Texas A&M’s mobile browser end-around: How the Aggies and AmpThink changed the game-day fan engagement process

A look at the 12thmanlive.com site at a Texas A&M home game this past season. Credit: Texas A&M (click on any photo for a larger image)

In the short history of in-stadium mobile fan engagement, a team or stadium app has been the go-to strategy for many venue owners and operators. But what if that strategy is wrong?

You can always count on team and stadium apps to be introduced with a long list of bells and whistles, from in-seat food ordering and delivery to digital ticketing, instant replay options and venue wayfinding services. Yet after those apps are bought and released, very few teams or stadium-app vendors are willing to provide statistics on how those features are — or are not — being used. As such, the business benefits of almost every stadium app ever launched remain a mystery.

In fact, the only statistic that emerges with any regularity in regards to stadium apps in their still-young lifetime is that their game-day usage usually trails general-purpose mobile-phone applications by a large margin, far behind social media applications like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, as well as email and text messaging. So why is the conventional wisdom of having a game-day app still so conventional?

To seek an answer to that question and in part to “question every underlying assumption” involving fan digital engagement, Texas A&M University partnered with AmpThink this fall on a wide-ranging experiment centered around using mobile web, as well as a captive Wi-Fi portal, to see if it was possible to find a better way to digitally engage fans, for far less than the cost of a custom app. And so far, it looks like they did.

Via its “12thmanlive.com” digital game-day program website and a gated entry to access the Wi-Fi network at Kyle Field, Texas A&M was able to gather more than 150,000 fan emails this football season as well as another 60,000-plus additional opt-ins for phone numbers, addresses and permissions for more messages from the school. In addition to the marketing lead generation, a “Black Friday” ticket sale promotion, sent to fans who had opted in for more emails, produced 2,285 tickets sold for a late-season game against LSU, an additional $137,100 revenue that Texas A&M might not have otherwise realized.

And unlike app-based programs, the simple WordPress headless CMS behind 12thmanlive.com allowed for fast updates for content and graphics, letting AmpThink and Texas A&M customize the site’s look repeatedly, to test — and measure — the success or failure of different offers and promotions during the seven-game 2018 home season. The 12thmanlive.com program is already slated for more experiments during the basketball season, with an eye to covering as many of the school’s sports as possible.

‘Don’t treat it like plumbing’

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the Wi-Fi network at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, as well as the renovated State Farm Arena, also in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

It’s worthwhile to note here that such a forward-thinking experiment is not a huge surprise for the partnership of Texas A&M and AmpThink. While AmpThink may be best known for its expertise in large-venue Wi-Fi design (including at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field), the firm over the past few years has expanded into many other segments of the overall stadium connectivity market, including taking on full-stadium technology integration, optical fiber network design and deployment, enclosure design and manufacture, as well as digital-signage programming and related marketing activities. And Texas A&M was one of the first big stadiums to go all-in on fiber backbone connectivity for its Wi-Fi and DAS networks, which are still at the top level of performance three years after their debuts.

Initially, Texas A&M followed one of the emerging paths of market strategies when it came to engaging fans via its wireless networks: It didn’t require fans to give any identifying information (like email, or name and address) to connect. Some venues, like the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium, consider it a point of pride to make network connections as easy as possible, with no kind of login information needed. In Atlanta, a sponsorship from AT&T for the Wi-Fi service makes it easier for the Falcons to offer it with no strings attached.

The team at Texas A&M concluded that teams should put a higher value on connectivity, since there aren’t any measurable business metrics to be found that prove that fans are happier or more engaged simply because they have “frictionless” access to Wi-Fi. And by allowing fans to use Wi-Fi anonymously, teams give away opportunities to generate a return on their technology investment.

“Some people say the network’s just plumbing, but they don’t say why,” AmpThink president Bill Anderson said in a recent interview. “Two or three years ago, having Wi-Fi with no hurdles and getting big usage numbers gave you something to brag about. But now, we’re seeing more teams ask, ‘are we getting any return on investment for our technology?’ ”

The first step in exploring that direction was taken by the school for the 2018 football season, when Texas A&M introduced a portal for Wi-Fi login which required a name and a valid email address to connect. Acknowledging that it might lower overall Wi-Fi usage, the portal did serve Texas A&M’s goal of increasing its ability to identify attendees by only allowing access to those who were willing to share some information.

For Texas A&M, using a Wi-Fi portal was an opportunistic business decision. With robust Wi-Fi and cellular networks at Kyle Field, fans who didn’t want to share their information for Wi-Fi had the choice of using the cellular DAS, which has superb coverage from multiple carriers, including Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Mobile web instead of an app

For the 2018 football season, Texas A&M added another twist in a new direction: The debut of a new digital game-day program, called 12thmanlive.com, which uses HTML5 to create an app-looking web page with a simple menu of activity buttons located beneath a live scoreboard feed.

According to Pat Coyle, Texas A&M’s new senior associate athletic director and chief revenue officer, the mobile-web game day program was another important cog in the school’s broader data collection and monetization strategy, which he paints as a “digital flywheel” where Texas A&M can use a multitude of data points to “adjust and improve service to our key customers.” But key to that strategy was getting live attendees to engage with the network in greater numbers than previously seen. Enter, 12thmanlive.com.

What made 12thmanlive.com interesting from one perspective was not what it had, but what it didn’t have. With no app to download, the site was quickly available to anyone attending a game simply by entering the URL into a mobile-device browser. Its simple design (no photos or videos, for example) made it fast to load and easy to understand.

On the plus side, what the site did offer was activity much different from most team or stadium apps, which generally focus on content or on interactive services, like ticketing or loyalty programs. Among the 10 buttons on the site’s main interface were features including game-day rosters, a stats tracker and a way to send chat messages to stadium personnel; the site also included a number of sponsored promotions, including a giveaway contest for a helmet signed by new head coach Jimbo Fisher, future ticket giveaways, coupons for food and beverages, and a link to join the Wi-Fi network for fans who might have been on a cellular connection to begin with.

While team apps might have been looked at to fill game-day interactions, Coyle said that previous game-day statistics from Kyle Field’s Wi-Fi network showed fewer than 1 percent of fans would use the school’s old, downloadable app while attending a game.

With a web platform, the idea was that Texas A&M would have the ability to quickly add or change more game-day centric features and to integrate them with third-party services. But in the face of historic non-participation via the app, could Texas A&M and AmpThink get fans to click on a mobile website instead? And would it be worth the cost of trying?

A much cheaper experiment than an app

One obvious factor in the idea’s favor from the beginning was the low cost of development for a web-based project, especially when compared to that of a custom app. AmpThink estimates that most custom apps cost teams somewhere in the range of $1 million. Total costs for the 12thmanlive.com project were “in the mid-five figures,” according to the school, including not just the site and tools design but some “shoulder to shoulder” help from AmpThink during the season, according to Anderson.

A Kyle Field ribbon board advertises the stadium’s Wi-Fi network. Credit: Texas A&M

Launched at the start of the 2018 football season, the site was promoted in several ways, including messages on the big video board at Kyle Field as well as on smaller TV screens and ribbon boards throughout the stadium. The big screens also promoted individual contests, allowing fans to text a code word to a short numerical code, an action that would take them directly to the 12thmanlive.com site.

The Wi-Fi portal also helped, as a “welcome” email sent after a valid login to the network contained a prominent link to the 12thmanlive.com site.

Starting with the first game, the 12thmanlive.com site showed consistent user numbers, with an average visit total of approximately 8,500 fans per game over the 7-game season — close to 10 percent participation of all attendees, a 10x improvement over historic app interaction.

According to the school, Texas A&M started the season with the assumption that they did not know exactly what fans wanted. The 12thmanlive.com site featured some interesting content, like a stadium clock that was close to real time and game-day rosters. But analysis of site visits found that this game-related content had about zero dwell time and high abandonment rates. For contests and giveaways, however, there was very high engagement.

According to statistics provided by Coyle, a repeated contest to win a signed helmet was the most popular with 31,379 registrations over the seven games. That was followed in popularity by a milkshake coupon (14,261 registrations) and a free ticket contest (9,233 registrations).

Measurable and repeatable results

With the site only turned on during game days — and only promoted inside the stadium — the 12thmanlive.com efforts did not affect traffic to the team’s regular website, Coyle said.

Overall, the Wi-Fi portal and the 12thmanlive.com site garnered 156,543 total emails for Texas A&M, with 61,607 of those emails being new to the school’s database, according to figures from Coyle. Of that number, 44,894 came from the Wi-Fi portal, and another 16,713 unique emails came from registrations on 12thmanlive.com activities.

“While it’s natural to focus on 61,607 new records, the 156,543 number is also important,” said Coyle. “These are all fans who were anonymous but are now identified as ‘in attendance’ at particular games. Now we know more of the identities of folks who bought and attended games. So we can figure out which games the season ticket holders sold on secondary, for example.”

Coyle noted that Texas A&M’s overall strategy goes far beyond just the mobile web site, with power from the Wi-Fi network analytics also helping to spin the “flywheel.” For example, the school tested proximity marketing to educate fans about a new food stand on the 600 level of the stadium by using Wi-Fi location information to detect devices on that level, sending them an email promoting the food stand if they were registered in the system.

“We essentially used the Wi-Fi APs like beacons, and the difference is we didn’t need Bluetooth or a downloaded app to do this,” Coyle said.

When users who had previously logged in to the Wi-Fi network at a earlier game arrived for a new one, Coyle said the school was able to automatically trigger an email welcoming those users back; other network data collected included arrival and departure times, and DNS information to see what other apps fans are using, Coyle said.

“All of these data are more valuable when we can connect them to real people,” Coyle said. “When we know who these people are, we can use the data to adjust and improve service to our key customers. This will enhance loyalty, and eventually, profits.”

For Anderson, some additional proof in the pudding was the opt-in information fans were willing to share in the contests, giveaways and food coupon offers. On top of the email addresses another 60,055 fans gave permission to the school to send them follow-up marketing messages, a key indicator that people are willing to engage if they perceive value.

“Compared with other venues we work in, we saw better than expected opt-in rates,” AmpThink’s Anderson said. “I think it’s because Texas A&M gave fans a better value proposition.”

With actionable data already in hand, Texas A&M is iterating the 12thmanlive.com program for basketball season, with an eye toward next year’s football season and all the new ideas they can try. The WordPress content management system strategy allows teams and the schools to do a lot of the work themselves, since experience with WordPress is fairly widespread. In fact, Anderson said teams don’t even need to pick up the phone to call AmpThink, since what Texas A&M and AmpThink did is easily replicable from a DIY perspective.

“Anybody can just go out and get a good web person and build their own successes [with this model],” Anderson said.

New Report: Texas A&M scores with new digital fan-engagement strategy

In the short history of in-stadium mobile fan engagement, a team or stadium app has been the go-to strategy for many venue owners and operators. But what if that strategy is wrong?

That question gets an interesting answer with the lead profile in our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Winter 2018-19 issue! These quarterly long-form reports are designed to give stadium and large public venue owners and operators, and digital sports business executives a way to dig deep into the topic of stadium technology, via exclusive research and profiles of successful stadium technology deployments, as well as news and analysis of topics important to this growing market.

Leading off for this issue is an in-depth report on a new browser-based digital game day program effort launched this football season at Texas A&M, where some longtime assumptions about mobile apps and fan engagement were blown apart by the performance of the Aggies’ new project. A must read for all venue operations professionals! We also have in-person visits to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the renovated State Farm Arena, the venue formerly known as Philips Arena. A Q&A with NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle and a report on a CBRS network test by the PGA round out this informative issue! DOWNLOAD YOUR REPORT today!

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Mobilitie, JMA Wireless, Corning, Huber+Suhner, Boingo, Oberon, MatSing, Neutral Connect Networks, Everest Networks, and ExteNet Systems. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

As always, we are here to hear what you have to say: Send me an email to kaps@mobilesportsreport.com and let us know what you think of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series.

BYU scores with new Wi-Fi, app for LaVell Edwards Stadium

BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium. Credit all photos: photo@byu.edu (click on any picture for a larger image)

At Brigham Young University, the wait for Wi-Fi was worth it.

After a selection and deployment process that took almost three years, the first full season of Wi-Fi at BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium was a roaring success, with high fan adoption rates and a couple 6-plus terabyte single-game data totals seen during the 2018 football season. Using 1,241 APs from gear supplier Extreme Networks, the Wi-Fi deployment also saw high usage of the new game-day app, built for BYU by local software supplier Pesci Sports.

Duff Tittle, associate athletic director for communications at Brigham Young University, said the school spent nearly 2 1/2 years “studying the concept” of bringing Wi-Fi to the 63,470-seat stadium in Provo, Utah. After looking at “five different options,” BYU chose to go with Extreme, based mainly on Extreme’s long track record of football stadium deployments.

“We visited their stadiums, and also liked what they offered for analytics,” said Tittle of Extreme. “They had what we were looking for.”

According to Tittle, the deployment was actually mostly finished in 2017, allowing the school to do a test run at the last game of that season. Heading into 2018, Tittle said the school was “really excited” to see what its new network could do — and the fans went even beyond those expectations.

Opener a big success

For BYU’s Sept. 8 home opener against California, Tittle said the Wi-Fi network saw 27,563 unique connections out of 52,602 in attendance — a 52 percent take rate. BYU’s new network also saw a peak of 26,797 concurrent connections (midway through the fourth quarter) en route to a first-day data total of 6.23 TB. The network also saw a peak bandwidth rate of 4.55 Gbps, according to statistics provided by the school.

Sideline AP deployment

“It blew us away, the number of connections [at the Cal game],” Tittle said. “It exceeded what we thought we’d get, right out of the gate.”

With almost no overhangs in the stadium — there is only one sideline structure for media and suites — BYU and Extreme went with mostly under-seat AP deployments, Tittle said, with approximately 1,000 of the 1,241 APs located inside the seating bowl. Extreme has used under-seat deployments in many of its NFL stadium networks, including at Super Bowl LI in Houston.

Another success story was the new BYU app, which Tittle said had been in development for almost as long as the Wi-Fi plan. While many stadium and team apps struggle for traction, the BYU app saw good usage right out of the gate, finishing just behind the ESPN app for total number of users (2,306 for the BYU app vs. 2,470 for ESPN) during the same Cal game. The BYU app just barely trailed Instagram (2,327) in number of users seen that day, and outpaced SnapChat (1,603) and Twitter (1,580), according to statistics provided by Tittle. The app also supports instant replay video, as well as a service that lets fans order food to be picked up at a couple express-pickup windows.

What also might have helped fuel app adoption is the presence of a “social media” ribbon board along the top of one side of the stadium, where fan messages get seen in wide-screen glory. Tittle said the tech-savvy locals in the Provo area (which has long been the home to many technology companies, including LAN pioneer Novell) are also probably part of the app crowd, “since our fan base loves that kind of stuff.”

Tittle also said that Verizon Wireless helped pay for part of the Wi-Fi network’s construction, and like at other NFL stadiums where Verizon has done so, it gets a separate SSID for its users at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Verizon also built the stadium’s DAS (back in 2017), which also supports communications from AT&T and T-Mobile. (More photos below)

Under-seat AP enclosure

A peek inside

The social media ribbon board above the stands

LaVell Edwards Stadium at night, with a view of the press/suites structure

NFL CIO: Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s wireless is ‘ready for the Super Bowl’

The entry concourse at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The wireless networks at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium are “ready for the Super Bowl,” according to Michelle McKenna, senior vice president and chief information officer for the NFL, who spoke to Mobile Sports Report via phone last week.

Though McKenna would not comment on any of the particulars of the recent lawsuit filed by IBM against Corning that revolves around issues with the stadium’s distributed antenna system (DAS) cellular network, she did assert that any past problems have since been fixed, and that the league is confident the venue’s wireless systems will stand up to the stress test that will likely arrive when Super Bowl LIII takes place on Feb. 3, 2019.

“The [Atlanta] Falcons have been super-cooperative in remedying one of the challenges they had,” said McKenna. “The networks will be ready for the Super Bowl.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium also has an Aruba-based Wi-Fi network, which has not been the subject of any lawsuit; however, stadium officials have also not ever released any performance statistics for the network since the stadium’s opening. According to IBM’s lawsuit documents, the company said it had to pay extra to fix the DAS network, a task it said was completed before the end of the 2017 NFL season.

Outside connectivity a challenge as well

While the Super Bowl is almost always the biggest single-day sports events for wireless connectivity, McKenna added that this year’s version will be even a little more challenging than others since the league is in the process of moving fans to digital ticketing for its championship event.

“This year one of the new challenges is the move to paperless ticketing,” said McKenna in a wide-ranging interview about NFL technology issues (look for a full breakdown of the interview in our upcoming Winter Stadium Tech Report). Though this year’s game will still have some paper-based ticket options, McKenna said the lessons learned in ensuring good connectivity outside the stadium gates will help prepare for future Super Bowls, which will likely be all-digital ticketing.

One Super Bowl technology not yet decided is the game-day app, which for the past two years has been built by the NFL. In previous years, the league used versions of local game-day apps with Super Bowl additions, a direction McKenna said the league might still take this year. Designed mainly as a way to help visitors find their way around an unfamiliar stadium and city, the Super Bowl app this year might need to lean on the local app to help integrate the digital ticket functionality, McKenna said. The Falcons’ app for Mercedes-Benz Stadium was built by IBM.

VenueNext, SeatGeek part of new app for Minnesota United FC

The Minnesota United football club has chosen stadium- and team-app provider VenueNext to build a new app for next season, when the MLS team moves into its new home, Allianz Field. According to an announcement from the team, the app will also include SeatGeek’s ticketing technology, the first time VenueNext has directly integrated SeatGeek into one of its team apps.

So far we don’t have any looks at the functionality of the app, which is slated to be ready for the 2019 season. The deal is VenueNext’s second MLS win, following an agreement to provide an app for D.C. United and its new home, Audi Field. It also represents another Twin Cities win for VenueNext, which is also the app developer for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings as well as the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Lynx.

Niners, SAP announce stadium-operations management application

A sample screen shot from the new Executive Huddle stadium operations management platform, developed by SAP for the San Francisco 49ers. Credit: San Francisco 49ers (click on any photo for a larger image)

A desire by the San Francisco 49ers to see stadium operations information in real time has become a real product, with today’s announcement of Executive Huddle, a stadium operations management application developed for the Niners by SAP.

In use at the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium since the start of the current football season, Executive Huddle brings transaction information from nine different stadium operations systems, including parking, concessions, retail sales, weather and fan opinions into a visual output that allows team executives to make real-time decisions on how to fix problems or otherwise enhance the game-day experience.

Demonstrated at Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Rams, the software not only reports raw data like concession sales or parking lot entries, but also provides a layer of instant feedback to let team executives make immediate changes to operations if necessary. The cloud-based application, developed by SAP and Nimbl, is currently only in use at one upper-level suite at Levi’s Stadium, where the output runs during Niners’ game days on several video screens. SAP, however, plans to make the system available to other teams in the future, according to SAP executives at Sunday’s demonstration.

Fixing issues in real time

Al Guido, president of the 49ers, said Executive Huddle was the end product of a desire of his to be able to fix any game-day experiences on the day of the game, instead of in the days or weeks after. According to Guido, the Niners have been passionate about collecting fan-experience data since Levi’s Stadium opened in 2014. But in the past, the compilation of game-day data usually wasn’t complete until a day or two after each event, meaning any issues exposed were only learned lessons that needed to wait until the next games to be fixed.

Executives huddle: from left, SAP’s Mark Lehew, Niners’ Moon Javaid, SAP’s Mike Flannagan and Niners president Al Guido talk about the Executive Huddle system at a Sunday press event at Levi’s Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Things like slower sales at concession stands, or issues with parking-lot directions, Guido said, wouldn’t be known as they were happening, something he wanted to change.

“I really wanted to be able to act on it [the operations data] in real time, instead of waiting until the Wednesday after a Sunday game,” Guido said.

Now, with Executive Huddle, the Niners’ operations team can sit in a single room and watch as operations events take place, and can make in-game moves to fix things, like calling on the radio to a parking lot to tell gate operators of traffic issues.

“It’s like having an air traffic control system,” said Mark Lehew, global vice president for sports and entertainment industry solutions at SAP. Lehew said SAP worked with the Niners’ list of operations vendors, including Ticketmaster, ParkHub, caterer Levy and point-of-sale technology provider Micros to provide back-end application links so that Executive Huddle could draw information from each separate system into the uber-operations view that Executive Huddle provides. According to SAP, Executive Huddle is based on SAP’s Leonardo and Analytics platform.

The manager of managers

Though the system doesn’t currently monitor some other key stadium operations information, like performance of the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network, Michael Pytel, chief innovation officer for Nimbl, said the system could conceivably add “any information we can get from an API.”

The Levi’s Stadium suite where the Niners monitor Executive Huddle information. Credit: San Francisco 49ers

Moon Javaid, the Niners’ vice president of strategy and analytics, said the continued robust performance of the stadium’s wireless networks make them a lower-priority need for the kind of oversight Executive Huddle provides.

Javaid, the quarterback of the program’s development from the Niners’ side of the equation, noted that part of its power comes not just from surfacing the data, but also from providing some instant intuitive markers — like red for declining metrics and green for positive — and the ability to compare current data to those from other events so that data could not just be seen but also understood, within seconds.

And while SAP plans to make Executive Huddle available to other teams, it’s clear that the program — as well as education and training for the decision-making staff who will use it — will need different care and feeding for each stadium that might want to use it. But SAP’s Lehew noted that being able to provide real-time data in an exposed fashion was becoming table stakes for operations providers, who would have to move past old ways of doing things if they wanted to be a part of the next generation of stadium service providers.