VenueNext debuts new strategy, products at University of Florida

VenueNext powers a new app at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where it also debuted new products like a POS system and a web-based app. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Created in 2014 to provide stadium apps for sports teams, VenueNext has pivoted toward focusing on mobile commerce services, a strategy that includes building web-based apps for teams, schools and other large public venues as well as for big events.

Though the company hasn’t completely given up on building team and stadium apps, executives at VenueNext pointed toward the company’s partnership with the University of Florida as a good example of its new strategic focus. In addition to providing the school with a stadium app that launched this fall, VenueNext also debuted its back-house point-of-sale transaction system at Florida, as well as a web-based app for stadium services and purchases. According to VenueNext executives, the new offerings are part of a new focus on mobile transactions, one that de-emphasizes the company’s former goal of providing full-service, custom-built apps with a wide range of features, including concessions ordering, instant replay video, venue wayfinding and loyalty programs.

Cailen Wachob, VenueNext’s executive vice president for sales, retention, marketing and operations, said “we’ve been pretty quiet about it” in regards to the company’s new offerings and strategies. Originally launched as the provider of the team and stadium app for the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium, VenueNext raised $24 million in venture funding to fuel a push into what looked like a burgeoning market for team and stadium apps as venues became increasingly connected.

After an initial flurry of professional team customer wins, including other NFL teams like the Minnesota Vikings, NBA teams including the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Utah Jazz, and the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, VenueNext did not have any big-name announcements in the past year. In mid-2018, VenueNext founding CEO John Paul was replaced by Orlando Perez, former chief marketing officer for the Orlando Magic, a point at which the company “took a step back to look at what we wanted to do, moving forward,” Wachob said.

An express pickup window for concession orders made on the Florida app.

What that turned into was a new focus more on helping teams, venues and events with mobile commerce activities, rather than a strict direction of just providing a do-everything app with bells and whistles like instant replay video. That combination proved alluring for Florida, which is VenueNext’s first big-college customer.

“We wanted to pick a lane and focus on that, rather than be a custom developer shop,” Wachob said. That means that while VenueNext will still build team apps, it may use third-party functionality as needed.

“We’re more focused on the venue commerce utility,” Wachob said. “We’re not going to be focused on building out things like replay and video.”

Tough market, lots of competition

Since VenueNext’s launch, the stadium and team app has gotten extremely competitive, with multiple players joining the game. Early market leader YinzCam remains the player with the most customers, but it has been joined by a list of providers that includes Venuetize, Hopscotch, Built.io and Rover.io as well as older apps from operations like CBS Interactive and Sidearm Sports. The problem all app providers face, however, is the lukewarm adoption of stadium apps by fans in general. While teams and venues all tout the idea of a stadium app as a way for fans to have a so-called “remote control” for their game-day visits, the reality is that most fans don’t download or use the apps widely, except when forced to for things like digital ticketing.

Screenshot of the web-app ordering system at Florida.

While teams and venues (and the app providers) may claim that fans use stadium apps, the reality is that actual statistics for fan app use are rarely ever provided. In the few instances where teams or venues do provide statistics for things like app usage at games, team and stadium apps fall far behind general-purpose mobile apps like social media apps, email and application updates.

In-venue transactions, however, do offer a way for teams and venues to lure fans to an app or web platform, either by requiring it (in the case of digital ticketing) or by making it an attractive feature, by supporting things like in-seat delivery, raffles and games, order-ahead concessions or in-venue “experience” purchases like seat upgrades or things like on-field tours, or meet-the-players gatherings.

VenueNext famously had an ambitious goal of providing in-seat concessions delivery services for all seating areas at Levi’s Stadium, but that program was shelved in 2017 after limited use and challenges in providing the service to 70,000-plus potential customers.

What has emerged in the market as a more manageable solution are less-ambitious programs like offering delivery to limited seating areas (usually premium club areas) or mobile order-ahead services with express window pickup. The app for Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium offers the latter, with several areas around the venue having pick-up windows set aside for the mobile orders.

POS, kiosk ordering and web-based apps

Wachob said that Florida was also the first live customer for VenueNext’s new POS software system, a product that puts VenueNext into competition with players like Oracle’s Micros and Appetize. The system supports 180 different stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which Wachob said had previously used a cash-drawer system. VenueNext’s website also now includes promotion of kiosk-based self-serve concession systems, a rapidly growing service in sports venues.

VenueNext also rolled out its first live web-based app for Florida, where fans can interact with venue services without having to download an app. Once an unthinkable move for a company devoted to apps, the new service even has its own name and website, ordernext.com, linked to the main VenueNext site. The ordernext platform at Florida provided a way for fans to simply click on a link that said “Water Me” to get cold water delivered to seats in the stadium’s sunny section. Wachob said the site also allowed fans to purchase in-venue experiences, like an on-field pass or a visit with the Gator mascots.

“The new app and POS technology makes concessions better for everyone, it’s faster for those who order ahead of time, and the lines are shorter,” said Scott Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director.

The ordernext platform puts VenueNext into direct competition with providers like Rover.io, which tout the fast performance and greater flexibility of a web approach as opposed to a standalone app. Notably, Rover lists the Vikings and the Hornets as customers, even though those teams also have a VenueNext app. Stadium tech integrator AmpThink helped launch a similar program a year ago at Texas A&M, where the 12thmanlive.com site provided quick links to contests, discounts and other game-day activities.

To VenueNext’s Wachob, not being religious about whether services are offered in an app or on the web is part of the company’s new focus on mobile commerce first.

“Sometimes fans at the venue might not want to download the app,” Wachob said. “The ability to just go to a site [for a transaction] is really powerful. That’s the power of mobile — allowing the fan to determine what’s important to them.”

Broncos fans get technology to help speed up concessions at Mile High

A fan uses the visual-recognition system to purchase concessions at Empower Field at Mile High earlier this fall. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Can technology finally help improve one of the biggest pain points in the game-day experience, namely waiting in line for concessions? At the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High, a number of new technology initiatives debuted this year, all designed to improve the fan experience around concession purchases by providing more choice and streamlined checkout procedures.

While there are no hard numbers yet on the experiments, a Mobile Sports Report visit to Mile High earlier this year saw heavy use of the new technologies, which mainly include touch-screen ordering and payment systems as well as an innovative visual-recognition device to tabulate items in grab-and-go scenarios. A few quick interviews with fans at the stands got mixed reactions on whether or not the new technology actually speeded up the processes, but some stopwatch clocking showed speedy checkouts, especially those using the visual-recognition technology, where items are placed on a scanner bed which then quickly recognizes and tabulates the total on an attached payment screen.

For those of us who are now (maybe unwillingly) becoming accustomed to checking out our own items at supermarket self-checkout terminals, the Broncos’ stands that utilize the visual-recognition devices (from a company called Mashgin) are far easier to use than trying to scan a barcode for each item. At Mile High, the scanners are the perfect endpoint for a series of stands called “Drink MKT,” which are basically spaces with coolers filled with multiple beverage choices, from bottled water through multiple types of beer and other alcoholic drinks, including $100 bottles of John Elway Cabernet. At those stands fans simply walk in, choose what they want from a cooler and queue up for the scanners. When items are placed on the scanner beds the system’s cameras detect the items and generate a total bill, which is paid for by credit card on an attached terminal. Human-staff intervention is only needed to check IDs and to help fans open up the beverages before they leave the stand.

Fans line up to order fried chicken via a digital-screen kiosk.

While one fully jammed Drink MKT stand on the main concourse level didn’t seem to be moving any more quickly than traditional concessions windows (“It’s not faster, but there are way more choices,” said one fan), on the top-level concourse a stream of fans grabbed beverages just after the game’s start, with each transaction taking only a minute or less from setting the items on the scanner to leaving the stand. “It’s fun!” said two fans leaving the Drink MKT stand on the top-level concourse. “And it’s way faster.”

The Mashgin scanners were also in use at another stand clearly designed to speed up the food-getting process, a walk-through type arrangement where fans could grab from a limited selection of food and beverage items (pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, plus beer and soft drinks) before paying at a Mashgin scanner. Again, the only human interaction from a staffing point was to check IDs, help customers with the payment system, and ensure all beverages were opened before the fans left the stands. Truly, the interaction that took the longest was the can opening process, which is tricky to do yourself if you are carrying several items (there are no bags to carry the concessions from the stands). The Mashgin systems are showing up in other sports venues, including this report of it being combined with the Clear system to speed up payments even more.

Display ordering and payment systems also emerge

Another self-service technology (which many have probably seen in fast-food restaurants or other venues like airports) in use at Mile High is the use of digital display screens to let fans order from on-screen menus and pay with a credit card at the same terminal. At Mile High, like other systems used at some stadiums and at many fast-food restaurants, the digital terminals spit out a paper slip with an order number that fans use to pick up their items at a separate window.

Fans with club-level seats can order drinks and food for delivery to their seats via the team app.

On the main lower-level concourse at Mile High, such a system was in heavy use at a fried-chicken food stand, with many fans clearly comfortable with the ordering, payment and pickup process. MSR saw some similar systems in use at Chase Center, the Golden State Warriors’ new home, on a recent visit there this fall.

The Broncos also have another type of digital-screen ordering system in one of their premium club areas, where fans can order items from several different “stands,” each with a different entree or dessert item. Again, a paper ticket is generated that the fans then take to the food-preparation stands to pick up their orders.

Club-level fans also have the opportunity at Mile High to order food and drink to be delivered to their seats, via the team app. The food ordering and delivery function is powered by Tap.in2, a company we’ve profiled before.

We’ll circle back with the Broncos after this season to try to get some stats on whether or not the new stands and technologies won over fans and improved the service, but it’s heartening to see stadiums and teams push the envelope a bit to help fans get back to their seats more quickly. More photos below!


A look at the entry to one of the Drink MKT stands

The grab-and-go format of the Drink MKT stands offers fans a lot of choice

Technology can help, but the just-before-kickoff crush will always produce a line

The order-and-pay kiosks at a fried chicken stand are familiar to anyone who’s done fast food recently


A club-level kiosk system allows fans to pick from several different food stands


Most kiosk systems seemed to have a good amount of customization available

The club-level stands offer flexible choices


The Mashgin checkout systems were also used at a grab-and-go food/beverage stand


Tailgating at Mile High can still be classy and old-school


In case you hadn’t heard, the place has a new name

Hard to beat a sunny Sunday at Mile High

Venue Display Report: Small directories do big job at Mall of America

The Mall of America turned to small digital directories to solve a big wayfinding problem. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, VDR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With hundreds of stores, shops and restaurants – and an embedded amusement park – being big only starts to describe the breadth of the Mall of America. Yet to help guests find what they are looking for and to find their way around the 5.6 million square-foot property, the Mall went small with its digital-display directories, a winning move that has produced more than 10 million interactions since going fully live just more than a year ago.

Once upon a time, the Bloomington, Minn.-based Mall of America was no different from any other shopping mall when it came to directories. In what was somewhat of a shopping center tradition, the Mall of America had four-sided standalone structures with four-foot wide printed displays, crammed with maps and lists of locations. While big, printed directories may have been the way malls always did things, they didn’t fit in with the Mall of America’s recent moves to embrace digital technology to improve the guest experience.

“Those old directories were monstrosities, and they were obsolete the moment you printed them,” said Janette Smrcka, information technology director for the Mall of America. During a visit this spring by Venue Display Report to the Mall, Smrcka said attempts to put granular information on the printed maps – like stacked graphics showing the multiple oor levels close together – produced a mostly frustrating experience for guests.

“You had to walk around these things, and it was really difficult to find anything, because there are so many stores,” Smrcka said. “And the maps were kind of information overload. We found guests didn’t react well tothem.”

Going digital for directories

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent issue of our VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series, where we focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. This issue also contains profiles of the new big video board at Oracle Park in San Francisco, and an in-depth look at display technology at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four! START READING the issue today!

Thin lighted poles show where directories are located, without blocking the view

For the technology-forward Mall of America – which installed a high-definition Wi-Fi network throughout the property a few years ago – digital touch-screen directories seemed a logical next step ahead. According to Smrcka, the generational shift to embrace more touchscreen devices like phones and tablets, and the emergence of similar devices in many public places like airports and restaurants has produced a public that is far more comfortable with touching a display.

“Five or 10 years ago a touchscreen directory might have been too soon, but now very few people are hesitant [to use touchscreens],” Smrcka said. “Everything is a touchscreen, and people expect it. Everyone feels comfortable [using them].”

An important caveat for Mall of America, Smrcka said, was finding a way to make the mall directory experience more personal and private, like using an ATM.

“We always knew we wanted the screens to be smaller,” Smrcka said. Some other shopping centers that the Mall of America team had scouted had larger interactive displays, which Smrcka said could produce a “creepy” feeling since personal searches could potentially be viewed by people walking by.

“We felt like we wanted the screens to be a size where your body could be a shield,” Smrcka said. “Nobody needs to know what I’m looking for.”

As part of its deployment strategy, the Mall of America followed its agile development ethos and rolled out a small number of test units live in the Mall in late 2016. The displays, about the size of an iMac desktop screen tilted vertically, are from Aopen, and use a Chromebox commercial base for the operating system. A local Minneapolis-area wayfinding solutions firm, Express Image, provided the programming, and without much fanfare, the Mall flipped the switch and let its guests interact with the devices to see what happened.

Reducing search times to under a minute

“We didn’t exactly stalk people, but we did watch them [using the directories],” Smrcka said. Though some of the features enabled by the devices – like a search field – were obvious adds, exposing other services like maps and wayfinding weren’t as straightforward.

“There is a real problem of how do you logistically show 5 million square feet,” Smrcka said.

The start screen exposes some of the most-used directory services.

After watching users interact, the Mall of America has currently settled on a 2D mapping feature that can, if users choose it, show an animated path from where they are to where their desired destination is.

“The focus is how quickly can we help guests find what they are looking for,” Smrcka said.

After pulling the trigger to roll out 100 of the directories in mid-2017, the Mall’s IT team was rewarded with extensive usage analytics, which they put into an immediate feedback loop to improve the directories’ feature list and what was shown to users first.

“By far, the number one search was for restrooms,” Smrcka said. The Mall took that information and now has a prominent button on the main screen that will quickly show users the closest restrooms to that spot.

“There’s nothing like that immediate need,” Smrcka sAaid. “That was a quick win.”

Analyzing more of the data helps the Mall’s IT team do a better job of predicting what users are looking for when they misspell store names, or if users are having difficulty with directions. According to Smrcka some data analysis showed that one physical location of a set of directories was causing confusion since “people told to take a left turn ended up inside a Cinnabon.” Moving the directories around the nearby corner helped improve the directions feature, she said.

The directories got a good workout during Final Four weekend.

The problem of how to show directions to places on different levels of the mall was solved by having a different screen for each level; the animated directions will even advance the pathways up and down escalators or stairways. Srmcka is also proud of the Mall’s desire to make information as real-time as possible; that effort includes a kind of “mall hack” where cheap power meters feed information into the directory system to let guests know if, say, an escalator is temporarily out of service.

“Little things like that make a big difference,” said Smrcka.

In a casual mall walkaround, VDR observed many guests taking turns at the numerous directory locations, seeming to find what they need quickly without any obvious confusion. According to Smrcka, the directories have now logged more than 10 million interactions, with the average interaction time at 38.98 seconds.

Some features in the directories, like the ability for users to enter their phone number to get information via text message, may take longer to take off, Smrcka said. “There are always going to be some people who don’t have the comfort level to put their number into a public device,” Smrcka said. But overall, the small digital directories have added up to a huge success.

Top-down approach brings Wi-Fi to OKC Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the NBA’s Thunder. Credit all photos: Oklahoma City Thunder

If there’s one sure thing about stadium Wi-Fi deployments, it’s that pretty much no two networks are ever exactly the same. So even as there is a growing large-venue trend for putting Wi-Fi access points under seats or in handrails, sometimes the traditional top-down method is still the one that works best.

Such was the case for the first full fan-facing Wi-Fi network at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, home of the NBA’s Thunder. With a large amount of retractable seating in the 18,000-seat venue, an under-seat approach to Wi-Fi would prove too costly and disruptive, leading the team to look for connectivity from above.

While a solid in-building cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) had done a good job of keeping fans connected the last few years, the team’s desire to have more mobile insight to fan activity as well as a switch to a Wi-Fi-centric point of sale system led Oklahoma City to finally install fan-facing Wi-Fi throughout the venue.

Chris Nelson, manager of information technology for venue manager SMG, and Tyler Lane, director of technology for the Thunder, spoke with Mobile Sports Report about the recent Wi-Fi deployment at Chesapeake Energy Arena, which went live during the most recent NBA season.

An AP placement in the rafters

Though the venue looked at all options, Nelson said that going under-seat with APs would have been “very costly” to do, given the large number of retractable seats in the arena.

“We wanted to hang them [APs] from the top if we could,” Nelson said.

After testing the top equipment brands available, the Thunder settled on Ruckus gear, for what they said was a simple reason, one involving the 96 feet in air space from the catwalk to the arena floor.

“Ruckus was the only one whose gear could reach down all the way,” Nelson said.

Adding to the fan experience

Editor’s note: This report 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 new Wi-Fi network at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn., and an in-depth research report on the new Wi-Fi 6 standard! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

According to the team the deployment saw 410 total APs used, with 350 in the arena proper and another 60 deployed across the street at the Cox Convention Center. According to the Thunder’s Lane, the team rolled out the service slowly at first, with some targeted testing and feedback from season ticket holders.

Close-up of an AP placement

“We got some good feedback and then when we went to a full rollout we had signage in the concourses, communications via ticketing services and announcements over the PA and on the scoreboard,” to tell fans about the system, said Lane.

According to statistics provided by the team, the Wi-Fi was getting good traction as the season went on, with a March 16 game vs. the Golden State Warriors seeing 589.3 gigabytes of traffic, from 2,738 clients that connected to the network. Lane said the team employed Jeremy Roach and his Rectitude 369 firm to assist with the network design; Roach in the past helped design networks at Levi’s Stadium and Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.

Now that the Wi-Fi network is in place, Lane said the Thunder is starting to increase the ways it can add to the fan experience via digital means, including app-based features like showing press conferences live and by having an artificial intelligence chatbot to help provide fans with arena information.

“It’s really all about enhancing the fan experience,” Lane said, with an emphasis on driving digital ticketing use in the YinzCam-developed team app. Lane said that the system also drives a lot of mobile concessions traffic, and added that “Ruckus did a fantastic job of asking all the right questions for our food and beverage partners.”

Cisco brings fan-facing Wi-Fi to Pebble Beach for U.S. Open

This year’s U.S. Open featured a fan-facing Wi-Fi network at Pebble Beach. Credit: Keith Newman, MSR

Fans at the recent U.S. Open golf championship at Pebble Beach were treated to an on-course Wi-Fi network from Cisco, as part of a sponsorship partnership between Cisco and the U.S. Golf Association.

As the official technology partner for the USGA and its championships, Cisco said it set out with the goal to make this year’s 119th U.S. Open the “most connected” in the event’s history, mainly through the deployment of about 400 Meraki Wi-Fi APs throughout the famed seaside course.

According to the USGA, the network saw 25 total terabytes of data used during the championship, but the USGA did not break out daily totals. The USGA also said it saw more than 100,000 connections to the network, but did not specify if that number represents unique connections or contains multiple connections from the same devices. In addition, our special correspondent Keith Newman did spend tournament Saturday at the course, and found the network to provide good connectivity in many places around the grounds. In addition to putting APs on obvious placement spots like the edges of seating areas and on top of hospitality and other temporary structures, Cisco also had some mobile AP placements on towers in strategic locations.

According to Cisco, it brought in gear to create a 10 Gbps backbone for the Wi-Fi network, also including support for tournament back of house operations on that backbone. Static signage at the event directed fans to the Wi-Fi network, and since Cisco also sponsored this year’s U.S. Open mobile app, users of that were also alerted to the free Wi-Fi on the property.

Cisco Vision on the driving range

On the display side of things, Cisco also utilized its Cisco Vision IPTV display management system to help bring more interesting information to fans at the venue. Especially interesting was the incorporation of the Toptracer shot-tracking graphics to show live player performances on the driving range, with the ability to map multiple players and provide a range of stats on shot distance and speed.

The tournament, especially Sunday’s thrilling victory by Gary Woodland over the close-finishing Brooks Koepka, no doubt presented many networking challenges, especially when fans randomly thronged to tee-box areas to try to get a photo or a video of players teeing off.

“Our digital integration with Cisco provided us the opportunity to elevate the fan experience and provide more connectivity than any previous U.S. Open,” said Navin Singh, chief commercial officer of the USGA, ina prepared statement. “We also learned a lot and recognize that mobile consumption demands are only going to continue to grow. We are excited to get to work on providing an even better experience in 2020 at the 120th U.S. Open at Winged Foot.”

More photos from Pebble Beach below.

An on-course mobile AP placement. Credit: Cisco


Digital device use soared at the U.S. Open whenever Tiger Woods was around. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (Screen shot of Fox TV broadcast)

A leaderboard provided space for an AP placement. Credit: Cisco

Toptracer shot-tracking graphics at the driving range, powered by Cisco Vision. Credit: Cisco

Fans clustered around tee boxes, putting extra stress on the network. Credit: Keith Newman, MSR

WaitTime arrives at Sydney Cricket Ground

WaitTime monitor at Sydney Cricket Ground. Credit: WaitTime

Monitors powered by WaitTime showing fans how much time they might spend getting concessions are now live at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia, another big deal for the fan-services startup.

With 59 dedicated monitors positioned around the 46,000-seat venue in Moor Park, Australia, WaitTime can let fans know in real time how long it might take them to get something from a nearby concession stand, with left-or-right pointers showing them the way.

While the deal itself is another solid customer win for the Detroit-based startup, WaitTime CEO Zachary Klima said the Sydney Cricket Ground deal was significant from another standpoint, as it was the first done in conjunction with stadium technology giant Cisco and its Cisco Vision IPTV display management system.

According to Klima, the Cisco Vision system can be used at Sydney Cricket Ground to administer the WaitTime displays, which exclusively show WaitTime content. “This is our most significant partner,” Klima said of Cisco, calling it a potential “tipping point” for the company as it attempts to bring its display application to more venues.

By using its now-patented system of cameras mounted near concession stands and artificial-intelligence software to help parse the camera information, WaitTime can provide real-time information mainly on the length of lines at stands, so fans can decide the best way to use their concourse time. Originally planned as a mobile-only application, WaitTime has found growing acceptance for its monitor-based systems, including at American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. Klima said the WaitTime service will be added to the Sydney Cricket Ground app in the near future, but the monitors went live at the end of May.

Rendering of what the monitors at Sydney Cricket Ground might look like