May 27, 2015

NBA stadium tech reports — NBA West, Pacific Division

Editor’s note: The following team-by-team capsule reports of NBA stadium technology deployments are an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE. To get all the capsules in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.

Reporting by Chris Gallo

NBA WEST: Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors
Oracle Arena
Seating capacity: 19,596
Wi-Fi: Yes (185 APs)
DAS: Yes

The Warriors have the oldest home court in the NBA as Oracle Arena opened almost a half century ago. The age hasn’t stopped Golden State from making upgrades to the arena in the past few seasons with Wi-Fi and DAS available. (In fact, the Wi-Fi network is currently undergoing upgrade during this season). The Warriors are also out front with beacons, now in the second generation of using the technology to power features like store discounts and seat upgrades. The Warriors also remain one of the recognized leaders in all sports in social media outreach.

Los Angeles Clippers
Staples Center
Seating capacity: 19,060
Wi-Fi: Yes
DAS: Yes

Staples centerWhile the Clippers went through an eventful summer last year, the Staples Center was busy improving the fan experience. The 15-year-old facility completed a new LED sports lighting system to the tune of nearly $7.5 million. The conversion to LED lighting allows the Staples Center to save an estimated $280,000 annually in energy costs. Those savings combined with Wi-Fi and DAS deployment from Verizon, help new owner Steve Ballmer in his pursuit to make the Clippers a championship franchise. (Which will have to wait until next year.)

Los Angeles Lakers
Staples Center
Seating capacity: 18,997
Wi-Fi: Yes
DAS: Yes

While there wasn’t much to cheer about on the court this season, Los Angeles Lakers fans still benefited from sharing the Staples Center with multiple professional franchises. The Wi-Fi and DAS systems are among the best in the NBA, and more improvements are scheduled for the arena. The latest planned renovation is a retractable seating system to help the Staples Center more easily complete almost 150 doubleheader games each year between the Lakers, Clippers, LA Kings, and Sparks.

Phoenix Suns
US Airways Center (Talking Stick Resort Arena)
Seating capacity: 18,422
Wi-Fi: Yes (300+ APs)
DAS: Yes (325 antennas)

Verizon and the Phoenix Suns agreed to a long-term extension this fall to make the arena fan-friendly for years to come. Verizon plans to install beacons, and allow fans to keep tickets and arena credit in a “wallet” directly on their mobile devices. The upgrades will coincide with a name change of the arena. A Phoenix-area tribe purchased the naming rights in December. With its new moniker, Talking Stick Resort Arena will take over the rights from the US Airways for the 2015-16 season.

Sacramento Kings
Sleep Train Arena
Seating capacity: 17,317
Wi-Fi: Yes (90+ access points)
DAS: Yes

The Sacramento Kings broke ground on their new $477 million downtown arena this fall. The franchise plans to open the new arena in time for the 2016 season, and to make a splash in stadium technology. The Kings are aiming to have more per capita connectivity than the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Bold. And to prepare for the new arena, Sacramento is using the aging Sleep Train Arena to experiment with new technologies. In limited pockets, the Kings took advantage of their partnership with SignalShare to make the team app more location-specific and gather data of fans’ habits that will be useful for the opening of the new arena.

RootMetrics debuts tests of cell service inside stadiums

Screen shot of RootMetrics reporting app.

Screen shot of RootMetrics reporting app.

RootMetrics, a Bellevue, Wash.-based concern that has made a name for itself by conducting tests of wireless services in cities and airports across the nation, is now starting to test wireless networks in sports stadiums, which may give fans a heads-up on how their provider is performing inside stadium walls.

Though it only has visited a handful of arenas so far, RootMetrics eventually plans to test more than 100 stadiums this year, according to the company. For each venue, RootMetrics sends an unspecified number of testers to track data performance of the top four wireless carriers in the U.S., a list that includes AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile. RootMetrics’ venue testers also check performance of the internal Wi-Fi network if one is available, but it does not let Wi-Fi compete for its “RootScore Award,” which it bestows upon the carrier with best performance in the combined categories of speed and “data reliability,” basically a measurement of the ability to make and hold a connection during any wireless data request or action.

RootMetrics also doesn’t take into account whether or not any of the carriers has preferential deals inside a venue, which may give that provider a leg up on the competition. For its report on the Staples Center, for instance, RootMetrics gives its award to Verizon, which is not surprising to us since Verizon built both the Wi-Fi and the DAS network at the facility. But RootMetrics makes no mention of the business agreements at Staples or anywhere else, which is by design, according to the company.

Why can’t Wi-Fi win?

RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore said in a recent phone interview that such details about contracts and preferred suppliers really don’t matter to consumers — what really matters, he said, is how well each carrier performs in the venue.

While the “scoreboard” mentality does perform a service by presenting just what data the testers find, the RootMetrics venue surveys have some gaps that may need to be filled or changed in the future to present a fully accurate picture of stadium network performance. One big reporting gap is the fact that RootMetrics doesn’t use any iOS devices in its stadium tests, a strange omission since most stadium networks say they still see a majority of iPhones among the devices being used on stadium networks. RootMetrics also seems to unfairly leave Wi-Fi networks out of the scoring, even though in many cases so far the local Wi-Fi networks far outperform the carrier cellular links.

Screen shot of RootMetrics' test results for the Moda Center in Portland.

Screen shot of RootMetrics’ test results for the Moda Center in Portland.

For Portland’s Moda Center, for instance, RootMetrics gives its RootScore award to Verizon, since in their testing Verizon was found to have better data reliability and better data speeds than the other cellular carriers. But the stadium’s in-house Wi-Fi network was 3 Mbps faster than Verizon on the download side and more than five times faster than Verizon on the upload side — yet Wi-Fi wasn’t mentioned in the venue “scores” and only got a footnote at the bottom of the results page.

Founded in 2008, RootMetrics has (apparently) built a good business in its chosen field, since it was acquired last month by the Englewood, Colo.-based IHS, a large information and analytics concern that recorded $546 million in revenue for its most recent quarter.

In the industry, RootMetrics is well known for its wireless coverage performance map and its “RootScores,” which attempt to determine winners and losers in the wireless service game for major U.S. metropolitan areas and the nation’s busiest airports. The basic RootMetrics premise is that they measure exactly what service levels consumers see in real life, providing an independent way for customers to evaluate services in a given area. While consumers can see the high-level results of its tests — which include both internal testing as well as data “crowdsourced” from consumers who download the RootMetrics reporting app — RootMetrics also sells its information directly to carriers and other infrastructure providers.

Stadium Tech Report: Los Angeles Angels and 5 Bars build ‘wireless halo’ of Wi-Fi & DAS for Angels Stadium

The iconic sign outside the "Big A," aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

The iconic sign outside the “Big A,” aka Angels Stadium of Anaheim. Credit all photos, even tilted ones: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Every baseball team wants to notch a win on opening day, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are no exception. So while the number of runs scored was important to Al Castro, the franchise’s IT director, his eye was also on wireless performance in Angels Stadium, since 2015 will be the first full season with both Wi-Fi and DAS technology in place. The Angels may have lost their opener against the Kansas City Royals, but their wireless networks scored big by handling more than 1.3 TB of data that afternoon.

“Fans expect connectivity these days,” Castro told Mobile Sports Report during a tour of Angels Stadium, aka the Big A, which was built in 1966. Once the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the stadium went through and extensive renovation in 1997-98 and now seats about 44,000 for baseball and serves 3 million visitors annually. “If they’re going to come to a ballgame for four hours,” said Castro of today’s fans, “they won’t tolerate not being connected.”

Adding wireless to the ‘Big A’

To get the wireless ball rolling last year, teams of engineers on scaffolding started on the uppermost tier of the Big A (the “View Level”) to mount DAS and Wi-Fi antennas to the stadium canopy. Working from outermost edges of the C-shaped stadium, two sets at of scaffolding at each end leapfrogged each til they met in the middle – a five-week process, according to Castro.

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

Angels IT director Al Castro, in front of his wireless deployment map

The 15-zone DAS network went live in June 2014 with Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile on board; Sprint is expected to add some antennas in the next several weeks. Currently, there are 122 DAS remotes in 33 locations. Angel Stadium Wi-Fi went live in September 2014 and now counts more than 400 access points around the stadium, according to team figures. Ruckus Wireless is the Wi-Fi vendor; the DAS gear is from Teko Telecom, now part of JMA Wireless.

The Angels worked closely with technology partner 5 Bars, a builder of turnkey wireless networks for sports venues’ wireless needs. Castro would not disclose the budget for the wireless upgrades at Angels Stadium.

In addition to using Major League Baseball’s Ballpark app, Angels fans can post to social media, surf the Web and check email from the stadium’s wireless networks. On the stadium’s club level, spectators can wirelessly order food and beverage from their seats; Legends, which operates the stadium’s concessions, uses an unpublished SSID for 150 wireless-enabled moveable cash registers and more than two dozen handheld point-of-sale devices. Similarly, TicketMaster has its own invisible SSID for wireless scanning of tickets at the stadium’s entry gates; the SSID for the press box is also masked, according to Castro.

Hiding in plain (or painted) sight

The DAS antennas and APs have been strategically installed and well concealed; they’re as discrete as chameleons. Working with Ruckus gear, 5 Bars installed narrow-beam, sectorized-beam and high-capacity APs, all centrally managed by Ruckus’s SmartCell Gateway 200.

A nice view of the field -- with antennas in silhouette

A nice view of the field — with antennas in silhouette

The Angels also use SmartCell Insight, a reporting and analytics package that helps the team track number of unique connections to the Wi-Fi during the course of a game, device types, total and average data uploaded and downloaded, and their speeds, Castro said.

Angel Stadium Wi-Fi has been engineered for 20,000 simultaneous users; there’s no throttling of user bandwidth and no filtering for streaming media like Spotify — “yet,” Castro was quick to add with a laugh. Download speeds vary depending on crowd size, according to Tommy Taylor, senior manager, engineering services for 5 Bars. For a game with 36,000 in attendance, for example, average download speed for devices using 2.4 GHz bandwidth is 8-12 Mbps, while 5 GHz connections can run as fast as 18-24 Mbps. On the traffic side, currently the network is seeing upload volume of about 20 percent of the download average volume, Taylor said, in an email to Mobile Sports Report.

The Angels will continue to fine-tune the network and add or re-point APs as necessary. “We are in the process of adding additional APs to cover some areas that, when the stadium is full, do not receive the high level of coverage we are targeting to provide,” Castro said. Those additions should be done by mid-June. Management has an eye on monetizing the network through sponsorships, and extending the in-seat ordering system beyond the club level of the ballpark, according to Castro.

He also wants to add streaming video to the network so that fans can watch replay from multiple angles, which Castro described as “a good incentive — something you can’t get at home.” He also intends to expand his use of analytics and report generation on a game-by-game basis. It’s the sort of thing that the owners and managers of the team are increasingly interested in, Castro added.

Final Four final score: 11 Terabytes of total wireless traffic

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 6.37.28 PMWe finally have some final wireless results in from the Final Four, and the total wireless-traffic number of 11 terabytes used over the weekend is just another sign that mobile device use at “big” sporting events is still increasing, with no top in sight.

According to figures sent to us by Ryan Marketing Group Technologies — an official outlet for the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament tech operations — there was 9.47 terabytes of wireless data used over the Final Four weekend in and around Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, with 5.3 TB of that running over the stadium’s Wi-Fi network and the balance running on the building’s DAS. According to Ryan Marketing Group they believe the DAS numbers only reflect Verizon Wireless customer traffic (we have asked Verizon to confirm the numbers, but have not yet received a response from Verizon). The NCAA numbers also include usage for attendees at the accompanying Fan Fest events, in addition to the Saturday and Monday night games.

Separately, AT&T had said that it saw 1.52 TB of cellular traffic on its own DAS for the Final Four games, so adding the figures together we get 10.99 TB of total data, a number that should give pause to stadiums or arenas with “big events” on the horizon. Following huge wireless traffic numbers from recent big events like the Super Bowl and the College Football Playoff championships, it’s clear that there is still no plateau in sight for mobile-device wireless usage at big events. And just when you thought networks might be able to keep pace with users, devices and apps, you have the recent emergence of livestreaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope to potentially swamp arena networks with even more data demands. So, big event holders… what’s in your network? Is it ready for the terabyte age?

Stadium Tech Report: Average connectivity doesn’t seem to hurt Avaya Stadium experience

Panoramic view of the packed house at Avaya Stadium for the official debut.

Panoramic view of the packed house at Avaya Stadium for the official debut.

From a strictly wireless perspective, the opening-day performance of the Avaya Stadium Wi-Fi network was good in some spots and very poor in others, leading to an overall grade of average at best. But the Wi-Fi issues didn’t seem to take anything away from the smashing debut of a facility purpose-built for soccer and well-designed for an easy, fun fan experience, even with a sellout crowd of 18,000 on hand.

Mobile Sports Report visited Avaya Stadium for its “official” debut, Sunday’s San Jose Earthquakes’ MLS season home opener against the Chicago Fire, which ended in a 2-1 San Jose victory. But the team on the field wasn’t the only winner, as fans seemed to be smiling and enjoying every part of the new $100 million venue, from its huge end-zone bar and its close-to-the-field seats, to the pre-game picnic area with food trucks, music, and space for kids to run around. Well-planned parking and traffic operations seemed to cause few problems, with most fans finding their way to their seats in the new park in time for the just-after-4 p.m. kickoff.

If my unofficial walk-around testing was any true barometer, my guess is that the only problem some fans might have had Sunday was trying to connect to the Internet to post the thousands of selfies I saw being taken with smartphones. With almost zero cellular communication inside the stadium, and very low Wi-Fi readings in much of the seating bowl, my tests lead me to conclude that while the stadium is wonderful right now for watching futbol, its wireless connectivity is still a work in progress but one that should get better soon when the planned neutral-host DAS from Mobilitie gets installed and becomes operational.

Parking and traffic a breeze

Since I arrived early and had an employee-lot parking pass (thanks to the Earthquakes for the media pass and parking) I didn’t encounter any traffic at all either in my drive down 101 or on the streets leading to the stadium. Approaching from the north on 6-lane wide Coleman Avenue, there was very clear signage for each of the parking lots, and no backups in sight at 2 p.m., two hours before the scheduled start.

Fans waiting outside the main gate

Fans waiting outside the main gate

Since it’s about one-fourth the size of its neighbor to the north, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, Avaya Stadium probably won’t have the same kinds of transit and parking issues that plagued Levi’s during its inaugural season. It also seems like the Avaya Stadium location is a much better setup for getting in and out of the stadium, with the wide Coleman Avenue and the huge dirt lots directly adjacent to the venue. Walking past some early bird tailgaters I was at the stadium gates in a couple minutes. In both the employee lot and the closest regular parking lot, I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal at all but cellular connectivity was pretty good (7+ Mbps on Verizon 4G LTE), as I could see several large cell towers around the edges of the lots. Even with a packed parking area, fans should still be able to get a signal on their way in.

For my early entry time I didn’t see any issues with stadium entry technology, but the lack of metal-detector gates (security personnel used handheld wands to scan each fan as they entered) might be something that slows down the process of getting into the stadium. I did notice larger lines around 3:30 p.m., but like anywhere else the entry procedures will likely only improve with time.

Before coming to Avaya Stadium I downloaded the new team app, which seemed a little bare-bones. Since I didn’t have a ticket I couldn’t test the digital season-ticket integration, but I was able to use the directions to the stadium feature and the stadium map, which provides a helpful picture-view of all amenities that can be found in the U-shaped seating area as well as the open-air bar. The map is interactive, giving you a description of each amenity (bathrooms, team store, etc.) when you touch the associated icon. As of yet there is no way to use the app to pay for concessions or to view any live or archived video. Like other stadium apps, including Levi’s, the Avaya Stadium app will likely grow in functionality over time.

Wi-Fi performance: Great on the concourses, weak in the seats

Just after finding my “exterior press box” seat in possibly the “worst” part of the stands — the upper northwest corner — I quickly saw how Avaya Stadium was going to deliver its Wi-Fi signals to the seating area, by looking up at the metal beams supporting the awnings that are the open-air “roof.” On each beam I could see anywhere from two to three Wi-Fi access points, all targeted directly down at the seats below them. The Avaya Wi-Fi deployment has no under-the-seat APs or any handrail APs that I could see, but there are lots of other APs visible on top of concession stands and other places around the single, ground-level concourse. There are also some APs attached to the huge bar area that spans across the open east end of the stadium. Gaining access to the network was a snap, done by just clicking on the “proceed” button that popped up on the splash screen that appears after you select the “GOQUAKES” SSID on your device. There was no login credential or password required.

The view from our seat, probably the "worst" in the place

The view from our seat, probably the “worst” in the place

How did the network perform? Before the stadium filled up, my rooftop seat had a signal between 5 and 7 Mbps on the download and upload sides, a figure that would decline steadily as the day progressed. Walking down the steep stairs into the largely empty seating bowl, the Wi-Fi speeds decreased, with a couple readings in the 2-3 Mbps download range near the lowest row of seats.

Hungry because I hadn’t had lunch, I ventured out past the huge end-zone bar to a large grassy area that was lined with food trucks and filled with soccer fans having impromptu picnics with lots of kids running around. There were various booths for soccer clubs and from sponsors, as well as a band, which made the area seem (in a good way) more like a county fair than a pro sporting event. I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi connection out on the lawn, but I was able to get a good cellular signal, around 8 Mbps, on my Verizon device (an iPhone 6 Plus). Feeling thirsty I headed to the bar, where Wi-Fi kicked in again, with one signal of 22 Mbps down and 17 Mbps up.

Heading back through the now-crowded concourse toward my seat, I stopped and got a Wi-Fi reading of almost 16 Mbps down and 9 Mbps up, in the middle of a large throng of fans. But I wouldn’t hit that mark again the rest of the afternoon, which makes me wonder how well the network held up under a full-house load.

Up close and personal areas a hit with fans

Panoramic view from the cheering section

Panoramic view from the cheering section

Since I’d never been to a professional soccer game before I decided to soak in as much fan flavor as I could. At Avaya Stadium I headed down to the space behind the west end zone, in the closed end of the stadium, where there are several rows of standing-room only spaces where some of the loudest fans congregated (there was one group with a band, and many flags). Directly above the standing section was a seat section reserved for the team’s ardent followers, many of which spent the entire game standing, cheering, chanting and singing. Down below, I was fortunate enough to be close to the action and saw the Earthquakes’ first goal in their new home arena, a double header off a corner kick.

And though I was able to catch the score on video, because there was basically zero Wi-Fi signal there (I was directly underneath the bottom row of the stands) I wasn’t able to immediately post it to Twitter or Vine. Not that I cared that much, since it was fun to be swept up in the chanting and cheering and streamer-tossing that followed the goal. So even if I wasn’t connected wirelessly, I was certainly connected to the fans right around me — which, I think, is what Avaya Stadium is all about.


I’m no wireless engineer, but I was hardly surprised that the Wi-Fi signal in the seats wasn’t strong; looking way up at the APs on the roof, they seem too far away to be able to provide a high level of connectivity to the seats below, especially the ones closest to field level. Other stadiums we’ve covered in the near past have already either started or are making plans to increase the Wi-Fi APs at field level, since that’s one of the toughest areas to put an AP.

But like in the standing section, I’m not sure that Wi-Fi connectivity is a big deal for fans in the seats during the game action, which in case you’ve not watched soccer, has no breaks like timeouts or inning changes. I’m generalizing here but I think that the continuous-flow of soccer action inherently results in fans who simply watch the game instead of taking breaks to check their phones (Mark Cuban, here’s your sport!). So maybe the expense of bringing Wi-Fi to all the seats at Avaya Stadium isn’t justified.

Halftime view of fans checking phones

Halftime view of fans checking phones

That said, it seemed like during halftime there were a lot of people looking at devices in their stadium seats, but I didn’t hear any howls or complaints or see any obvious frustration. I do know that at my seat on the stadium’s top walkway (which can get very very very windy in the late afternoon) the Wi-Fi signal was weak the whole game, never registering more than 1 Mbps on the download side from the start of the game through the second half.

But again, this is just one phone and one person, a person who was also walking around a lot and connecting to multiple APs, a factor that sometimes makes network connections inconsistent. I did find that turning Wi-Fi off and on again helped get a better signal; when we hear back from the stadium network team we’ll ask if the network has been optimized for roaming connections. I did notice that the beer stand on the top deck just behind my “press box” seat was using cell phones and a payment-device gizmo to take credit card payments; when I asked the staffer running the stand she said she’d been taking payments all game using the regular Wi-Fi and hadn’t had any connectivity issues. So, the connectivity mileage may vary.

DAS to the rescue

Though team executives have talked a lot about the stadium’s networking plans, it would be better for fans right now to have a more realistic estimate of what is going on, and when future enhancements like video and food ordering will become a reality. Some improvement will happen in a big way when Mobilitie gets the neutral-host DAS up and running, since many people never think of joining a stadium Wi-Fi network, they just pull out their phones and hope for the best. With advanced cellular in the building, the connectivity loads will be shared between cellular and Wi-Fi, increasing overall capacity. Sunday, I wasn’t able to get either an AT&T 4G device or my Verizon phone to even register with Speedtest.com to get a figure anywhere inside the stadium using a cellular-only connection. While most fans might have been able to send text messages or get regular voice calls, it’s a good guess that many like me were stymied trying to do simple data tasks like post messages to Twitter. It will be interesting to see what the network folks from Avaya Stadium say when they give us the opening-day report.

Cheers to Avaya Stadium from the end zone bar!

Cheers to Avaya Stadium from the end zone bar!

In the end, my first impression from a wireless point of view is that Avaya Stadium has a basic, average level of connectivity for a new stadium, with enough reasons to believe it’s going to get better over time. I’m also cutting them some slack since the technology supplier for the venue changed wholesale last year when Avaya came in as a title sponsor, leaving just a few short months for Avaya to get its own gear in the building and in working order. Again, I’m no engineer but I did see things like electrical tape holding some antenna connections in place, the kind of stuff you don’t expect to see in a professional stadium deployment.

And while the connectivity didn’t particularly stand out as awesome, it also was good enough in enough places to make sure there wasn’t the dreaded “no signal” issue that could have soured things for lots of fans. In the end, there was so much to like about the facility — even in my top-row seat I felt close to the action on the field — that it’s hard to call the day anything short of a smashing success, especially if you are a Bay area soccer fan who’s had to endure sub-par stadium experiences in the past. Those days are gone, and Avaya Stadium should be a fast favorite place going forward.

LOTS OF PHOTOS BELOW! Click on any picture for a larger image. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR.

Avaya Stadium, from the employee parking lot

Avaya Stadium, from the employee parking lot

Tailgate action before the game

Tailgate action before the game

Connecting to Wi-Fi was easy

Connecting to Wi-Fi was easy

Interactive stadium map was one of the best things in the app

Interactive stadium map was one of the best things in the app

Wi-Fi APs attached to roof beams

Wi-Fi APs attached to roof beams

More APs, underneath the canopy roof

More APs, underneath the canopy roof

Still more AP views

Still more AP views

Another AP, out on the end of the stanchion

Another AP, out on the end of the stanchion

A view to give perspective on how far away the roof-beam APs are from the stands

A view to give perspective on how far away the roof-beam APs are from the stands

Seats with promo scarves. The team asked fans to donate if they wanted to keep the scarves.

Seats with promo scarves. The team asked fans to donate if they wanted to keep the scarves.

More Wi-Fi APs, on the concourse level. This was above a bathroom entrance.

More Wi-Fi APs, on the concourse level. This was above a bathroom entrance.

Wi-Fi APs atop small building near the open end zone

Wi-Fi APs atop small building near the open end zone

Good view of standing-room area in front of end zone bar. It was packed all game.

Good view of standing-room area in front of end zone bar. It was packed all game.

Panoramic view of the picnic lawn. Hey there Quakes fan!

Panoramic view of the picnic lawn. Hey there Quakes fan!

Fans waiting to get in, about a half hour before game time

Fans waiting to get in, about a half hour before game time

Where the rich folks watch from: Over the gate view of a club level area and their nice buffet

Where the rich folks watch from: Over the gate view of a club level area and their nice buffet

Lots of selfies being taken Sunday

Lots of selfies being taken Sunday

You can see the big screen from just about everywhere in the place -- great resolution

You can see the big screen from just about everywhere in the place — great resolution

Stadium Tech Report: Wireless connectivity brings fans and business benefits to the Palace at Auburn Hills

The Palace at Auburn Hills. Credit all photos, Palace at Auburn Hills (click on any photo for a larger image).

The Palace at Auburn Hills. Credit all photos, Palace at Auburn Hills (click on any photo for a larger image).

Not too long ago, a marketing executive who was new to the Detroit Pistons’ ownership team tried to post a tweet during a game at the Palace of Auburn Hills. But to get the message to send, he had to … step outside the building.

Fast forward a few years, and the situation is completely reversed. Not only is there a storm of wireless connectivity inside the Palace, that same Wi-Fi and cellular traffic is keeping fans inside, bringing new fans in and giving the Pistons management team better insight into what all those fans want.

Using technology as an “accelerant,” the Pistons have changed the game for the fans and for themselves, seeding a process that seems destined to help the team build business success as their fan base evolves into one that expects and delights from an always-connected experience.

In a story-telling twist, we’ll tell you one of the early ends to this tale now: Even though the Pistons have suffered on the court of late, finishing the 2013-14 season with a 29-53 record, the team this year had a season ticket renewal rate above 80 percent, according to the Pistons management. Either there’s massive optimism in Motor City, or the Pistons ownership team is doing something very right in making the game-day experience something fans want to keep experiencing.

If you want to believe more in the latter reason, then listen to what Dennis Mannion, president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons, has to say: There are a lot of smart programs now in place and some that are just starting to take off, but none of it happens, he said, without a solid communications core.

“It always comes back to the great accelerator, technology,” Mannion said.

Building the network inside the building

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our new Stadium Tech Report HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE, available for free download. In addition to this story it contains additional profiles and team-by-team tech capsules for all 30 NBA teams. Download your copy today!

Mannion, who joined the Pistons in 2011 following a long career in sports management that included time as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ president and COO, and stints with the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia Phillies, said the new commitment to technology started at the Pistons’ ownership level, where they knew things needed to change.

“When I came in to the job we knew there needed to be some technology improvements [at the Palace],” Mannion said. “We needed to make games more of a happening for our fans.” As part of an overall stadium renovation project that cost somewhere between $13 and $15 million, the Pistons started bringing the Palace into the world of wireless connectivity.

Screen shot of Pistons app

Screen shot of Pistons app

For help, Mannion and the Palace team enlised a Detroit sports-stadium technology consulting firm called Nuvuz Sports, run by CEO Scott Wruble, a former tech exec with the NBA and MLB, and chief marketing officer Jim Wolski. According to Wolski, when the technology revamp of the Palace started in 2012, there was a bit of a connectivity hill to climb.

“The entire building had nine cable modems, total,” Wolski said.

The first step was to start with a DAS, or distributed antenna system, to make sure cellular carriers could connect with their customers. The Palace team wound up picking Verizon Wireless to act as lead on a neutral-host DAS deployment, which is currently in the process of adding AT&T and Sprint to its system.

Opened in 1988, the Palace had some physical challenges when it came to wireless technology, including the omnipresent question of retrofits — where do you put the DAS head end? In the Palace’s case, the solution was a new building built outside, in a Palace parking lot.

Verizon helped on the next step in the deployment process by bringing in their longtime technology partner Ericsson to deliver the gear for the building’s Wi-Fi network. Though somewhat of a newcomer in the stadium Wi-Fi space, Ericsson’s long history in telecommunications equipment showed through with the Wi-Fi deployment, according to Mike Donnay, vice president for brand networks at Palace Sports & Entertainment.

“The performance from the Ericsson [Wi-Fi] equipment is super high,” said Donnay, who was the exec who had to leave the building to send the tweet before the renovation happened. Now, with 238 Wi-Fi access points in the venue (which seats 22,076 for basketball) Donnay doesn’t have any problems tweeting.

Nuvuz’s Wolski said that in addition to providing fan Internet access, the internal Wi-Fi network also powers the game-day ticketing operation as well as concession point of sale. It also is the base for a large suite of fan engagement platforms, which are hyper-targeted to the many different types of Pistons or other event fans who walk in the doors.

Clusters within the clusters

Kevin Grigg, vice president of public relations for the Pistons, said Mannion’s “big picture” ROI is to use technology to engage fans in a one-on-one relationship.

“The biggest challenge [in the past] has been if you are a fan and you buy a ticket, we didn’t know who you are,” Grigg said. “Now, we’re in a position to identify people during the engagement.”

Nuvuz’s Wolski concurs.

“It chages the game when you know who they [the fans] are,” Wolski said.

Mannion said the Pistons’ IT team is already well into the implementation of an elaborate fan-engagement system that breaks the fan base into multiple segments that can each be targeted with programs tailored to their wants and needs.

palace2a“We have different fan bases, from those who buy courtside seats, to those in corprate suites to families,” Mannion said. “We have affinity groups, like ‘future Pistons,’ women’s groups, and people interested mainly in attending concerts. We have clusters within clusters. And we use a combination of media, memories and merchandise for each cluster.”

On the team side, Mannion said that “even perceived ‘inside access’ is a real turn-on. Fans like to join, belong and brag.” Some ways fans can get “closer” to the team is to use the stadium app’s seat-upgrade feature (powered by partner PogoSeat) to purchase seats closer to the action, or by special access like post-game shootarounds on the court floor.

There is also a big focus on Pistons-related content, both from the team as well as from fans themselves. And increasingly, fans are turning to social media to share this content. The Pistons have responded with tricks like putting selfies tagged with the #pistonspride hashtag right onto the new huge center court video board.

The tech team also just added beacon technology to the Palace, and are already offering beacon-powered features like seat upgrades to fans who have seats in the upper levels, and discounts on merchandise to fans who are walking right outside the team shops. There are also scoreboard trivia contests and real-time fan polling, all of which keep fans engaged with the team and game even as they stare at their mobile devices.

“We wouldn’t be able to do all this without a connected arena,” Donnay said.

Connected now and for the future

Right now, Donnay said that approximately one-third of a regular Pistons game audience uses the Wi-Fi network, a take rate among the higher of reported crowd participation numbers. The Palace team also uses the Wi-Fi network to connect to 30 “smart carts,” which are mobile food carts that can be moved around (even outside the building) to take advantage of being where hungry fans are.

“It’s interesting to watch the heat maps of how the building is filling, and being able to tell concessions where to beef up,” Mannion said. In the past, he noted, many such game-day operations were decided by “gut feelings,” which could be right or could be wrong. Now, he said, there are facts and figures to back up the guesswork.

“Now you can still act on gut feelings, but you also have ways to prove what’s going on,” Mannion said. “You can do a digital promotion for food and beverage, and immediately measure the impact. That’s really fascinating.”

Even as they build on early successes, the team behind the Palace’s new tech operations knows that these are early days, and much work lies ahead. One current “big drag,” Mannion notes, is the plethora of social-media sharing platforms, a mix that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and others, almost too many to track coherently.

There’s also a big challenge to keep pace with all the potential partners and digital features that could be added, like instant replays or food ordering for the stadium app; Mannion noted: “The question is, how do you create the right kind of [feature] incubation system, without spending too much money?”

At the very least, the Pistons team has grabbed a leading position in the connected-arena future, one where having advanced connectivity and engagement programs is table stakes to attract new potential season ticket buyers.

“We’ve seen colleges experience heartaches” when their fans leave because the stadiums don’t have connectivity, said Donney. “That’s the fan base that’s coming to the NBA. They’re going to expect that technology, so we’re going to have to be very good at it.”

So far, the Pistons and the Palace seem to be ahead of the curve of the new era of connected stadiums and the fans who fill them. Mannion, for one, knows he’s now in a much different business than the one he’s spent most of his career in.

“It’s a lot different now,” he said, “than just opening up the window and selling tickets.”