July 23, 2016

Commentary: Venues need to think of connectivity beyond the stadium walls

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

Last month, if you wanted a seat inside US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis you needed a getup like the one I’m wearing in the picture – including what you can’t see, the steel-toed shoes and the gloves that kept me from scratching any of the already-finished surfaces. Almost ready to open its doors, I can tell you that US Bank Stadium is a beauty, and that we’ll have a full report soon. For now enjoy the “sneak peek” photo essay we posted earlier.

Outside the architecturally angled walls of the stadium, what really impressed me during a recent quick visit to Minneapolis was how well the stadium operators are working with entities like the city, state and other large public gathering places, to ensure that the large streams of humanity traveling to and from the 67,000-seat facility have the best experience possible, both before and after events.

Like most travelers, my experience with Minneapolis’ integrated infrastructures started at the airport, where I took the simple and easy to understand light rail directly into downtown. I noticed that the train already stops directly at one of the US Bank Stadium doors, unlike some other stadiums where mass transit connections are a sometimes-lengthy walk away. That the stadium already has its own stop even before it opens shows that at the very least, people were thinking and talking even before the concrete was poured.

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR


Mass transit a priority for US Bank Stadium

Editor’s note: This editorial is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!
With no large parking lots right next to the stadium and only some scattered lots (as far as I could tell) downtown, the light rail is clearly going to be an integral part of getting fans to and from the venue, both for regular-season Minnesota Vikings games as well as for Super Bowl 52 a couple Februarys from now. To make that trip easier, the light rail also extends past the airport to the Mall of America, a key link in the integrated civic infrastructure.

Why is the mall a part of this? Mainly because it is also a transit center (it has a large space where buses, trains and car parking are all together) and because it offers free parking – meaning that fans can simply park at the mall and spend a couple bucks taking the half-hour train to US Bank Stadium (or also to Target Field, which is just a few stops farther through downtown). Courtesy of a recent deployment there is now high-quality Wi-Fi in the mall itself, and at many places in Minnesota proper there is free civic Wi-Fi. There are also plans afoot to bring Wi-Fi to the light rail trains themselves. While it might not seem like much, the idea of being able to be highly connected all the way from parking at the mall to your seat in the stadium is a fan’s dream come true, enabling all the connectivity wants or needs that can happen during a game or event day.

Having witnessed some other stadiums opening without much coordination, it’s impressive and great to hear that the Vikings and Minneapolis are already planning for things like overcrowded trains after games (since more people leave at the same time than arrive at the same time), with plans to close off one of the stadium’s bordering streets and to have dozens of buses on hand to handle the overflow. There’s also plans to have stadium TVs show mass transit schedules as fans depart, and also options to remain downtown for post-game eating or celebrations.

VTA line following Levi's Stadium hockey game in 2015.

VTA line following Levi’s Stadium hockey game in 2015.

How else are the Vikings, the city and the state planning to work together? In our interviews we heard about plans to use real-time traffic mapping to close off crowded exits and to direct fans to faster paths to and from the stadium, and to perhaps be able to communicate such directions to fans via the team’s new mobile app. While it all still needs to be done in real time on a real game day, just the thinking about the fact that a “game day” doesn’t start or stop at the stadium premises is a refreshing one, especially for a venue that will host a Super Bowl in just over a year and a half.

While we’ve heard of other, similar plans to extend connectivity beyond the stadium walls – here we are thinking of the downtown plan around Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, and new plans for “fan plazas” outside such venues as Wrigley Field and Lambeau Field – the Vikings seem to have looked even farther out, to try to ensure that the connected fan experience goes as far as it possibly can. Again, the proof will be in the execution, but like the view from outside US Bank Stadium, the ideas hatching in Minnesota look pretty good.

Wi-Fi Analytics: Taking the first steps

Wi-Fi antennas at Joe Louis Arena. Credit: Detroit Red Wings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Wi-Fi antennas at Joe Louis Arena. Credit: Detroit Red Wings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Even though the physical construction and deployment of a fan-facing Wi-Fi network seems like the biggest challenge facing a stadium’s information technology team, in reality everyone involved knows it’s just step one.

While turning on a live network is certainly a great accomplishment, once the data starts flowing the inevitable questions follow: Now that we have Wi-Fi, what do we do with it? And how do we find out who’s using it, why they are using it, and how can we use that information it to find out better ways to improve the fan experience while also improving our business?

Those “step two” questions can only be answered by analytics, the gathering of information about Wi-Fi network performance and user activity. And while almost every live network operator almost instantly uses performance numbers to help tune the system, plans to harvest and digest the more personalized information like end-user identification, application use and fan engagement are just getting started, even at the most technically advanced stadiums with Wi-Fi networks in place.

What follows here are some conversations with stadium tech professionals who are already running fan-facing Wi-Fi networks, exploring how they use Wi-Fi metrics and analytics to both enhance the game-day experience for fans while also building a base of information that can be used by both technical staffs and marketing organizations inside the team, school and venue organizations.

Even this small sample seems to suggest that while Wi-Fi networks may be somewhat pervasive in the larger stadiums across the country, the harvesting and processing of data generated by digital fan engagement is just getting started, with plenty of unanswered questions and experiments that have yet to bear significant fruit. Yet everyone we spoke with also had an unshakable confidence that getting metrics and analytics right was the key to wireless success over the long haul, and all are fully engaged in pursuing that goal. It may take longer than physical deployment, but the “step two” of learning from the networks is well underway.

Detroit Red Wings: Pushing past the initial learning curve

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

Now that the Wi-Fi network at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit is coming up on its second birthday, Tod Caflisch said network administrators can relax a bit on game nights. Early on, however, he remembers “babysitting” the network during games, watching live performance stats to make sure everything was working correctly.

Watching the live network performance statistics, Caflisch said, “I could tell if there were issues. If throughput looked a little flat, we might have to reboot a switch. It was important, because there was so much at stake.”

As former director of information technology for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings (he recently left Detroit and is now with the Minnesota Vikings), Caflisch helped drive the deployment of an Extreme Networks Wi-Fi network at the “Joe.” Though Joe Louis Arena is only going to host games a little while longer — a new downtown arena is just around the corner — Caflisch said the team in Detroit is already heading down the learning curve of interpreting analytics, with big goals on the horizon.

Right now, some of the most interesting network statistics have to do with fan Wi-Fi usage, including total tonnage, which Caflisch said hit 14 terabytes of data for the Red Wings’ home games this past season. That number is one and a half times bigger per game than the first year the network was in place, he said.

Big spikes for a score

One of the more interesting results came when Caflisch mapped network data to game action, an exercise that showed that hockey games may have bigger data spikes and troughs than other sports.

“We saw that traffic spikes corresponded with scores, and we also had huge spikes during intermissions,” Caflisch said. “And there were huge craters during the periods of regular action.”

While Caflisch said “it was kind of cool” to watch the network action mapped to the game action, in the future he sees the ability for the Red Wings use such actionable moments to better engage fans.

“There’s got to be some kind of marketing potential” to connect with fans during a network-activity spike, Caflisch said. What that is, is still unknown. But using networks to more closely engage fans is a big part of the Red Wings’ road map, especially as Detroit builds out a “venue environment” around the new arena.

According to Caflisch, the team in Detroit is planning to build out a network surrounding the arena, in parking lots and public spaces, including lots of beacons for proximity engagement. Though DAS and Wi-Fi numbers can show where foot traffic goes in and around stadiums, the next level of analytics Caflisch sees as important is on fan spending behavior, on items like parking, concessions and in restaurants and bars near the arena. Future projects in Detroit, he said, might include beacon-generated discounts, like a free coffee at a nearby Tim Horton’s or a free beer at a nearby bar.

“The kinds of things you want to find out are what kind of money are fans spending, and how often do they buy,” Caflisch said. “Do they stick around after the game? Do they rush in at the start? That’s the kind of stuff you’re looking for.”

Of course to get some of that data Caflisch knows the team needs to convince fans to engage digitally, by downloading a team app and providing some information for identification. So far some efforts in that direction have been helpful in identifying fans not in the team’s ticketing database, especially fans coming across the border from Canada.

In Detroit, Caflisch said, the Wings are “now marketing to those people, trying to get them to more games for the same or less money.”

Baylor University: Enlisting fans to help pinpoint problems

When Baylor University built its new football mecca, McLane Stadium, the stadium technology department was often as nervous as a football team before a big game. Would the new fan-facing Wi-Fi work as planned? Would they be able to solve problems before they became big problems?

Baylor's McLane Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Baylor’s McLane Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“At the beginning, the questions we asked were along the lines of, ‘can we get through the day,’ ” said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and Dean of University Libraries and the public face of the McLane Stadium network. Now that the network team is a couple years into running stadium Wi-Fi, Orr can laugh a bit about the initial fears. But from the beginning, she said, analytics “were a big factor” in making sure the network was running right.

An Extreme Networks deployment, Baylor uses Extreme’s Purview analytics system, which Orr lauds for being “easy to use” and a “great console for real-time information during a game.”

Solving for 2.4 GHz and using fan input

Mostly that means watching the dashboards to see if any APs are causing any errors, something the network stats package can usually show clearly. One of the things the network crew learned quickly during the first season with Wi-Fi was that Baylor fans were using a lot more 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi devices than anyone had thought, meaning that there were more older phones in use that didn’t have the newer 5 GHz Wi-Fi chips.

“The first season we were about 50-50 between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and that surprised us,” said Bob Hartland, director of IT servers and networking services at Baylor. “We had to prioritize for more 2.4 GHz.” This past season, Hartland said, the fan devices skewed closer to 60 percent using 5 GHz bands.

A Baylor "Wi-Fi Coach" helps a fan negotiate the network. Credit: Baylor University

A Baylor “Wi-Fi Coach” helps a fan negotiate the network. Credit: Baylor University

Baylor also added Wi-Fi to its basketball arena this past season, presenting a whole new set of problems, like devices trying to connect to APs across the smaller stadium. Though network analytics were a start, Baylor’s team found out that fan input could also help isolate where problems might be from a physical standpoint. Having a team of “network coaches” on hand also helped pinpoint the problems in a way that might be impossible just working from the network side of things.

This past year, Orr said Baylor added a feature to its stadium app to let fans “send a message to the Wi-Fi coach” with their row number and seat number if they were having a network problem. The coaches (part of most Extreme Wi-Fi deployments) also followed social media like Twitter to see if fans were reporting network problems.

“It’s fantastic to have the live [performance] data from your fans,” Orr said. With fan and network data and area knowledge in hand, the coaches and the network team could more quickly determine if it was a network or device problem, and respond more quickly to the issue. So more data = better solutions, faster.

“If you don’t have good access to analytics you can’t deal with fan [problems] in real time,” Orr said.

VenueNext and the Niners: Finding out who’s in the building

As one of the newer and more technologically advanced venues, Levi’s Stadium often gets noticed for its wireless networks, which set single-day records of 26 terabytes of data for combined DAS and Wi-Fi usage at Super Bowl 50.

A VenueNext beacon enclosure at Levi's Stadium. Credit: VenueNext

A VenueNext beacon enclosure at Levi’s Stadium. Credit: VenueNext

Though wireless performance is important to teams and fans, the information being gathered by the Levi’s Stadium app — built by VenueNext, the company created by the Niners specifically to construct stadium apps — may end up being among the most valuable digital assets, since it helps teams discover exactly who is coming in the building and how they are spending time, attention and dollars.

“We generate data for analytics,” said VenueNext CEO John Paul, talking about the role VenueNext plays as a stadium app partner. One of the more stunning facts revealed after the Niners’ first year at Levi’s Stadium was that via the stadium app, the team was able to increase its marketing database of fan names from 17,000 to 315,000, with even more impressive success in the details.

“We were able to find out things like how many games fans attended, and who they got the tickets from,” said Paul. Such data, he said, helps teams solve the classic problem of “having no idea who’s in the building on any given day.”

Knowing how many hot dogs can be delivered

While VenueNext’s value proposition may be centered on its ability to help teams gather such valuable marketing data, VenueNext itself relies on internal analytics to ensure the services its apps support — like express food ordering and in-seat food delivery — keep working smoothly during games.

After the first season at Levi’s Stadium, Paul said VenueNext learned that it needed to expose some of its data in real-time to fans — “to improve service during the event,” Paul said. One example is that now, if there are too many orders in a certain section, the app can send a message to fans that wait times might be longer than normal. Conversely, if a certain area of the stadium has idle kitchen capacity and runners, a team might send an in-app notification asking if fans want to order something, to create demand.

Over time, Paul said the VenueNext analytics might help teams find out where walk-up concession stands get overloaded by foot traffic, and maybe reconfigure stadium kitchen placements to assist with food delivery options. In the end, he said, it should be seamless to the fans, so that in-seat delivery becomes a regular part of a game-day experience.

“The fans should have no idea where the food comes from,” Paul said.

Stadium Tech Report: Buffalo Bills bridge Wi-Fi gap with Extreme Networks

Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. Credit: AP Photo/Scott Boehm

Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. Credit: AP Photo/Scott Boehm

When the Buffalo Bills undertook a $130 million renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2014, it was only natural to take took a look at the venue’s communications and networking infrastructure. They knew fans entering a newly modernized sports entertainment facility would have higher expectations about Internet access and connectivity. And there were some back-of-the-house challenges that needed resolution as well, according to Dave Wheat, chief administrative officer for the Buffalo, N.Y.-based National Football League franchise.

“Our own internal staff and the people we bring in — fire, emergency medical services, those groups — were having some real challenges communicating among themselves,” Wheat said. “The key for us was seeing the communications challenges throughout the stadium on game day.”

So a year later when the Buffalo Bills began examining their Wi-Fi infrastructure, they knew they wanted a system that gave fans lots of options – content where and when they wanted it, whether to access social media, the dedicated team app, email or simple web browsing, Wheat said.

“We watched a lot of our [NFL] peers installing Wi-Fi in their stadiums for the last 5 years and saw the investments that different clubs were making,” said Wheat, who added that the extra time gave the Bills the chance to watch the technology develop and evolve and become “more mainstream and reliable.”

The Wi-Fi backend consists of two ExtremeSwitching bonded S4 Chassis; yellow wires are single-mode fiber optic patch cables and the purple cables are for Wi-Fi infrastructure. Credit: Buffalo Bills / Extreme

The Wi-Fi backend consists of two ExtremeSwitching bonded S4 Chassis; yellow wires are single-mode fiber optic patch cables and the purple cables are for Wi-Fi infrastructure. Credit: Buffalo Bills / Extreme

They also got behind-the-scenes tours of competitors’ operations and networks during away games, which also helped shape the Bills’ requirements and buying decisions.

“We saw Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and used that to determine what we wanted and who we wanted to work with,” Wheat said. The Bills recognized the increasing demand for mobile connectivity, with some fans even attending with multiple capable devices. The Wi-Fi network needed to deliver services to these devices anywhere in the 70,000 seat capacity stadium.

The Bills looked at four different Wi-Fi vendors, narrowed it down to two, then chose Extreme Networks for its Wi-Fi and wired networks. “We worked pretty extensively with Extreme — their expertise in this space helped us understand our design better and plan for tremendous growth to cater to our fans,” Wheat said. They also worked with technology integrator Carousel Industries for its managed services expertise, especially at sports facilities.

Cutting through the concrete

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

As with any venue as old as Ralph Wilson Stadium (built in 1973), there were some technical challenges to work through before installing the Wi-Fi. The stadium has an extremely limited overhang from the upper decks; there are also a limited number of railings from which to hang equipment, or conceal it. Individual sections in the bowl also tend to be wide and long, according to Wheat.

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Ralph WIlson Stadium

Under-seat Wi-Fi AP at Ralph WIlson Stadium

“The biggest design challenge was that the entire lower bowl is 40 feet below ground and sits on shale rock, so it was a real challenge to get APs there,” Wheat added. Extreme came up with the under-seat solution, spacing the antennas about every five to eight rows, and about 13 to 20 seats apart.

Installing 211 under-seat APs in the lower bowl was also the most labor-intensive part of the Wi-Fi upgrade. Seats had to be removed, then concrete was saw-cut to different depths, depending on the number of cables and APs to accommodate. There was more than 5,000 feet of concrete cuts when all was done, which took nearly six weeks –- “a big challenge,” Wheat said.

In other parts of the stadium, the Bills relied on flag poles and overhangs for AP installation; the public Wi-Fi at Ralph Wilson Stadium ended up with 850 APs total, with 211 under-seat APs in the lower bowl. Total cost: About $4 million, according to Wheat.

Social media and internal operations

Fans are required to authenticate with Social Sign In to access Bills’ Wi-Fi on game day. The service allows users to sign in with Facebook or by providing their email address.

“As the network remembers you, we can deliver more personalized content and learn customer likes and dislikes,” Wheat said, adding that they’re still testing different ways to measure customer behavior. “The challenge for us as an entertainment provider is we have 70,000 people who will come see our game live,” he said. “And we only know the names of 14,000 people who purchased those tickets, and that often changes between the original buyer and the actual attendee.”

As the Bills learn more, their intention is to serve up content that’s more and more personalized. For the moment, the online activities of Bills fans mirrors what happens at other NFL stadiums around the league, according to John Brams, director of sports and entertainment for Extreme. Roughly 60 percent is social media usage -– Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat; iPhones hitting iCloud, either to update apps or upload photos, also constitute a significant amount of data usage. A third tier of fans is using apps for fantasy sports or individual NFL teams, Brams added.

So far, the Bills have clocked game-day totals of 24,334 unique users on the network, with a peak concurrent usage rate of 20,067 fans. Peak game-day data volume topped out at 3.4 TB, according to figures from the team.

Internally, the Bills use wireless for ticketing and entry scanning, including secondary scanning at entrances to premium areas; a Bills retailer uses the Wi-Fi for some of its pop-up shops around the stadium. “Our guest services ambassadors have mini tablets to assist customers with questions or if they need to do incident logging or tracking,” Wheat said.

There’s no in-seat ordering via Wi-Fi at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but technology isn’t the issue. “Infrastructure in the back of house is the impediment to that,” Wheat laughed. The Bills also use the Wi-Fi in its fieldhouse practice facility across the parking lot from the stadium, but not in the parking lots themselves.

The Bills will continue to work on giving fans that personalized experience. “If you’ve never been to a game before and are parking a mile away in a satellite lot, we want to give you GPS directions to get you from your car to the gate to your seat,” Wheat said. “We want to be able to tell you where the shorter lines at the concession stands are, using the technology to make the customer experience better.”

Wheat and his group are also in the process of looking at and installing Bluetooth-based beacon technology for the upcoming season. They’re also reworking the Bills’ mobile app for game-day use, adding wayfinding and other features.

“We want fans to experience Buffalo Bills football the way they want to,” Wheat said.

First look at Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium

As part of our new STADIUM TECH REPORT for Q2 2016, Mobile Sports Report was allowed inside the still-under-construction US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the new home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. What follows here are some of the “sneak peek” photos we’re allowed to share with you in advance of our full report coming later this summer. For a more picturesque version of these photos, DOWNLOAD THE REPORT from our site!

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Sunset shot of the “viking ship” stadium showing its proximity to downtown. Credit, all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

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The other side of the stadium, where you can see the glass walls and the “viking ship” video board.

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Inside on the main concourse — three concourses will have full 360 degree views of the field.

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US Bank Stadium is using railing-mounted Wi-Fi APs to bring connectivity to the bowl — enclosure designed by Wi-Fi deployer AmpThink.

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Wi-Fi enclosures do a good job of blending in with the purple-and-silver seating.

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Yours truly with a selfie from the field-level suites. DOWNLOAD THE REPORT for more pictures!

SignalShare sued for $7.8 million over alleged fraudulent leases

Screen shot of nGage Fan Feed. Credit: SignalShare

Screen shot of nGage Fan Feed. Credit: SignalShare

SignalShare, a company involved in bringing Wi-Fi networks and associated fan-experience apps to stadiums, is being sued by an equipment leasing company over a dispute involving allegedly fraudulent leases by SignalShare, and SignalShare’s default on an agreement to pay back money obtained through those leases. A report on the Law360 website said the case filed in Massachusetts federal court by NFS Leasing of Beverly, Mass., on Jan. 28, 2016, seeks $7.8 million from SignalShare.

SignalShare, which has partnered with Wi-Fi gear vendor Extreme Networks on deployments for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the University of Maryland and the Detroit Red Wings, has most recently touted its Live-Fi nGage suite, a system that combines content, analytics and advertising links to give venue owners and operators a turnkey method to improve fan engagement and perhaps increase revenue opportunities for large-venue Wi-Fi networks.

According to the Law360 story, the lawsuit from NFS Leasing claims that SignalShare “began requesting financing from NFS for purchasing equipment for fictitious contracts,” using forged, altered and falsified documents for deals that didn’t exist. From the Law360 report, which quotes from the legal complaint:

“[SignalShare] would represent to NFS that it had entered into an agreement with a sports arena or team and would induce NFS to provide funding for the acquisition of the allegedly-needed equipment,” the complaint said.

SignalShare would provide fake or forged invoices for the equipment it allegedly ordered, or provide fictitious serial numbers for items allegedly purchased and installed in the fraudulent contracts, the complaint said.

Between May 20, 2014 and May 21, 2015, SignalShare conned NFS into advancing funds on 10 fraudulent lease transactions to the tune of $4.9 million, the complaint said.

The Law360 story also said that NFS Leasing and SignalShare agreed to a short-term repayment of the debts incurred, but that SignalShare defaulted on the payments. With interest and attorney fees, NFS is claiming SignalShare owes $7.8 million.

So far, neither NFS nor SignalShare has replied to a request for more information.

UPDATE, 5/18/16: Since the original post we have obtained more court documents related to the case, which indicate that former SignalShare CTO Joe Costanzo has left the company and is counter-suing SignalShare over its actions regarding this issue. More to come later today.

Twitter and the NFL: What does the deal mean for team apps and mobile video? Stadium Tech Report Podcast No. 3 tells you!

Episode 3 of the STADIUM TECH REPORT PODCAST is live, in which hosts Phil Harvey and Paul Kapustka discuss the NFL’s Thursday Night Football streaming deal with Twitter, and what that deal means for both team stadium apps in particular and for mobile video use in general. Take a listen and let us know what you think!

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST: Here is the link to the podcast on iTunes!