Sports Venues Confront Fans' Use of Wireless

Sports Venues Confront Fans' Use of Wireless
From pro sports to prep sports, fan use of technology during games is on the rise. (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.

“It’s like trying to put 4 pounds of barbecue on a single bun,” explained Waddell, who was hired earlier this year to handle external operations and strategic communications for the UA Athletic Department.

There might be more scientific explanations for why service gets overloaded, but Waddell’s example is a good illustration of the challenges that teams are facing.

AT&T reports a 20,000 percent increase in wireless data traffic on its network during the last five years. In an effort to ease local demand the company has installed Distributed Antenna Systems in buildings and venues across Arkansas, including Reynolds Razorback Stadium and Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville and War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Those DAS networks are designed to boost mobile broadband coverage in heavily trafficked areas.

“We want our customers to have a great network experience whatever they’re doing — whether that’s making a call, sending a text, checking email or posting to social media apps,” Ed Drilling, president of AT&T Arkansas, said. “AT&T’s DAS installations are designed to help people stay connected — and share memorable moments with their mobile devices. As smartphones and apps have evolved to provide even more photo- and video-sharing capabilities, we’ve seen a significant rise in data traffic at sporting venues like War Memorial and Razorback Stadium.”

AT&T says development work is ongoing to improve technology and make the user experience better in high-traffic areas like sporting venues.

Teams aren’t waiting for the guarantee of uninterrupted service to incorporate interactive components into their in-game presentations. Messages on the ribbon boards at UA’s Bud Walton Arena encouraged basketball fans to post photos of themselves at the games with specific hashtags on social media sites. Those photos were then displayed on the venue’s video board. Similar promotions are planned during football games this fall as the Razorbacks work to engage fans who might otherwise be distracted by their smartphones.

Some teams are turning to companies that specialize in wireless technology for help. Meru Networks has become a popular choice for sporting venues looking for mass wireless capabilities. Arvest Ballpark in Springdale is using Meru to install multiple wireless access points. Suite levels at Arvest Ballpark have a limited number of access points, but the goal is to have nearly stadiumwide coverage by opening day of 2014.

Among Meru Network’s customers are 37,000-seat Fenway Park in Boston and Marlins Stadium in Miami. Meru marketing material, citing research from the International Data Corp., estimates the use of 2.6 billion mobile devices by 2016.

“Engaging fans on wireless devices has become almost as important as anything else you do,” Naturals General Manager Justin Cole said.

Cole declined to get specific about what the project would cost, but said it was “five figures for sure.” The Naturals will use some of their capital improvement money from the city of Springdale to help add about 25 access points to the 7,300-seat venue. Each access point can accommodate up to 80 people at once and can cost between $600 and $1,000 each, according to Jim Baker, a regional sales manager for Meru. A centralized control system for a stadium the size of Arvest could cost another $15,000. So while teams are interested in adding the technology, it’s not always an investment they can make right away.

Access point installation not only allows fans easier access to online information or additional engagement with the team during the games, but the technology can also help make running game days easier for teams, Baker said. Teams can use wireless technology to incorporate mobile concession sales and for other operational uses. And for anybody who accesses the wireless network, Meru Networks also offers a service that collects email addresses or mobile phone numbers to help teams build their marketing databases. So a fan at a venue might have to enter an email address or cellphone number to get online and the team can then use that information to further promote its brand.

“If I’m a big, fat-cat booster and I’ve got a suite for 30 of my closest friends, you know who I am. You know how to market to me,” Baker said. “You now have the ability to collect information on my friends. You might want to follow up with them, invite them back to an event or game or whatever.”

North Little Rock’s minor league team, the Arkansas Travelers, was an early adopter of in-venue wireless. When Dickey-Stephens Park opened in 2007, the Travelers installed wireless service. In fact, the Travs’ final year of Ray Winder Field included wireless for fans. Demand has grown substantially since then.

Phil Elson, the team’s play-by-play man, said he is often equipped with a cellphone, laptop and tablet for in-game research. But he has noticed, particularly over the last two seasons, that fans are also trying to supplement their game experience with wireless devices.

“It’s my job to try being the most informed person at the ballpark,” Elson said. “But fans have nearly the same access to information and they’re taking advantage. It’s something we all have to be mindful of now.”