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Stadium technology turns the game around

Sports fields are becoming the most advanced smartphone environments on Earth. Their goal: Updating arenas to overlay sports and other events with app-driven services that keep fans engaged, boost convenience, and put fans in control of the cameras. Pulling out a win means advanced connectivity skills in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, because 50,000 cheering fans expect always-on Internet service.

Take me out to the ball game
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack
I don't care if I never get back.

The authors of that 1908 song had never been to a ballpark when they wrote it, yet they grasped secondhand that going to a game was a unique and exciting experience that involved more than watching players hit a ball. The social gathering, the air of excitement, the snacks, so much to see and to do—why would you ever leave?

Even as radio and then TV began to broadcast from ever-larger stadiums, the media was a sorry substitute for being there. Assuming the game was broadcast on one of the three TV networks, viewers were limited to a 27-inch analog picture with limited instant replays. You had to watch whatever view the producer put on-screen. Or you tried to imagine the scene while following a radio announcer’s verbal description. If you wanted to share the game with friends, you had to go to someone's home, or meet at a sports-friendly bar for a real group experience.

But even in the AOL dialup days, fans began to realize they could group chat during the game. In the 21st century, the stadiums’ once-unquestioned social advantages were taken away by Wi-Fi in the living room, smartphones, and social media. Fans had none of the hassles of parking, long walks, and long lines for restrooms and refreshments at a supersize arena. Add HDTV and surround sound, plus advanced replay and annotation tech on-screen, and give Twitter accounts to the players—who would want to risk buying a ticket to sit in a wireless dead zone for an entire game?

In short, today’s sports arenas compete not with other stadiums, but with staying home.

“The competition is now the couch. The beer is cheaper at home. The bathrooms are right there. The network works,” says John Paul, CEO of VenueNext, whose on-site stadium app is used by more than a dozen pro football, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams, as well as the horse tracks at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. 

It takes more than a fat Wi-Fi network to lure fans from their armchairs. “We know there will be 200 selfies per second that need to get through. But we also use technology to provide experiences that fans can’t get at home,” says Marc Waters, U.K. and Ireland managing director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, of the all-new Tottenham stadium that opens in London next August. Tottenham’s architects designed it to house a scalable wireless infrastructure that can be enhanced over the building’s expected life of a few decades.

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Making the most of fans’ phones

Stadium owners everywhere are working to improve every aspect of the smartphone-toting fan’s experience on game day—or concert night. Ticketing, parking, seating, concessions, and restroom lines should be accessible at a tap. In any sport, the fan experience has to meet and exceed expectations. Fans want access to on-demand replays they can’t get at home. They expect to look up anything at any time during the game. They want to take over the TV cameras themselves to watch the game from multiple angles and review plays later in the game. Tottenham, for example, will open four covering the game at once and probably more later.

For teams and stadium owners, high-speed networking and app-controlled convenience are no longer luxury options. Fans who pay today’s ticket prices expect to be catered to. They are known for tweeting about the venue’s shortcomings from the stands, warning others away.

Apps have become the new common ground. VenueNext’s app will walk a fan through an entire event experience, for example. The app downloads the attendee's ticket through Ticketmaster. When fans arrive at the stadium, it remembers where their cars are parked. It alerts them to in-house or nearby dining and shopping. It navigates them to their seats. It lets them know where the restrooms are and how long the wait is at each one. It lets fans order food and merchandise for pickup from their seats, and arranges for drinks to be delivered straight into their hands. It lets attendees tap into available camera feeds to watch instant replays on demand from multiple camera angles. Is a super-drunk fan causing trouble at the pizza counter? The app can send a photo straight to Security.

The sports and concert fan experiences also need to change based on the event type. A baseball game is a multi-hour hangout, where fans get up to stretch. It’s cool to deliver drinks to them in their seats. Soccer and hockey are shorter, nonstop games where ordering someone to bring you a Pepsi risks infuriating the rest of your row. During music events, it’s up to the artist to decide whether T-shirt sales are available through the app while the performer is on stage.

Network upgrades benefit the team, too

Apps are not just for fans' benefit. They provide customer behavior data to the team and venue operator as well. Companies like Interana have proved that number-crunching a galaxy of tiny data points can provide insights into how to better accommodate customers, how to get attendees to spend more, and how to keep them coming back.

Fans who use the app are no longer anonymous humans with tickets. They have identified themselves as specific people—or at least specific phones—for whom profiles can be built over time as they use the app. The data collected lets marketers study customer behavior and create segments of like-behaving fans for targeted offers instead of annoying spam broadcasts. The same Bluetooth beacons that guide fans to their seats also validate that the fans are in the building, which authorizes attendees to tap into camera feeds and info streams kept away from the Internet at large.

And by bringing all aspects of the experience together, an app opens up new business possibilities. The Orlando Magic leveraged data acquisition to increase season ticket sales by over a million dollars last year. Season ticket buyers get the dollar value they paid in “Magic Money,” dollar-for-dollar credits fans can use to spend on anything related to the team. Any ticket the season ticket holders don’t use in the 41-game season is credited toward future purchases. For example, one fan used spare credits to treat friends to limo service and VIP seats one night, without having to scramble to resell tickets online ahead of previous games.

Pushing the envelope of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

To deliver all these new treats, a modern stadium must provide Wi-Fi and Bluetooth coverage that makes the swankiest office building seem turnkey. It’s a dream job—and a Herculean challenge—for the world’s best network engineers. New stadiums like Tottenham or U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the Vikings, are buffed out with the world’s most powerful and sophisticated networks built for everyday use.

Owners of older stadiums are working to retrofit the latest services to their existing buildings. That's quite a challenge, however, for a venue like Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, N.C., home of the Panthers, which broke ground in 1994 when voice-only cell phones were only coming into vogue, or Jordan-Hare Stadium in Alabama, home of the Auburn Tigers, which hosts 87,000 fans. Google up a few photos and you’ll see these sites were built “on grade,” which means they’re giant holes dug into the earth, lined with stands made of Wi-Fi-stopping concrete.

That slows but doesn’t stop today’s arena network wranglers. Most fans have no idea how much engineering and experience goes into feeding their instant-replay app—not just building it, but operating it during play. Jeff Weaver, practice leader for large public venues at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, says, “We configure every access point individually and use a lot of radio magic [i.e., Wi-Fi and Bluetooth] to keep things working during the game.”

Nor do fans realize they’re part of the network’s design themselves. Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons are placed under seats in the stands where possible, so the bodies of fans sitting atop them block them from interfering with other access points operating on the same wireless channels above and below. As a fan moves through the venue, network-controlling software detects with which access point their phone has connected. It then uses Wi-Fi protocol tricks to tell the phone which network to connect to next, based on predictable walking paths, rather than letting it latch onto the strongest signal as it normally would.

How many access points does it take? Network builders like to lay out one access point for every 75 to 150 fans—more if the access points are under the seats, fewer if they’re overheard in a catwalk—arrayed in a checkerboard pattern across the structure to maximize the covered area. Most Wi-Fi bases include a Bluetooth beacon, but the network engineers may need to scatter half again as many stand-alone units. Those units can run on batteries or USB, but the more powerful Wi-Fi units need electric power run to each of them.

Every venue has walls, rafters, stairwells, and special constructs that get in the way of a clear signal. You can’t just broadcast a network from above. The many access points required to serve 50,000 to 100,000 event attendees—each unit limited to 20 separate channels and thus stacking from three to 12 phones on one channel at times—would mangle one another's digital information being sent through the air.

Quite the opposite: Network builders try to constrain each access point to its own small area and keep it from interfering with its neighbors. They configure the antenna coverage pattern of each access point individually and make use of well-known obstacles to radio waves—walls, stairs, other fans—to keep coverage areas separate.

These tiny wireless fiefdoms are then federated into what seems like one big network. “We try to capture people in the parking lot,” Weaver says, to make fans part of the game’s wireless experience as soon as they arrive for tailgating. From then on, the networking goal is to hand off fans’ phones from one local access point to the next without the attendees needing to reconnect, even as they walk to the restroom.

Are there access points in the bathrooms? Of course. But there are also human eyes on the situation. A “producer” at many venues oversees which restrooms or concession stands have been spotted as having long lines. A continually updated map with red, yellow, or green dots shows how busy the restrooms are. (In theory, you could track lines with Bluetooth beacons, but there’s no need for overkill here.)

The network itself is watched without a blink. Baseball games load the airwaves at an even pace from start to finish, with maybe a third of fans online at any moment, but soccer and American football fans pile onto the network right before halftime.

Some venues, like Tottenham, must also be flexible. A soccer game one night may be followed by a pop star’s concert the next. Wireless access needs to be reconfigured overnight to accommodate an additional throng of music fans standing where a soccer pitch was 24 hours before.

Every sport is a networking event

The drive to turn every event into a networking party extends past football fields to historic horse tracks. Bob Hughes, CIO of the New York Racing Association, says hooking up the grounds at Saratoga in New York, built in 1863, required meeting the restrictions of historical committees and covering the track’s higher-than-an-arena level of network use. Up to 50,000 people may spend an entire Saturday picnicking and wandering historic exhibits (its app provides location and narration) and popping into five or six live music acts between a dozen two-minute races spread. “We have one in four attendees online at any given moment,” says Hughes.

To keep Bluetooth signals from crossing, Saratoga’s engineers put tinfoil on top of the Bluetooth beacon in the old, multi-story wooden buildings. And to engage fans, they mounted a 360-degree camera in the off-limits paddock area at the center of the racetrack. Attendees can check out each horse’s spirits before a race, and note if its trainer of choice is on hand to win or avoiding a hopeless race. Serious gamblers in the crowd now use this former inside information when placing their bets.

Tottenham will be the 15-terabytes-per-game cutting edge of stadium wireless tech when it opens next August. That volume has increased 30 percent year over year since 2013, and seems likely to keep going as smartphone usage becomes the norm for all ages and people keep finding more ways to use the network on event days.

What comes next? Josh McHugh, who edited the forward-looking “Future of Sports” booklet for the owner of the Boston Bruins, says today’s video games hold the blueprints for tomorrow’s live game: “Augmented reality overlays will let fans at the stadium add as much visual information as they want—like stats or player bios or replays—to their field of view. Or they'll be able to stash display elements anywhere they want away from the game action, within a 360-degree space. They'll even be able to tune out visual information—other fans or all those distracting high-def digital banners ringing the field to pay closer attention to the action.”

That’s the ultimate win of personal technology: It still leaves you alone to watch the game.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.