NFL’s CIO sees Levi’s Stadium as leader in connected-stadium future

NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle (Twitter profile photo)

NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle (Twitter profile photo)

Even though Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 has long meant a packed schedule for her, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle is happiest this week about what she and her team didn’t have to do — namely, they didn’t need to supervise any technology makeovers to Levi’s Stadium since the well-connected venue was “big game” ready from the moment it opened its doors.

“This is the first Super Bowl since I’ve been here where the league didn’t have to do significant [technology] upgrades,” said McKenna-Doyle in a phone interview. In a way, McKenna-Doyle has seen the future of connected stadiums rise from the ground up, since after joining the league as its chief information officer in 2012 she was able to watch Levi’s Stadium get built, one of the first large venues where connectivity was not an afterthought. With several new NFL stadiums slated to open in the near future, McKenna-Doyle said infrastructures like Levi’s will become the rule, not the exception, as fans and the sport itself increase the need for more connectivity.

“It [connectivity] is as important as electricity and water,” McKenna-Doyle said. “The game is more connected, the fans are more connected. No longer is the idea that you go inside a concrete bowl and are disconnected from the world.”

Super Bowls, stadium apps and staying out of the way

But even as she talks about the future of a game-day experience that relies more heavily on mobile, digital technology, McKenna-Doyle is also trying to make sure that technology works for the benefit of all, and isn’t just there for technology’s own sake. Proof of this thinking is evident in her office’s call to remove the in-seat food delivery feature from the regular Levi’s Stadium app, instead only allowing beverages to be available for the stadium’s unique deliver-to-any-seat service.

“That was our call,” said McKenna-Doyle about the decision to remove food delivery from the app. According to McKenna-Doyle, her staff monitored the service during home games for the San Francisco 49ers and saw that food delivery could at times cause “lots of foot traffic” as runners delivered orders.

“It (food delivery) is a cool option, but we saw it could cause a lot of traffic, with people going up and down stairs and passing food down the rows,” McKenna-Doyle said. “Since the Super Bowl is such a special moment, we didn’t want it [food deliveries] to be a distraction.”

Putting a Super Bowl game-day app together is a bit of art, as the league tries to blend what’s available in the existing venue app with the specific Super Bowl needs. What she likes a lot about the VenueNext-built regular Levi’s Stadium app is its focus on fan services, such as parking, ticketing and wayfinding, in addition to being able to order food ahead of time for “express window” pickup.

And though the Levi’s Stadium and the Super Bowl app will also support instant replay video, McKenna-Doyle thinks more app use may come from fans wanting to find out how to get around. At last year’s big game, McKenna-Doyle said that while half the fans in the stadium logged in through the game-day app, only 20 percent of that number used the app to watch replays. “Mostly, they used the app to check out what was going on,” McKenna-Doyle said. She also expects stadium-app use to be surpassed on Sunday by use of social media apps like Facebook and SnapChat, and by the inevitable Apple iOS and app updates, which happen because many fans have their devices set to run updates whenever they connect to Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi that’s great becoming the standard

Last year at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and the year before at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the league needed to oversee extensive Wi-Fi upgrades so that those venues would be ready for Super Bowl traffic. And even though the league still expects a jump from last year’s total of 6.23 terabytes used on Wi-Fi (a big step up from the 3.2 TB mark a year earlier), McKenna-Doyle is confident the Levi’s Stadium wireless network is ready for the game.

“I was at WrestleMania and that event certainly put the network through its paces,” McKenna-Doyle said of the event that holds the Levi’s Stadium top mark for single-day Wi-Fi use, at 4.5 TB. “I think we will surpass that [total] on Sunday,” she said.

From an overall league perspective, McKenna-Doyle said that with only a few stadiums without Wi-Fi (mainly those with ownership or location issues, like St. Louis and Oakland) she’s “very pleased with the progress” made over the past couple years. With new stadiums in Atlanta and Minnesota seeking to push the connectivity bar higher, and older stadiums getting upgrades, McKenna-Doyle said that league-wide there is full buy-in about the need for fan-facing connectivity.

“We have great support from the owners, and they know that it’s not good enough to have first-generation [networks],” McKenna-Doyle said.

For next year’s Super Bowl LI, it will be back to stadium Wi-Fi upgrades, as Houston’s NRG Stadium finally gets its first Wi-Fi network installed. That job (which won’t start until after this spring’s NCAA Men’s Final Four, which also takes place at NRG Stadium) may make McKenna-Doyle long for Levi’s Stadium, where good infrastructure goes beyond the fan-facing elements of the Wi-Fi, DAS and video boards inside the bowl.

“Levi’s Stadium overall has just so many things that make everything easier,” she said, including unseen elements like power and cabling for on-field and broadcast operations. “Just where the power is, how the cables are all protected. It’s fantastic.”

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