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The connected stadium: If you build it, they will come

In the next-generation sports venue, the home team's stadium network can serve as a strategic resource, driving fan engagement, concession sales and more.

When the Atlanta Braves celebrate opening day this year, they will unveil more than just a brand-new ballpark. They'll also introduce their fans to one of the sports world's biggest experiments in augmented reality. Pokémon GO, meet Field of Dreams.

Such an endeavor is possible because the Braves now have at their disposal an unprecedented amount of bandwidth and a state of the art Wi-Fi network, thanks to one of the largest stadium and mixed-use development installations in the country -- a 60-acre, $1.1 billion real estate project that includes retail shops, restaurants, residential units, an office tower, a hotel and a Live Nation entertainment venue, in addition to the new connected stadium.

"We're going to do augmented reality and show that it works, and then everybody and their brother is going to do it," said Adam Zimmerman, vice president of marketing for the Braves. "Everyone loves virtual reality; I can't scale virtual reality to 40,000 or 50,000 people. I'm looking for stuff I can scale. I can scale augmented reality."

You need to allow people to be connected. They are the rest of the day. You can't cut that off once they come into the venue.
Fred Kirschvice president of content for the New England Patriots and Kraft Sports Productions

What will it look like for Braves fans? Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image on the real world. The most exciting application is the ability for visitors to the ballpark to point their mobile phone at a player on the field and access his stats, photos and even videos. Users of the Braves app could also choose to join a scavenger hunt for virtual bobbleheads around the facility, similar to the Pokémon hunters of 2016.

"It's a whole new medium to monetize," Zimmerman said, alluding to potential sponsorships. "It's a tremendous canvas for untold engagement."

Comcast Business is providing the Braves' new connected stadium with two redundant fiber feeds of 100 Gbps Ethernet with more than 700 Wi-Fi access points.

Fans demand connected stadiums

The Atlanta Braves' SunTrust Park is just the latest in a long line of projects funded by sports franchises and their leagues along with local governments and taxpayers competing to build the latest and greatest facilities.

Last fall, the $535 million Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, opened with two 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) dedicated internet circuits, 1,000 Wi-Fi access points, and more than 1 million square feet of Wi-Fi and cellular coverage. A year ago, Levi's Stadium, the $1.2 billion home of the San Francisco 49ers, hosted Super Bowl 50 and set a record transferring 10 TB of data over Wi-Fi. That's a lot of tweets, Snapchats, Facebook updates and Instagram posts.

"You need to allow people to be connected. They are [for] the rest of the day. You can't cut that off once they come into the venue that they've spent a lot of money to go to," said Fred Kirsch, vice president of content for the New England Patriots and Kraft Sports Productions.

Last fall, the team upgraded its Wi-Fi network to 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless technology from Extreme Networks that increased internet capacity inside the Patriots' stadium to 10 Gbps and tripled the number of access points from 350 to more than 1,000. This kind of connectivity "is the cost of doing business," Kirsch said.

Without question, fans have an insatiable digital appetite. They expect to be able to text their friends, upload game-day photos and video, and access the internet just as they would at home. At the same time, teams are using their upgraded networks to personalize the connected stadium experience wherever they can -- tracking fan behavior and serving them everything from coupons for their favorite beer to updates on lines at different bathrooms to traffic updates for when they leave.

MVP: The network

"The network becomes a strategic resource," said Mike Allen, systems engineer at Brocade, which has provided network infrastructure at Levi's Stadium and built the 160 GB backbone that supports the new arena in Sacramento. Stadiums today are being built from the ground up with technology in mind. Traditional Ethernet, Wi-Fi, broadcast video, stadium lighting, IP televisions and security cameras are all connected to the same network.

Allen estimated that the hardware to support these elaborate networks can cost as much as $10 million, depending on the facility. The Wi-Fi network typically requires an additional investment of a couple million dollars.

"We're way out in front of any innovation that would come to use that bandwidth," said Eric McLoughlin, director of marketing and product management for Comcast Business, referring to the 100 GbE at the new home of the Braves. "It's like having a 20-lane highway when you only need three lanes at any given moment."

Teams are trying their best to fill that highway with their own content. Besides the Braves and their augmented reality project, the San Jose Sharks are experimenting with virtual reality and 360-degree video. The NHL franchise spent 10 months collecting unique camera angles that aren't available on TV: a Zamboni machine cleaning the ice, a player's helmet during pregame introductions and a puck drop at center ice.

"Those are the perspectives fans don't get to see, so it offers a unique vantage point," said Doug Bentz, vice president of marketing for the Sharks.

Burgers and beers are low-hanging fruit

For all the excitement about providing fans with virtual reality, teams can also use their connected stadium networks to boost concession sales. A recent study commissioned by Oracle Hospitality found that fans ranked food and beverage as the most important element of their experience at a game, but those long lines and fear of missing the action scared them off. On average, fans said they would spend an extra $20 if wait times were cut in half.

"Mobile technology to improve ordering, payment and delivering loyalty programs is a promising path to greater sales. Though such options are used sparingly now, fans report great interest in them," the Oracle report stated.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had great success with a loyalty program through the team app that offers discounts at concession stands. For example, it was able to increase post-game sales by 20% at concession stands by targeting fans who had made a previous purchase there, said Brock Bergman, director of business development and strategy at SessionM, which helped the team administer the program.

SessionM software integrates with a team's app to track fans' spending habits inside the stadium.

"We're trying to create a much more immersive and differentiated experience than I would get at home on my couch," Bergman said. "We're helping venues and organizations collect data to personalize the experience."

Teamwork between Wi-Fi and DAS

Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, is overhauling its Wi-Fi network with Boingo, which provides both the current Wi-Fi network as well as a neutral-hosted distributed antenna system (DAS) to increase wireless capacity in the stadium.

Luca Serra, director of sponsorship and media at Soldier Field, wants both systems in place for the best fan experience to offload a portion of the data traffic when necessary.

"You need parallel concurrent networks with the ability to play together. There's two ways to get your data, through your cellular network and the Wi-Fi," he said.

"There is a clear advantage in having two systems that provide coverage redundancy during times of a service outage, in addition to two separate systems that provide more overall bandwidth," said James Hammond, director of IT for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, which upgraded the Wi-Fi connectivity at its connected stadium last year with more than 1,200 access points. For DAS, the team chose CommScope's ION-U distributed antenna system.

"Instead of merely providing coverage, we now must provide an extremely high level of capacity and quality as well," said Kevin Schmonsees, CTO and vice president of Beam Wireless, which consulted on the Panthers upgrade. "The level of detail required to support a high quality experience has grown immensely."

Game tape: Lessons learned

Like any project, the key to building networks inside stadiums is involving the technology partner as early as possible in the process, McLoughlin of Comcast Business said.

"That way you can spend the time mapping out the best locations for Wi-Fi access points, mapping out conduit runs and how the fiber needs to be dispersed throughout the complex," he said.

Brocade's Allen recommended identifying potential problem areas early and physically separating services like Wi-Fi and IPTV, so they don't interfere with each other. For its two most recent deployments, Brocade set up an internal testing network to speed up implementation.

"As soon as construction is over, [teams] want the network in the next day. You need to get all the configurations set up and staged so once it's time to get the gear into the stadium it's really just connecting things together," Allen said. 

Next Steps

IT firm scores victory with stadium technology project

This was last published in March 2017

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