Brooklyn basketball nets WIFI

Sports stadiums want to enter the smartphone era. The challenge: connecting 100,000 fans.

Big league WIFI

David Dow/NBAE

When the Barclays Center officially opened its doors Sept. 28 with a sold-out Jay-Z concert, New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the brash, otherworldly home of the Brooklyn Nets. In renderings, the US$1-billion arena’s swooping lines initially resembled those of the Starship Enterprise. But, in real life, the deliberately rusted steel exterior (which drips bright orange splotches on the sidewalk below) conveys a grittier, urban aesthetic—more Blade Runner than Star Trek.

Nor is the futuristic theme limited to the Barclays Center’s appearance. The arena is trumpeted as among the most technologically advanced in the world, full of HD video screens and, most importantly, extensive WiFi connectivity.

It’s part of the mounting effort to drag the utilitarian sports stadium, with its popcorn and plastic beer cups, into the age of smartphones and tablets. With the exception of subway tunnels and airplane cabins, big sports stadiums represent one of the few remaining places in North America where decent wireless coverage can be frustratingly hard to come by—thanks mostly to the technological challenges posed by having the equivalent of a small city sitting in a single city block. At the same time, team owners are hoping to keep fans flowing through the turnstiles by allowing them to integrate their iPhones and iPads into the action. Though specific approaches vary, fans at places like the Barclays Center can expect to watch instant replays, monitor real-time video of their favourite players and order food and drinks from their touchscreens.

“A year ago, when people put WiFi in venues, they just needed connectivity—even if it was just so fans could get on Facebook and Twitter,” says David Holland, the general manager of Cisco’s sports and entertainment solutions group, which built the WiFi backbone at the Barclays Center and also provided wireless equipment for the refurbishment of Vancouver’s BC Place. “But now the strategy is to say, ‘Yeah, we need that, but we also want things that are very specific to what’s happening at the venue.’ So you’re going to see waves of new applications.”

Keeping up with technology has become critical for pro sports leagues at a time when the experience of watching a game at home—on giant HD television sets—has never been better. “Every league is looking at this issue,” says Doug Perlman, the founder of Sports Media Advisors in Connecticut. “But I think the NFL is particularly focused on it because football is such a great, compelling TV experience to begin with. They’re worried more and more people will stay at home to watch on their big screens with HD and, soon, in 3D, with access to their tablets for all their fantasy football information.”

Though attendance remains healthy, the numbers at NFL games have indeed been dipping. Average game attendance slumped 4.5 per cent to 64,698 last year, compared to 67,755 in 2007. While the recession has no doubt played a role, the league isn’t taking any chances. “We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding, and we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this year.

The solution? Bring the living room inside the stadium. When the Dallas Cowboys opened their new stadium in 2009, fans literally couldn’t take their eyes off the nearly 50-m-long and 22-m-tall HD screens that hung above the turf. “You don’t even know there’s a field, you stare at the board so much,” one early visitor told the Wall Street Journal. Three years later, giant HD screens are now considered a must-have for any new stadium project. The new US$1.2-billion home of the San Francisco 49ers, the Santa Clara Stadium, will feature more than 13,000 sq. ft. of HD video boards when it opens in 2014. But the owners say their goal isn’t necessarily to build the biggest or grandest stadium, but the smartest—hence the “stadium-wide WiFi capability, mobile connectivity and IPTV (Internet Protocol Television).”

In many ways, the pro sports world is playing catch-up to coffee shops, malls and airports that now offer ways to stay connected. “People are bringing their devices to these [stadiums] with a certain level of expectation,” says Holland. “But they’re not getting it. So they’re getting pretty vocal with these leagues and these teams.” He adds that team owners, like all businesses, are also keen on forging deeper connections with their customers. “They can sell things to them while they’re in the venue and after they’ve left,” he says. “We think this is a strategic element to the way they want to run their businesses over the next decade.”

The main reason for the glacial uptake is technological. Wireless access points are shared infrastructure. And when you have 80,000-plus people sitting in a relatively confined space, the tubes quickly become clogged. “There’s a limit to the amount of bandwidth you can bring inside a stadium,” says Stuart Hamilton, the chief technology officer of Cisco’s sports solutions group. “And if you want to go beyond that, you have to do things like distribute video in an intelligent way so that you don’t use more bandwidth.”

At the new Barclays Center, for example, Holland promises that Cisco’s WiFi system will be able to serve “tens of thousands of people concurrently,” a number he says that envisions high-bandwidth HD-like video applications.

But Barclays is a relatively small arena, even by NBA standards. It seats just 18,000. The challenges—and costs—mount in NFL stadiums, which seat closer to 75,000, and in U.S. college football venues, which can hold more than 100,000. So far, NFL stadiums that have added or expanded WiFi coverage include the MetLife Stadium, the Georgia Dome, Lucas Oil Stadium, Raymond James Stadium, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Bank of America Stadium and Sun Life Stadium, according to ESPN. Some NHL arenas are also getting in on the action, including Anaheim’s Honda Center and Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.

Even so, the number of facilities offering a totally “connected” fan experience remain few and far between. “Are there any stadiums out there where everyone has great, seamless connectivity? I think the honest answer is probably no,” says Perlman. “It’s sort of a dog chasing its tail problem. The better the connectivity, the more people will use it. But the more people who use it, the more connectivity you need.” Perhaps all that rust covering the otherwise gleaming Barclays Center also serves a non-aesthetic role: a reminder to tech-savvy fans not to get their hopes up too high. At least not yet.

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