Future of Sports
Chatting Sports Tech

Edition #13 – In-Stadium Connectivity

Venues Can No Longer Avoid Upgrading Their Networks

TL:DR version:

  • Mobile device connectivity is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for the fan experience
  • Rollouts of WiFi-6 and 5G offer hope to satisfy future in-stadium network requirements and provide a foundation for innovation around the fan experience
  • Professional teams are focused on modernizing available WiFi and cellular networks coming out of the pandemic while college athletics programs have historically budgeted WiFi upgrades as part of major stadium renovations but are running into difficulties after last year

Confession: I knew almost nothing about in-stadium wireless and connectivity before deciding to write this. But over the past several months speaking with athletic departments, there was a common theme: to improve the gameday experience, schools need to upgrade their connectivity. 

So I embarked on a quest to learn more since future in-stadium innovation is reliant on a robust network.  After doing my homework, I can confidently say I now know more than nothing. Not much more, but more. 

My goal with this piece is for every reader to be able to carry a conversation centered around WiFi . Thrilling water cooler talk / zoom conversation starter I know.  

Also my girlfriend gave me the hard-hitting feedback that these pieces are too long so I’ll be adding the summary up front going forward. Tell me what you think (charles@engagemintpartners.com).

And if you like this content and want to be notified when the latest pieces drop, subscribe at the top of the page.

Let’s dive in…

Is connectivity important to the in-game experience?

Really? That’s a clown question, bro, You might as well have asked if Bonita fish are big…

Quick challenge – next time you’re in a waiting area, count how many people are NOT checking their phones to pass the time. If it’s more than a quarter of the room, I’d bet you are lying to me.

85% of Americans own a smartphone. Smartphones bring the world to your fingertips. With the world at your fingertips, you can easily fill any dead time. 

What has a lot of deadtime? Live sporting events. If there’s limited or no connectivity at the venue, people accustomed to killing time on their phones have a bad experience and question why they decided to buy a ticket. 

Placing bets. Checking rival scores. Seeing the Twitter chatter during the game. Real-time highlights. Reading work emails. Monitoring Bitcoin prices. Fans want all of these from their seats.

I get the fan experience side. But what are the considerations for a sports organization? 

Upgrading a stadium’s connectivity is a significant capital expenditure and now, finding the funds can be particularly challenging coming off last year. 

If I was modeling return on investment, I realize the benefits are not easily quantifiable. How do you accurately estimate lost ticket sales due to poor WiFi? How do you quantify how a negative fan experience impacts per head spending (merchandise, concessions, etc.)? Can I confidently project higher concession sales if I implement mobile ordering in my venue? Will mobile ticketing actually help get fans into the venue faster to increase spending? Is it worth upgrading connectivity in a football stadium that hosts less than 10 events a year?

That’s a challenge but let’s look at it from the opposite angle. Connectivity has become table stakes in today’s environment. We already discussed the Gen Z problem in sports and how the generation that grew up with smartphones expects ubiquitous WiFi. If the in-stadium experience continues to lag behind the at-home, you risk losing an entire next generation of fans.

There’s also the revenue component we touched on in the last edition. When you have a captive audience, fans are much more likely to purchase merchandise and concessions. If you don’t have adequate connectivity to push notifications, you’re missing out on new sales.

So I recognize the improved fan experience and the increased revenue potential but I want to understand the actual technology. What do I need to know? 

In simplest terms, WiFi-6 and 5G are the latest iterations of two technologies using radio frequencies to transmit information across networks. WiFi is typically used indoors as a local area network (LAN) whereas cellular networks such as 5G LTE are types of wide area networks (WAN) generally deployed over longer distances. They are considered complementary technologies – think your phone defaults to LTE when WiFi isn’t available. 

If you want to go deeper, here are some helpful articles to understand key terminology and latest trends:

Interesting but why is connectivity such an issue for sports venues? 

You haven’t experienced frustration until you’ve tried to rendezvous with friends at a tailgate outside Notre Dame stadium after a game. “Did you say Pole 8 or 18? Hello? Hellooooo.”

Since the proliferation of the mobile phone, connectivity at stadiums and arenas has been a significant problem. Part of it is that WiFi wasn’t created with the size of venues and the sheer volume of people trying to use the network during a packed sporting event in mind.  Plus, older cement and concrete buildings significantly diminish connectivity. Add on top of that the combination of large video displays, ribbon displays, pitch perimeter displays, LCD networks, concourse displays, exterior displays, wayfinding displays, and both wired and wireless broadcasting equipment that release a large volume of electromagnetic interference impeding network performance.

How people are using their phones has also led to a significant increase in data consumption (watching videos is much more data intensive than sending a text). I assume there’s a better study illustrating the increase but to give some context, 6.2 TB of data was used at the 2015 Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona versus 26.4 TB of data used at the 2020 Super Bowl At Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. That’s nearly a 4.5X increase in only 5 years!

The previous generation of LTE and WiFi technology was ill-equipped to handle a significant volume of data and messaging transmission across the network resulting in all sorts of latency issues and poor signal. 

Properly outfitting a stadium with WiFi requires a thorough understanding of the population and internet usage density which then informs the number of access points needed for a distributed antenna system to provide coverage. For reference, Stanford required 600 access points to upgrade its stadium, while Nebraska’s stadium required 900 points (at a cost of $5M).

What’s the current state in professional sports and college athletics?

Safe to assume every sports organization recognizes the importance of connectivity to the fan experience. 

We saw a big push from professional teams using the pandemic as an opportunity to upgrade both available WiFi and Cellular networks. Some updates from the first half of the year:

Pivoting to college athletics. We mentioned Stanford, considered the first school to add WiFi in stadium, and Nebraska above but here are some notes on other schools: 

There are plenty more but I think you get the gist. Most major stadium renovations have included an allocation to modernize connectivity. 

The problem? Most of these upgrades were completed or announced before the pandemic and may not reflect the latest networks (e.g., WiFi-6). That’s significant because these schools may require future upgrades as fans consistently test network bandwidth. This is especially challenging now as many schools push stadium renovations into the future post-pandemic.

Any final thoughts?

Sadly this piece didn’t provide as actionable advice like past Chatting Sports Tech editions but hopefully, you’re a little bit smarter after reading through. 

Here are my thoughts on what your organization should have on the radar for next steps:

  • If you DON’T have a plan to upgrade your in-stadium WiFi and have identified it as a pain point for fans, go through a strategic planning exercise and estimate the opportunity cost for not updating, both in the immediate and long-term future. If the cost is high and the long-term risk is an empty stadium, ask yourself these questions: What specific actions can we take to improve the fan experience with better connectivity? Do we need to budget upgrades as part of our overall fundraising plan? Can we leverage any upgrades the university is contemplating? What are the paths for monetization once upgrades are complete?
  • If you DO have a plan to upgrade WiFi systems or have already upgraded your WiFi, shift the conversation internally to 1) how to convey the benefits to get people off the couch and back in the stadium and 2) consider avenues for monetization by leveraging technologies that may require connectivity (mobile ticketing, mobile ordering, in-game notifications, etc.).  You’d be surprised by the possibilities. 

Until next time,

– Charles

The next and last topic in the future venue technology series will be on entry solutions. 

If you enjoyed this edition, tell your friends or colleagues about Chatting Sports Tech. Add me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @ccampisi_EES.

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