Sport Franchises Use IT to Keep Fans in Seats

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 01-18-2013

Sport Franchises Use IT to Keep Fans in Seats

By Michael Vizard

Professional sports teams have a major problem of their own invention. With the advent of high-definition television, sport fans are not only getting a better view of the game at home, but they’re also a lot more comfortable. To combat a problem that technology helped create, CIOs across a range of organizations are now looking to mobile computing and social media technologies to provide a more immersive experience in the stadium to make sure there are plenty of fans in the seats.

Every time a fan with a season ticket decides to stay home from a game it costs the sports franchise about $20 on average in lost concession and merchandising revenue. To make sure fans come to the game, IT leaders in professional sports are employing everything from customer loyalty programs to sophisticated wireless networks that connect fans to not only the latest stats, but to a full range of multimedia properties they can access only at the game.

At the cutting edge of this trend are the New England Patriots, who will be playing host to 70,000 fans who will come to watch the AFC championship game played in what promises to be a chilly Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have spent a fair amount of the last year getting fans who have season tickets to download applications that, among other things, give those fans instant access to the latest online statistics and the ability to subscribe to NFL Red Zone, a service that gives them access to any NFL game in which a team is within 20 yards of the opposing team’s end zone.

According to Fred Kirsch, publisher and vice president of content for The Kraft Group, which owns the Patriots, the goal of providing online services is to enhance the community experience that fans can only get at the game. Given the cost of tickets, Kirsch says it doesn’t make much sense to charge extra for online services. As part of its effort to keep fans coming to Gillette Stadium next year, the Patriots plan to expand delivery of those services to every fan in the stadium, but also to add new services such as being able to order concessions that can be picked up at specific location, a parking application that uses global positioning system technology to identify open parking spaces, and even access content that only the Patriots can provide, such as locker room interviews and on-field conversations with players.

The Patriots are able to provide this capability, says Kirsch, because they worked with Enterasys to deploy a network throughout Gillette Stadium that includes 360 wireless access points. This year the network had about 350 GB of data downloaded per game on average, which Kirsch says is nowhere near capacity.

Jonathan Kraft, president of The Kraft Group, says the team selected Enterasys because it was the only vendor that would put its promised performance metrics in writing. The Patriots spent the last year essentially piloting the system with their most loyal fans, which Kraft says in retrospect may have been overly cautious.

Sport Franchises Use IT to Keep Fans in Seats

“At the end of the first year I wish we had done this year everything we have planned for next year,” says Kraft, who is also a member of the digital committee for the National Football League (NFL). Besides providing the networking equipment, Enterasys employees also staff help desks during games to answer Patriots fans’ technical questions.

According to Enterasys chief marketing and customer officer Vala Afshar, it has only one major stadium project under its belt thus far, compared to well-known rivals such as Cisco which, for example, recently built the wireless network for new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But Afshar notes that Enterasys has extensive relationships with universities that use its technologies to wire their campuses, so Enterasys might start leveraging what it learned from the Patriots at college stadiums and arena across the country.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have a long history of being a technology leader in the NFL. The team was the first major sports franchise to launch its own website, and since then the web property has become a major distributor of multimedia sports content for Patriots fans.

Of course, nothing the Patriots do goes unnoticed by other New England sports franchises, including the Boston Celtics, the Boston Bruins and the Boston Red Sox. The Celtics, for example, now allow fans to send Twitter messages that can appear on the scoreboard at TDGarden, and season ticket holders can upgrade their seats at the game with their smartphones.

“We’re trying to move to the virtualization of tickets as quick as we can,” says Jay Wessel, vice president of technology for the Celtics.

Similarly, the Bruins, which share a venue with the Celtics, are testing way-finding and parking applications. “We’re trying to create more fan engagement and better relationships with the ticket holders,” says Lorraine Spadaro, vice president of technology and e-business for Delaware North Companies, which owns TDGarden.

Surprisingly, increasing fan loyalty is one of the biggest challenges facing the Red Sox, which have one of the most rabid fan bases in all of professional sports. “Once someone enters the stadium we lose track of them,” says Heidi Labritz, director of business applications for the Red Sox. The Red Sox plans to pilot a loyalty program for its season ticket holders that the organization hopes will join a new “Red Sox Royal Rooters” program that will, for example, gain on-field access during batting practice. Fans may even be able to watch replays on their smartphones at the game, says Labritz.

While IT executives could be forgiven for thinking that these issues are unique to IT managers working for a sports franchise, Craig Mathias, principal for The Farpoint Group, an IT consulting firm, says in reality stadiums are addressing today the wireless networking density issues that all enterprises will face tomorrow.

“The challenge with building these networks is that it all comes down to management and control,” says Mathias. “When you go to the game now what you’re really experiencing is the future of enterprise networking.”