July 31, 2014

NFL should take a chance on open APIs and gigabit Wi-Fi if it really wants to engage fans

When it comes to using technology, the NFL talks a really good game — but when it comes to decisions and deployments, the shield moves slower than a 3-yard cloud of dust. And it’s frustrating fans, who are looking for something along the lines of a run-and-shoot.

This week’s announcement of an agreement with Extreme Networks under which the technology company became the “official supplier of Wi-Fi analytics” is a good example of the NFL’s go-slow philosophy. While the deal is a small feather for Extreme and validation of its stadium Wi-Fi smarts, in the end it really doesn’t move many needles since it’s not a binding deal (meaning teams don’t have to use Extreme gear if they don’t want to) and also since many NFL stadiums don’t yet have fan-facing Wi-Fi. So while the NFL uses press events around such announcements to talk grandly of techno-fan engagement, what it really should be doing is spending some of its hoard of cash to help teams install super-fast networks in stadiums right now, instead of waiting for teams to do so on their own.

I get it that the networks are an asset for stadium owners, and in the long run they will want to reap the full benefits of their costs of deployment. And it’s hard to say there are things the NFL could be doing better, since the sport enjoys immense popularity for both its live and televised offerings. But nothing lasts forever. And if the NFL wants to keep justifying its hundreds-of-dollars ticket prices, it should offer its fans a game-day experience like no other — which should include super-fast, aka “gigabit” Wi-Fi. Fast Wi-Fi that connects instantly, and lets fans share photos, videos and more while at the game.

How much would that cost? Several million dollars to 10 million dollars per team? Even at the high end, it’s not like the league doesn’t have that kind of money to toss around. It does. Just its cellphone live-action rights contract alone — $1 billion from Verizon over 4 years — is enough to cover league-wide Wi-Fi deployments and more. And once those networks are in place, the NFL would be supremely set up to control and benefit from the possible coming explosion of in-stadium mobile device use. An explosion which could be even bigger if the NFL takes another radical step to open up its content and information to third-party developers.

Team apps are losing the battle

Right now whenever a stadium network is launched there is usually a grand accompanying plan for a “team app,” which promises just about everything a fan could possibly want, in the team’s eyes. The problem with these apps — which so far are largely being ignored — is that they are all developed from a team’s perspective, not a fan’s. My biggest complaint with most of the team apps (and this goes for other events and sports media channels as well) is that they try to do too much, and instead of being helpful are just a pain in the butt to use, with too much information and too many choices and constipated navigation.

I haven’t been to that many games lately but at the ones I’ve been to, here’s what I see people using their phones for at the games: Twitter. Instagram. Facebook. And text messaging. What’s the common denominator there? Simple, one-step apps that are already built into the user’s social sphere. And they’re more lively, too, with many pro athletes participating in places like Twitter with real, unvarnished conversations, unlike the team apps which are as boring and as sanitized as the only-good-plays replays on the stadium TV screens. If the NFL really wants to engage fans digitally, it should open up its APIs and free its video content, allowing third-party developers to build apps with real NFL content. (Why not try an open version of Megacast?) It’s a strategy that worked pretty well for Apple and the iPhone, where Apple gets a chunk of profits from an incredible ecosystem that was created simply by allowing the outside world to have access to the iPhone screen.

My guess is that what will happen is the exact opposite — the NFL, watching the success of MLB’s digital efforts, will sometime soon corral all its digital assets into a single NFL-sanctioned bucket, which it will then charge fans even more for. Get ready for your “NFL Digital Package,” maybe $200 more a year to get live video and highlights on your phone. And no, you won’t be able to share that content or create GIFs or Loops or Vines any of the other fun stuff that is going on right now in the sort of Wild West version of the digital sports world. Even though I would probably pay it, that direction sounds like hell. I’d rather see the NFL really embrace the future and let the creativity of all the fans and smart thinkers out there blossom. To revisit our opening metaphor, why not try a few deep downfield passes, NFL? Why keep running the ball inside?

‘Big Four’ wireless carriers sign on to use DAS at Niners’ Levi’s Stadium

Levi's StadiumWhenever you are putting a neutral DAS in a stadium, one of the biggest challenges is convincing the major cellular carriers to participate in your deployment. Even before their new arena has opened, the San Francisco 49ers have scored a victory of sorts with the news that the four biggest U.S. cellular carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — have all agreed to use the neutral-hosted DAS at Levi’s Stadium.

According to DAS Group Professionals, who are behind the DAS deployment at Levi’s, the system of small cellular antennas will also be synchronized with the stadium’s Wi-Fi coverage to produce “seamless” coverage for fans. Though we are historically wary of promises made before networks go live, the fact that the big players in U.S. cellular all agreed to use the neutral DAS shows at least in some way that the folks putting together the technology at Levi’s have a convincing story.

We’ll have more from DGP and the Levi’s DAS deployment at some point in the future, so stay tuned for the stadium launch that has everyone in the stadium tech marketplace watching and waiting.

Team stadium apps vs. Twitter: Which one will win?

Screen shot of the home page for the Niners' Gameday Live app

Screen shot of the home page for the Niners’ Gameday Live app

Will team stadium apps be able to hold off the challenge from independent apps like Twitter? This matchup came to mind Sunday when the Mobile Sports Report team convened for a get-together at Candlestick Park, the on-the-way-out home of the San Francisco 49ers.

Since Candlestick is going to be all blowed up after this season, it’s probably not fair to single out the Niners’ app and network for poor performance this year. I mean, why build a Wi-Fi network in a place that’s going to be torn down? I will say that the new DAS seems to be working well, since I had no problems getting a cell signal all day. But when I tried to watch live video via the Niners app, it told me I had to be on stadium Wi-Fi to watch video.

But the Wi-Fi network wouldn’t connect. After long minutes and several attempts. Finally I gave up. I tried my Verizon NFLMobile app, which lets me watch RedZone on Sundays. But no! Verizon NFLMobile, which monitors your location via GPS, won’t let you watch live video or RedZone while in an NFL stadium. The only person around us with live video of anything NFL on his phone was a guy who gets the Sunday Ticket service from DirecTV. Tell me, if you’re a fan, you’re not frustrated with the idiotic hurdles the NFL puts in front of its best content to satisfy its rights deals. Guys, you’ve had several years to figure this out. It’s the biggest C’mon Man I can think of. LET US WATCH LIVE VIDEO! MAKE IT EASY!

Again to be clear: This isn’t an app review, or a formal survey. But just looking at all the phone use in the stands, I didn’t see anyone else on the Niners team app. I saw a lot of people on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter. Or just sending picture and text messages. What is the common thread for those apps? They are simple to use, they are fast, they have great and easy interfaces on a mobile phone. They are already filled with the people who I want to follow or communicate with. With any one of those apps, you are doing something within one or two clicks.

Fan Zone page of Niners stadium app.

Fan Zone page of Niners stadium app.

With the team apps, that’s just not the case. The Niners app — which looks like a lot of other team apps, since it’s built by stadium app market leader YinzCam — is incredibly dense, with lots of very small type. Which, while it looks OK in a screenshot like the ones here, is almost impossible to see in the harsh outdoor light of a stadium. Opening it up for the first time at the Niners game, I was underwhelmed by the overload of information and choices available. And then when the live video didn’t work… I mean, really, what else is there in the team app that could be different, or make me want to go there?

Stats? Yardages? That stuff isn’t crucial to people sitting in the stands. Where the team app could really make a difference is if it gave detailed information on what just happened in front of my eyes — you know, the kind of stuff that is instantly delivered to people at home watching games on their couch. Someone is hurt? Injured? You’re up there in the stands, you have no idea of what happened or why there are people standing around on the field. I couldn’t find an audio feed of the TV broadcast on the team app — why not have that available? Or at least the radio simulcast? What about that last play? Was it a fumble? How did Vernon Davis get a concussion? In the stands, you have one chance to see what happens. And in many cases, no way of knowing what the outcome was, especially since most teams (Niners included) only show replays of “positive” events for the home team. Again: treating fans like idiots or children is no way to make the stadium a better experience.

My simple thought, as I switched back to Twitter — where, by following some of the beat writers who cover the Niners, I was able to get almost-instant info from their press box tweets — is that the team apps seem designed to be sold to the teams and the leagues, and not with the fan in mind. I have no desire to go to the Niners’ app to find other people on Twitter to interact with or follow. If public sports websites are any guide, anything open to the public is already overrun by ignorant trolls. I’ll stick with my own Twitter feed, thanks. And now that Twitter is adding in NFL highlights, I probably have a better chance of seeing live video there than via the team apps. How are team apps, with their rights restrictions, clunky design and team-sanitized information, going to keep up with fast-moving folks like Twitter, especially now with tools like Vine or Instagram video? Anyone want to bet that we start seeing more fan replay videos on Twitter before we get good, easy to get official team replays?

Maybe these apps are working better in other stadiums, where the networks are better. My guess is, even at those places there is slow uptake. If teams really want to use technology to make the stadium a better experience than the couch, they’ve got to do more to make connecting easier. The network hookup needs to be drop dead simple. If I don’t have Wi-Fi turned on, the app should figure out how to do that itself. (Or ask when it’s first opened up, not after I’ve gone three clicks in to find the “live video” button.) Activities should be one or two clicks, not a laundry list of choices and treed menus. Though there is a lot of down time at games, it’s not that long. Apps should work faster than a play clock… if you can’t get there in 45 seconds, it’s a fail.

Safe to say, we are going to cover app development AND uptake as part of our stadium technology focus. I think right now it is the weak link in the whole connected stadium equation. One scene on the way out of the Niners game made me realize just how far behind the apps are; instead of staying in their seats to watch the crucial possible last-minute drive, many San Francisco fans were outside on the concourse… watching the TV coverage on the high-def screens above the concession stands. Because on TV, they know, they will get multiple replay angles and explanations. These fans weren’t bad fans for leaving their seats. They were, actually, just trying to find the best game-viewing experience. They should be the people interviewed next about what should be in a team app. Because what’s there now obviously isn’t reaching them. Or keeping them in their seats.

NBC clarifies ‘Old Mac’ problems for Sunday Night Football streaming: Newer OS required

If you are still wondering why you can’t see NBC’s streaming broadcast of its Sunday Night Football games on your Mac, I now have an answer: It’s because you’re running an older operating system, older than Mac OS version 10.7.5.

After a special-to-MSR telephone confab with some technical folks on NBC’s staff last week we quickly rooted out why I was able to see the banners and home page of the Sunday Night online broadcasts but not the live video player: According to the NBC folks, my older iMac and its 10.6.8 version of MacOS isn’t technically up to snuff for the special player NBC is using for the Sunday night show.

New error message shown by NBC's Sunday Night Football online to older Mac users. Credit: NBC.

New error message shown by NBC’s Sunday Night Football online to older Mac users. Credit: NBC.

Mind you, my not-that-old desktop does just fine showing every other NBC online offering, including the recent live broadcasts of the America’s Cup sailboat races, or the London Olympics. And for those I can use the browser of my choice, usually Chrome and sometimes Firefox. But because of the NFL’s recent deal with Microsoft, NBC is forced to use a different video player for its Sunday Night Football broadcasts. Though they aren’t completely blocked for Mac users who want to watch, they must have a machine with MacOS 10.7.5 or higher, and can only use the Safari browser. I will spare you the HTML5-related details why this is so, to only say that if you have a Mac and you want to watch SNF online, you need to upgrade your OS, make sure you have Safari 6.0.5 or higher, and turn off any ad-blocking utilities.

Is it worth the pain for you to upgrade your OS? I have no idea how you’d exactly go about doing so, I’ve looked at a few online tutorials but really it’s just not worth it for me (I think there is also a $19.99 charge from Apple for the software). I don’t blame NBC here, I actually can’t praise them enough for marshaling some pretty impressive resources to find the root of the problem for our humble little outlet and our devoted, passionate readers. After our inquiries, NBC also started showing the error message above to users of older Mac platforms, so they wouldn’t wander in the dark questioning their own sanity, like I did for the first few weeks of the season.

Instead I point the finger at the Shield and at Microsoft, for forging some deal that alienates some users solely so that the NFL can spend some more Microsoft cash, and so Microsoft can strike a blow against Apple that it can’t do in open competition. Bravo. Fan first, you know.

If I may editorialize a bit, I would say that the NFL gets away with cutting these bad-for-fan deals (like the exclusive deal with Verizon for NFL Mobile) because it’s so big and powerful that it can. What other entertainment outlet would cut a deal that would only allow 1/3 of the U.S. mobile phone customer base to watch their product? And what about when that service goes kablooey and there’s nobody explaining why? And the Microsoft deal, which cuts off older Mac customers from Sunday night football now and who knows what else in the future, is just another greed-driven strategic ploy that only benefits the NFL and Microsoft, and does nothing for fans.

It will be interesting to see what happens as the NFL moves more toward an MLB-type offering for online video and highlights, a move that we foresee even though we don’t have any solid evidence of it yet. Will the NFL cut deals to restrict access to selected hardware or software platforms? Is this a return to the bad old days of browser cutoffs? Is there a Net Neutrality argument in here somewhere?

Extreme thoughts, maybe, but who would have thought that in 2013 we’d see an entertainment outlet as popular as the NFL limit the capabilities of one technological platform versus another simply because it was paid to do so? And not just once, but several times? Aren’t we paying enough for football as it is? Or should we just get used to paying more, because we have no choice and apparently no seat at the table?

NFL signs promoted tweet deal with Twitter

tweet

In a deal that will likely make its rivals sit up and notice Twitter has signed a deal with the NFL that will feature hosted Tweets that include embedded video, highlights and analysis from NFL games and programs.

The NFL will create a dedicated team to produce content for Twitter not just on game days but seven days a week including in-game video from the Thursday Night games and will feature reports and video from all of a week’s games after they have aired, regardless of which network is showing the game.

The deal’s timing is interesting as it comes just before the expected IPO for Twitter, which was already top of mind for investors prior to this news.

nfllol

The deal is interesting for a number of reasons. Twitter already has a partner that has an Amplify deal in Verizon, but apparently that only pertains to the Super Bowl. ESPN is also a partner, but it cannot broadcast NFL video in its tweets, even from its NFL broadcasts, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The agreement is part of Twitter’s Amplify service that enables broadcasters to show video clips and other programming, and ads, which is synchronized with programs that are currently airing, giving users a second screen experience that shows content that might not be available on the broadcast. The two share ad revenue that is generated from the tweets.

You may not be familiar with the Amplify service by name but if you watch sports, or other outlets for that matter, you have most likely witnessed it in action. Twitter already has deals with a number of major players including Turner Sports, the NCAA, ESPN, BBC America, Fox and the Weather Channel.

Hopefully this is a trend that other sports leagues will follow so that when fans are not in front of their screens that can still get more than just a taunting text message from their friends about the state of their favorite team.

(Editor’s note: Interestingly, the video doesn’t work in embedded tweets but redirects you to a Twitter page. Sample video tweet below. Follow @NFL for sponsored video tweets.)

What We Learned at SEAT: Wi-Fi ROI is Elusive, Plan Big for DAS, Apps Not There Yet

Last month we had the great fortune to be invited to the SEAT Conference, which has to be the premier gathering of sports and entertainment facility technology professionals. Over two and a half days we heard many stories of early experiences with technologies like Wi-Fi, DAS, CRM and digital signage, and we left incredibly impressed with both the level of detail and honesty shared at the event.

Quite simply, if you are in the stadium technology business and want to learn what’s happening at the cutting edge, you should put SEAT on your agenda every year, just like all the reps from the biggest stadiums and arenas who make it a regular stop. (Follow this page to find out where and when SEAT 2014 will happen.)

While we are still working on putting together some of the detailed stories from SEAT participants for our Fall technology report, what we can share right now are some overall lessons learned from both the great panel discussions as well as via hallway chats and discussions during the evening events at SEAT. The top three takeaways I had were: stadium Wi-Fi ROI is elusive; you need to plan big for DAS deployment; and stadium apps are still a work in progress.

Apps: Still at the Starting Line

If I move backwards through that list, I can pretty confidently say that the reason many stadium apps are still at the starting line has mainly to do with a lack of deployed infrastructure. Even at facilities where Wi-Fi has been in place for several years, stadium apps both from teams and leagues are mainly just offering basic information and connectivity. The grand dreams of ordering concessions via mobile devices and having them delivered is still a future fantasy for all but a select few facilities now, mainly because most facilities are still just getting their hands around operating a public network.

Wi-Fi ROI: Elusive

And without apps that are tested in live networks, it’s hard to show any bottom-line ROI for Wi-Fi deployments. It’s a real chicken and egg problem, especially now that major cellular carriers are backing away from helping to finance Wi-Fi in favor of paying for DAS deployments. For the most part, stadiums are going to be on their own when it comes to paying for Wi-Fi deployments, since any benefits of putting in such a network will eventually go straight to the team. But that might not happen in a big way until more apps arrive. While pretty much everyone in attendance at SEAT was in agreement that Wi-Fi is going be as necessary and as basic as liquid plumbing, it’s largely a faith-based argument right now.

DAS: Plan for Space

That leads us to DAS, aka Distributed Antenna Systems, which are being deployed just about everywhere mainly because the large cellular carriers (AT&T and Verizon) are paying most of the bills. If there has been a strategic shift in the stadium business the past year it has been the wireless carriers’ change in emphasis from Wi-Fi offload (where Wi-Fi is used to supplement cellular coverage) to DAS, which brings true cellular connectivity to an array of small antennas spread throughout a facility.

There’s a lot of interesting technical and business nuances around DAS, including whether or not a neutral third party should build and host the network. We’ll be covering these issues in much greater detail going forward, because of their immediate and considerable bottom-line impact. But the biggest takeaway we had from DAS had to do with physical space — as in the space needed to host all the DAS equipment on site. Bottom line: You are going to need a lot of room for DAS. (AT&T antenna group guru Chad Townes showed us pictures of the DAS equipment room at the Dallas Cowboys stadium, and it looked like something out of the Matrix — a huge room completely filled with servers and telco gear.)

Why does DAS take up so much room? Basically for every carrier — think Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — you need to install, on site, a separate cellular base station, with all the networking gear to handle call ideintification and authentication. Then there is more gear to simply manage the connections in all the antennas, plus gear to connect all that to the public networks. And lots and lots of power and air conditioning to keep everything cool.

So how much space do you need? Estimates ranged from 5,000 square feet (about the size of a hotel ballroom) to just a bit smaller. Some facilities said they were putting DAS in buildings nearby, using fiber to connect those buildings to the stadium. But the big takeaway seemed to be, whatever space you think you need for DAS, you probably need more.

Look for more info on these topics in our upcoming Fall technology report. Best way to know when that comes out? Sign up for our email list, via the button in the upper corner of the home page.