private space on the website, as well as the mobile apps for our season ticket holders to get access to different features," Wessel said.

The Celtics have started experimenting with seat upgrade opportunities via the mobile app for their season ticket holders. Similar to checking in at the airport and being offered a seat upgrade, some season ticket holders who have balcony seats, will get exclusive offers to upgrade to better seats, he said.

The Celtics are also working to improve audience engagement by adding Twitter feeds to the scoreboards during the game, giving fans a shot at commentating.

Boston Red Sox

After a disappointing season, the Red Sox are focusing on preserving the fan base and keeping fans connected, said Heidi Labritz, director of business applications/IT for the Boston Red Sox. Sox fans can expect more premium opportunities and access to loyalty programs at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox will be piloting a loyalty program for a segment of season ticket holders that are always checking in and going to games that will include differentiated experiences -- like access to on-field batting practice and talking with players, Labritz said.

IT is also looking into making the process of ordering food and drinks easier for premium seats -- including giving the fans the ability to order from a mobile device and be served without having to leave their seats or reaching over other fans, she said.

"We are going to start small, but these new programs will be heavily reliant on the wireless network," Labritz said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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