Forget ‘standards,’ NFL should just pay for stadium networks

When I read the report that outlined the NFL’s requirement that its teams need to build wireless networks that meet a certain undefined level of performance, my first thought was: Where do I apply to be one of the testers? Sounds like a never-ending job, with plenty of billable hours.

Putting aside the testing and minimum standards challenges for a second, what should really happen here is for the Shield to step forward and drop some of its millions in revenue to help build networks for each stadium, no matter who the owners and operators may be. It’s pretty clear to me that the NFL is moving in a direction where the league will control mobile stadium apps and grab the lion’s share of revenues generated. Requiring teams to pay for the networks to run the league apps seems like a process sure to hit snags, since you’re basically asking owners and operators to build an asset that the league will benefit from, for free.

Should stadiums be building networks anyway? I think so, because I see wireless connectivity as a basic part of infrastructure, especially for any place that expects (and profits) from attracting large crowds of attendees. It’s a fact of life now that people expect to be able to use their mobile devices wherever they go. Team owners and operators are already feeling heat from fans frustrated by poor or no network connectivity. Though it hasn’t yet been proven, the general feeling in sports and entertainment circles these days is that if you don’t give fans network access, they might not come back.

But expecting teams to step up and meet some aggressive league-determined goals — without the league chipping in — seems like a process doomed for conflict. Several stadium operators we’ve talked to are taking time to get Wi-Fi deployments right, since they are savvy enough to know that what passes for a minimum level of service today might seem hopelessly slow in 2 years. There’s also the advent of faster 802.11ac gear, which is just arriving to market. Why overspend now when you might have to do a total replace in less than 3 seasons? With mobile app and service development still in the earliest stages, teams aren’t likely to reap big rewards from network deployments that meet the NFL’s time frames.

The league, however, could make big bucks quickly if it’s able to sell a digital-content package to fans that would provide mobile access to live action, highlights and other goodies, with extra bells and whistles available when using a stadium game-day network. There’s no official plan yet to offer such a service, but reading the tea leaves it’s pretty easy to see that the NFL wants to go in an MLB-like direction, and reap the rewards of controlling the sport’s most popular asset, live or recorded game action. That’s going to happen well before teams figure out how to make significant returns on in-stadium wireless apps and services.

That’s why I think instead of putting the onus on the teams to build networks out, the league should fund most of the construction itself. With just its new $1 billion in fees from Verizon for rights to mobile broadcasts on cell phones, the league has plenty of cash to give each team enough to build networks that meet its initial standards, whatever they may be. And by establishing itself as lead integrator of a league-wide deployment, the NFL could exact plenty of favorable terms and conditions from technology suppliers that teams might not be able to get on their own.

As for that testing part, I’ll be looking for the league RFP for making sure each stadium’s networks are up to snuff — because given the complexity and uniqueness of each and every facility, testing each one to make sure it hits some asked-for level of performance seems like a never-ending task. Which is great if you bill by the hour.


  1. […] the NFL itself is still somewhat vague on its league-wide plans for in-stadium Wi-Fi — other than saying that teams should provide it — Serra and Lodder are confident that […]

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