Sports Venues Confront Fans' Use of Wireless

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 12:00 am  

From pro sports to prep sports, fan use of technology during games is on the rise. (Photo by Mark Wagner)

Mike Waddell was ready to celebrate.

Waddell, a senior associate athletic director at the University of Arkansas, was in attendance at an NFL playoff game last fall. A big play on the field resulted in a wave of emotion sweeping through the stands. Waddell, caught up in the moment, looked to his left and then to his right in hopes of high-fiving a fan seated next to him.

“Both of them had their noses in their phones,” Waddell said, laughing as he recalled the experience. In that unfulfilled high-five Waddell, the fan, affirmed to Waddell, the athletic administrator, how much the experience of watching a game in the stands is changing.

“It’s hard for fans, including me, to watch a game whether it’s on TV or in person and not have the iPhone or iPad there,” Waddell said. “It’s our job now to make sure these pieces of technology enhance the experience of being at the game.”

Fans are becoming less content to simply watch the action unfold on the field in front of them. Having scores flash across in-house video boards and having limited access to statistics in game programs are no longer good enough for many who attend sporting events. While in the stands they want the same online access to information — and their friends — that they would have when taking in a game broadcast from their couch.

Use of wireless devices is increasing in sports venues where customers are sharing photos of their experience with their friends, searching for statistics and, in essence, giving a digital high-five to others at the venue. No longer do you have to be seated near someone to experience the game together. A text, tweet or Facebook post can connect a fan with field access to a friend in the nosebleeds.

Plus, teams are finding that the increased availability of broadcasts through cable and Internet packages and high-definition screens seems to be lessening the appeal of in-person viewing. Leagues, like the Southeastern Conference, are exploring ways to get fans engaged online while getting them in the stadium.

From pro sports to prep sports, fan use of technology during games is on the rise.

“Over the last few years, especially during high school football games, you notice that fans are all on their phones while the game is going on,” said Danny-Joe Crofford, marketing and events director for War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. “It’s humorous at times because you wonder if they’re even paying attention to the game.”

Nielsen, the market research company, estimates that more than half of consumers in the U.S. are using smartphones. That number — and the use of tablets like the iPad — is expected to grow, so officials with sports teams in Arkansas are evaluating their options.

Larger venues like the University of Arkansas’ 70,000-seat Razorback Stadium or War Memorial Stadium continue work that will allow them to handle the demand on existing wireless or cellular networks. A survey of major venues across the state reveals that adding or improving wireless service is a goal from those representing Arkansas State’s 31,000-seat Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro to Springdale’s Arvest Ballpark, home to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

Cell towers in or near venues used to be enough to handle the handful of fans online during games. Satisfying current demand for online access can be, teams have found, easier said than done.



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