Pandemic planning puts focus on venue entry, concessions

Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is using signage messages to help fans stay socially distanced. Credit: Miami Dolphins

As some venues take baby steps forward in allowing limited fan attendance at events, for most venues the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are forcing owners and operators to take a longer look at the technologies and procedures that can help provide safer situations for large crowds inside public spaces for the foreseeable future.

And if keeping fans farther apart from each other is one of the simplest and best methods of enabling safer gatherings, it makes sense that many venues and technology and service providers are currently concentrating on venue entry and concession operations, with an eye toward using technology and procedures to cut down or eliminate the long lines that have long been a part of a game-day experience.

Before the pandemic changed events forever, many venues and fans were stuck in the systems and practices that had been the same for decades. While some forward-looking venues were experimenting with innovative digital technologies for entry and concessions operations, most were still caught somewhere in between the past and the future, with a mix of digital ticketing, paper tickets, cash transactions for parking and concessions, and bottleneck walkway traffic situations often caused by the random geography of stadiums, some built as long as 100 years ago. Fan behavior often contributed to these crowded situations, with the last-minute crush of entries from people who stayed at tailgate gatherings until just before kickoff a somewhat unwanted tradition at many stadiums across the country. But now, all that has changed.

The forced changes of Covid

In a wide series of interviews with venue owners and operators, team representatives, and technology manufacturers and service providers, we’ve seen general agreement with the idea that many of the “old ways of doing things” at events will no longer be possible as the pandemic continues, and most likely even after it subsides from its current critical state. Going forward, events in large public venues will need to adopt technologies and procedures aimed at not just keeping fans safe, but also to make them feel safe, and confident that the stadium operation is doing all it can in those regards.

The two areas of operations we are focusing on with this story are the two that easily account for the high- est potential of long lines: Stadium entry, and concessions. While historically these two operations have been fan-experience pain points in almost every venue, the good news is that mature technologies already exist to help solve for problems in both areas – and some best practices have already emerged from forward-looking venues and providers who embraced these ideas prior to the pandemic. What follows is a look at some of the technologies and services available for entry and concessions operations, with insights from early adopters and from the companies involved in the deployments.

Digital tickets and faster scanning

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue are profiles of the technology behind two of the most innovative venues to ever open, SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! START READING NOW!

Just like when airline ticketing went from printed paper to mostly mobile-device systems, so has the stadium and event entry business been changing. Prior to the pandemic, most venues of any size had at least some kind of digital ticketing system in place, with many moving to digital-only processes over the past few years. While there were still some holdouts, most of the people we interviewed agreed that the desire to make activities like parking lot and stadium entry faster and contact-free is now driving venues to adopt digital ticketing at a rapid pace.

“The tone has completely changed,” said Karri Zaremba, who until recently was chief operating officer at stadium app developer Venuetize (Zaremba is now a senior vice president with Major League Baseball, for ballpark experience and ticketing). According to Zaremba, this past summer teams and venues were showing “an eagerness and hunger” for digital ticketing systems that Venuetize hadn’t seen before.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out a plan to reform venues and remove humans from the [interaction] equation,” Zaremba said.

George Baker, founder and CEO of parking technology provider ParkHub, agreed that the need to reduce hand-to-hand or face-to-face transactions is driving more technology in venue entry, beginning at the gate to the parking lot. ParkHub, which recently signed a deal with venue management firm Spectra to provide parking-lot technology to Spectra-managed properties, also raised an additional $15 million in venture funding this spring to help accelerate its business.

Parking attendants can scan digital tickets, a safer and faster alternative than cash. Credit: ParkHub

According to Baker, while fans may have long resisted any changes to the way things have always been done, he is confident that the safety of digital transactions, plus the expanding features available via digital platforms – such as premium lot differentiation and the ability to reserve spots ahead of time – will accelerate the use of technology in parking lot entry as well as many other game-day transactions. And as more fans use digital payment methods for parking, teams and venues can also better manage their inventory, with real-time updates.

“For venues, it’s no longer a nicety, it’s a necessity,” said Baker of digital transactions.

One venue that has made a name for itself by its use of innovative fan-facing technology is the Los Angeles Football Club’s Banc of California Stadium, which opened in 2018. Christian Lau, chief technology officer for Major League Soccer’s LAFC, said contact-free entry and transactions have always been a part of the venue’s plan.

In fact, before the pandemic started the club was working with security technology provider Patriot One to help develop a new entry-gate system that would include innovations including eliminating the need for the single-person metal detectors as well as future support for entry via facial recognition technology. LAFC is using entry gate technology from Axess, a Salzburg, Austria- based provider.

“It is all part of redefining our great fan experience, and redefining the security stack,” said Lau. “We want to let you walk into the stadium like you’re walking into a Target store.”

Other venues, including the University of Oklahoma, are already borrowing from the airline playbook, by putting in more self-scanning ticket kiosks. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the first pro football teams allowing fans to attend in limited numbers, said they have installed new metal detectors that allow fans to keep things like keys and cell phones in their pockets when entering. Kim Rometo, vice president and CIO for the Miami Dolphins, said that Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium now has “walk-through, multi-zone metal detectors” that let fans keep items in their pockets to speed up entry.

Temperature scans are a costly addition

One technology that got a lot of attention this summer was thermal detection devices, usually cameras that could scan people to detect a high body temperature, one of the signs of a possible Covid-19 infection. While such cameras are already in use in some places like airports, we have yet to find a major U.S. sports venue that has committed to installing thermal cameras for fan entry. The reason why? A combination of high costs (each scanner device can cost $10,000 or more) and unclear results, especially when used in large-scale operations like fans coming in to an event.

While many sports teams are using thermal detection devices to help keep staff and players safe as they enter team buildings and the stadiums, the prospect of trying to extend those operations to thousands of fans is a problem that requires an extra level of operational procedures. Chip Swisher, director in the smart solutions practice at CenturyLink, said venues looking to install thermal detection systems need to consider placement (since the cameras do not work as well in bright sunlight) and other mitigating factors, like fans just getting hot from being in the sun at a tailgate party. Teams will also need to develop procedures on how to handle fans who do show a high temperature, either with cooling tents (where they can be re-tested after a short time period) or with further testing or ways to refuse entry.

At some venues temperature checks are being performed, by staff members with handheld devices, a process that may possibly introduce more safety issues than it solves by forcing the person-to-person proximity. For most venues, the temperature-check process is currently a “wait and see” item, as they monitor what other venues are doing and what, if any, requirements for temperature checks are made by local governent or health officials.

Spacing and timed entry and departure

If television views of some of the first games with fans allowed in the stands are any proof, the idea of keeping fans spaced far apart in the stands seems to be working, except at some college games where students apparently violated safety precautions by massing together once inside the venue, often without masks.

For most teams that are starting to allow fans into stadiums, the digital ticket and the team or stadium application is the primary vehicle for keeping fans at safe distances when they enter and stay at the venue.

“We stretched existing solutions to meeting the need [for distancing],” said the Dolphins’ Rometo. “Ticketmaster introduced the ability to define seating pods for social distance and space them six feet from one another. We [also] program the digital tickets to display the preferred gate for social distancing along with a specific entry time. All social distancing signage will be displayed on Cisco Vision throughout the concourses and we augmented eight LED boards at entrances to communicate entrance times.”

While some venues have floated the idea of having set departure times, Rometo said that at Hard Rock Stadium fans can leave at any time they choose. If they stay until the end, she said, ushers will try to dismiss rows in an order to keep social distancing – but added that the space available inside the venue should keep crowds from forming.

“Hard Rock Stadium can hold more than 65,000 so we fully expect dismissing 13,000 will still occur in a timely fashion,” said Rometo of the team’s expected early attendance allowance.

And while some teams are eliminating tailgating completely, others like the Kansas City Chiefs are implementing spacing protocols in the parking lots, with every other space blocked off so that fans can’t park side by side.

Concessions: Lessons learned from retail, fast food

If there was one place in many stadiums that needed an overhaul even before the pandemic, it was concessions. According to Moon Javaid, chief strategy officer for the San Francisco 49ers, customer experience surveys have consistently shown concessions to be “the lowest-rated aspect” across all sports.

Anothy Perez, CEO of stadium app developer VenueNext, explained why that experience has been poor at so many venues for so long.

New kiosks from Appetize will be used in the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field when it allows fans back in. Credit: Appetize

“Deviating from the normal is a risk,” Perez said. “If you stick to the old wisdom and something goes wrong, it’s not your fault.”

But the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Perez said, “gives you cover to try something new. It’s a paradigm shift.”

With her Venuetize hat on, Zaremba said that many venues might not have moved forward faster with innovative concessions strategies in part to avoid alienating older customers.

“All that is now out the window,” Zaremba said. New methods of contact-free or lower-contact transactions, she said, are “going to be demanded” by fans who have gotten used to such interactions in the daily life of the pandemic, where most restaurant meals are now primarily consumed by to-go pickup or via delivery, with payments made electronically or via phone by credit card.

According to our interviews, many venues are quickly moving to change as much of their concessions operations as they can to more contact-free or even contactless transactions, where fans don’t have to talk face to face with concessions staff. Last year, the Denver Broncos had several new options along these lines at Empower Field at Mile High, including grab-and-go beverage stores that were basically rows of coolers where fans could take whatever canned or bottled beverages they wanted, and pay for them using an optical scanner (manufactured by Mashgin).

Other options in Denver included kiosk ordering for a chicken stand and several grab-and-go formats where prepackaged food was available to fans to take and pay for, again at a Mashgin scanner.

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in 2019 use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Kevin Anderson, chief strategy officer for stadium point-of-sale systems developer Appetize, said venues are realizing that if they didn’t have contact-free concessions systems in place, they need to rapidly do so, “because it’s the future.” Appetize, which powered the systems at the Broncos’ stadium, is currently in the process of bringing more than 50 self-service kiosks to the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, which hopes to be able to host fans sometime later this season.

Though kiosks do involve the process of touching a screen, Anderson said most people have confidence that a finger touch is a low-risk possibility of virus transmittal.

“The highest likelihood of transmittal is person to person,” Anderson said, voting for kiosks as a safer alternative. To help keep the process even safer, Anderson said Appetize’s new screens have a “hospital grade” screen protector that resists contamination. The kiosks, he said, will also have hand sanitizer bottles attached for fans to use.

The Niners’ Javaid said the team had already made a decision to bring in more kiosk stations for some of its regular concessions areas, because it not only reduces lines, but it also reduces the staffing requirements of a regular concession stand.

“Staffing is expensive, and for us [in Silicon Valley] it’s hard to get people,” said Javaid of the part-time work that maybe involves 10 events a year. For regular concession stands, Javaid said, the Niners would use four cashiers and four food expediters. But with a kiosk system, he said, one person can handle the same number of orders, allowing the team to repurpose the staff to other positions.

“And with kiosks, people can stand wherever [to wait for their orders],” Javaid noted. “You don’t have to stand in line.”

Team and stadium apps get a new life with concessions

Appetize, like other POS developers, also supports mobile ordering and payment for their concessions customers, another area where many venues are stepping up current order-by-phone operations or adding them if they didn’t previously support them. At LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium fans have been able to use several methods to order concessions digitally, including via the team’s Venuetize-built app, or by using Apple Business Chat, or by simply scanning a QR code on a sign near a stand, which brings up a web page with menus, ordering and payment instructions, making such transactions available on the fly.

When VenueNext was born as the provider of the stadium app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium in 2014, the company was an all-or-nothing proposition for doing everything inside the app, including the venue’s since-discontinued feature of having in-seat delivery available to every seat in the house. Perez, who took over the CEO spot in 2018, has shifted the company’s strategy to embrace other mobile-ordering options like web-based QR-code menus, and added a POS back-end system to support more mobile-ordering options. VenueNext debuted its new mobile systems last season at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka “The Swamp.”

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 in 2019. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Venues going all-mobile or mostly mobile for concessions may allow teams and venues to rethink their concourse real estate and possibly innovate by adding space for fan engagement or sponsor activation, Perez said.

“What really gets interesting is how you can open up spaces” in the venue by streamlining concessions operations, Perez said. “The beauty of mobile is that you can completely decouple shopping, ordering, paying and fulfillment.”

LAFC’s Lau noted that there is still an operational component to the contact-free experience, namely designing systems that have necessary nuances, like scheduling pickup times so that fans aren’t all in the same area at the same time.

“You don’t want the pickup lines to back up,” Lau said. “You need to eliminate lines, eliminate the friction of lines.”

One more concessions trend that some stadiums (like Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium) had experimented with, having completely cashless transactions, will now likely be the norm going forward given the safety concerns associated with exchanging paper money.

“Venues were dipping their toes in the water before, on cashless, but now they’re leapfrogging ahead,” said Zaremba, whose former company Venuetize is exploring options that include biometrics that would allow fans to “order with their face.” At Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the venue has partnered with security provider Clear for a few concession stands that let fans pay for concessions with a fingerprint reader, after first signing up to the Clear system.

If there is one other cutting-edge idea emerging, it’s the Niners’ plan to make concessions all-inclusive for season ticket holders, a plan that was developed before the pandemic as part of the team’s overall overhaul of its concessions operations.

When the Niners have fans present to roll out their all-inclusive concessions operations – where all season-ticket holders will have a menu of the most popular food and non-alcoholic beverages available as part of their ticket prices – they will use technology to assist the deployment, including using the Cisco Vision display management system to provide menu and directional information via TV screens, and to also incorporate the camera-based fan movement technology system developed by WaitTime to gather information on how fans move about in the concourse and concession areas.

WaitTime, which originally developed a mobile app to help fans find out where concession and restroom lines were shortest – and then added a version teams could broadcast on digital displays – is now pivoting to add more granular data from its camera-based systems for Covid safety and contact-free concession deployments.

Zachary Klima, WaitTime CEO, said that teams are going to need better information on where fans are moving inside venues to build reliable, safe procedures for the new normal.

“Tape on the floor can only go so far,” Klima said. “It’s better for teams to know where people are, and where they aren’t.”

The Niners’ Javaid agreed with the data-driven approach.

“How are people queueing? I need to understand that,” Javaid said. “We’ve never done this before, so I need data.”

What’s Next: The uncertain path forward in the ‘Return to Venues’

When will venues like Ohio State’s ‘Horseshoe’ be full of fans again? Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, STR (click on any picture for a larger image)

As the world endures the summer of the global coronavirus pandemic, there is only one thing certain in the world of large public venues and mass-attendance events: Nobody, anywhere, has any complete idea what is going on right now, or exactly what the future holds for live audiences at sporting events or concerts.

To be sure, sports of all kinds are starting to test the waters on how they might return to action after the initial coronavirus shutdowns, and eventually how they might start welcoming fans back into their venues. But without any coherent top-down direction from the federal government, and what looks like an even bigger surge of new virus infections, the current state of how fans will return to venues in the U.S. is an uncoordinated chaos, with teams, leagues, schools, governments and fans all trying to find a way forward on their own that balances the need for safety with the desire to see live events in person.

After conducting a wide-ranging series of interviews with subject matter experts, industry thought leaders and representatives from teams, schools, leagues and venues earlier this year, Stadium Tech Report has come to some early conclusions about what the remainder of 2020 and beyond might look like for the world of professional and big-school sports. While all of these are still only best guesses as to what might happen, there are some trends that seem to be the way most operations will proceed as the search for a vaccine or some other type of coronavirus cure or treatment goes on.

1. Get ready for more events without any fans, maybe until next year.

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue is a look at a new Wi-Fi 6 network for Dodger Stadium, plus a profile of Globe Life Field! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

In our research partnership with AmpThink (see Bill Anderson column) Stadium Tech Report agrees that the AmpThink-developed theory of a “stages of return” process is what we think most venues will need to go through in order to safely start allowing fans to attend events again. The first two parts of that process, getting government approval to open the doors to crowds and satisfying liability issues surrounding the safety of people in any building, are a combination that we see likely to push many venues into hosting events without fans – or in some cases, with severely restricted numbers of fans – since having only competitors and necessary staff, and perhaps a small number of fans inside the venues is likely an order of magnitude easier (and cheaper) to accomplish.

Granted, there are many sports and concert operations that may not have any incentive to hold events without fans, since their revenue models may lean heavily on game-day spending for food and beverage. However, the bigger sports with big TV deals would at least be able to earn some percentage of their incomes by holding empty-stadium events that would still be broadcast. Some sports, like NASCAR, bull riding and some independent minor-league baseball teams, have had limited-attendance events already. The PGA had proposed letting some fans in to the Memorial Tournament this week, but those plans were scrubbed in the face of the recent virus surges.

Right now the NBA and the MLS are in motion with plans to finish their seasons in a “bubble” type atmosphere in Orlando, where teams would be sequestered and would play at close-by facilities. The NHL and Major League Baseball are also in motion with plans for similar shortened seasons, with NHL teams playing in two cities in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) while MLB teams will play 60 regular-season games in regional circuits.

College sports, with larger rosters and no ability to enact a pro league-type “bubble,” may not see any sports this fall. Already, the Ivy League has canceled sports for the rest of the year while two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, have eliminated non-conference games in order to provide more flexibility in scheduling. Even then, representatives in those conferences admit that the end result may be fully canceled seasons.

And in the NFL, teams are already publicly planning for reduced-capacity seating if games take place at all, and if so if they are allowed to have fans in the stands.

The key thing similar to all the ideas? Even with contract agreements in place, some of those plans still face huge hurdles when it comes to testing, quarantines and overall health concerns for both participants and guests, factors that may eventually end any or all of the experiments before seasons can be finished. There is also a new growing social concern over pro leagues having instant access to Covid-19 testing while the rest of the nation is starting to struggle again with getting tests and results.

A crowded concourse at Ohio Stadium in 2019. Venues will be challenged to keep fans apart during the pandemic.

Since President Trump’s administration has made no effort to provide any type of national guidance for Covid-19 responses — especially for the re-opening of businesses — the result in sports is an ever-changing overlap of directions, with some governors proclaiming that their states are ready to host big events with fans in stands, while other state and international leaders are saying that they won’t allow big public events like sports and concerts to have fans in attendance until perhaps 2021.

No matter what the state or local governments decide, satisfying the combination of the second stage of the “return to venues” model – addressing the legal liability of the venues – and the third stage, which is gaining confidence of the fans – will likely push many venues to hold fan-free events first, while they work on plans and technology deployments to help get them to a place where they can earn government approval to open, to feel legally confident that they can keep fans safe, and then convince fans of that feeling.

While there will always likely be some fans willing to attend events no matter what the risk is, with national polls showing that a majority of people in the country are still in favor of restricting business activity to keep everyone safe from the virus, it might not make business sense for venues to try to open widely if big crowds don’t want to show up just yet. And events with less than full-house attendance may also not be economically feasible for many venues, given the large costs associated with just opening the doors of a stadium-sized facility; if you can’t make enough money to cover costs with a smaller audience, does it make sense to hold the event at all?

So just from a baseline measure of costs, safety and operational complexity, the feedback we’ve received from our interviews leads us to guess that most “big” events for the rest of the year will have no fans or strictly limited, small amounts of fans in attendance, if the events happen at all.

2. When fans do return to venues, new technologies and processes will be required, especially for venue entry and for concessions.

When it comes to social distancing to keep the virus from spreading, at large public venues it’s all about the lines.

With the prospect of an all-clear vaccine a year away at best, after some time the economic pressures of the current closures may become untenable if teams and venues want to survive as businesses. So, opening venues to some number of fans before a vaccine is available seems extremely likely; and in all discussions we’ve had so far, it’s apparent that venues believe they will need to enforce social distancing among guests, much like we are all doing in various phases of public activity today.

In seating areas, social distancing will be an easier task, given that venues can more easily keep seats unsold or erect barriers to keep unrelated groups apart from each other. The real problem with social distancing in stadiums comes from lines, a historical commonplace occurrence at entryways, on concourses and at places like concession stands and restrooms. To eliminate lines and to keep guests from inadvertently getting too close to one another, venues are likely going to need to deploy some kind of combination of technology and procedures to streamline the logjams we all used to just tolerate as part of the game-day experience.

Venues may require cashless transactions during the pandemic, like this stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium did in 2018.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, entry to almost all stadiums in the U.S. has become a more lengthy procedure than it was before thanks to the use of metal detectors. Physical checks of handbags or large coats have further slowed entry procedures in general, as have newer forms of identification for digital ticketing that required a live network connection at the point of ticket scanning.

Even in the face of all those barriers, many fans at big events still waited until near start time at tailgate parties or other outside-the-venue events, leading to large traffic jams of fans at the entry doors near the starting times. To allow fans to attend large events during a pandemic, however, fans may be asked to arrive even earlier to go through more thorough security checks that may include new procedures for temperature scans and perhaps even blood oxygen-level scanning; some venues may even choose to implement on-the-spot testing for Covid-19, new procedures that will likely force many venues to expand the geographic area needed to support all the new entry procedures.

New technologies, some of which have already been put in use in limited deployments, may offer some help in entryway procedures. The use of near-field communications (NFC) systems to allow personal devices to be scanned for valid tickets without having to present the devices could theoretically significantly speed up entry lines, with the caveat being that fans would have to adopt such payment or ticketing systems before arriving. Other venues are also looking at newer forms of threat-detection devices like metal detectors that can scan groups of people at a single pass instead of the airport-style one-person gate that is currently the de facto standard.

A no-tech additional solution being considered by other venues is the idea of reserved or staggered entry times, which could streamline the process if fans are able to or forced to comply. Similar methods have already been proposed for departure, with fans being instructed by section or row by row when it’s safe to leave.

The idea of entering at any gate and being able to wander around the entire stadium may also be something eliminated during a social-distancing audience phase. Some venues are considering highly regulated “zones” inside venues to keep fans apart. What is true of all plans, technology-aided or not, is that any new measures will require huge amounts of communication outreach to fans, a large amount of training and even new staffing for stadium workforces, and a new level of compliance, regulation and policing, all extra-cost measures during a time of significantly reduced revenues.

The contact-free concessions experience

Over the past year or so, many large public venues have already tested or had small deployments of so- called “contact-free” concessions technologies, where fans could order and pay for concessions via their mobile device, then either picking up orders at a specified window or having orders delivered to their seats. Other stadiums have already experimented with various forms of “grab and go” concessions stands, where pre-made items are offered for fans to take, with some deployments also featuring self-scan payment options.

The general idea of having fewer or no human interactions at all for concessions transactions will likely be the most widespread technology and process change for venues opening up during the pandemic. For most of the venue representatives we spoke to, plans that were already in place for some move to contact-free concessions operations will likely just be accelerated since such deployments will probably remain popular even after concerns about virus transmissions subside.

Grab-and-go concession stands, like this one at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High in 2019, may be more prevalent in the near future.

Another trend that had already started in some venues and will likely only accelerate due to pandemic concerns is the move to “cash free” operations, where only digital payment methods are allowed. Though some states have laws prohibiting the complete elimination of cash payments inside venues, it will be interesting to see whether security and health concerns about the virus-spreading possibility of exchanging cash will force changes to those regulations. Some stadiums that have started cash-free operations have provided reverse-ATM type machines where cash can be deposited and stored on a machine-produced debit card for use in that venue. But those machines are costly to operate, and may not be necessary if opposition to cash-free operations declines.

One area of food service where there isn’t much consensus yet on what is to come is the area of club and other premium spaces, which in the past few years have mainly trended toward buffet-style offerings, sometimes as part of an all-inclusive cost system. While safety concerns have some observers predicting an early demise for the large-venue buffet, others see possibilities of having more closely staffed buffet operations, like the cafeterias of the past where a server (most likely behind a glass shield) can prepare individual plates. Premium suite services are also seen as an area heading for massive changes, with more prepackaged food and beverage options likely instead of the traditional steam-tray or open-serve catered offerings previously found in most venues.

3. Critical networks will be needed to support everything new and old

If there ever really was a question about whether or not wireless networks were needed inside venues, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has removed all doubt. According to several sources we’ve talked to, some networking deployments or upgrade plans that had been “on the fence” prior to the outbreak have now been quickly green-lighted, as venues everywhere realize that critical networks will be even more important going forward, as new technologies and new procedures demand increased levels of connectivity.

On the technology side, it is clear that if venues are looking to add new layers of devices like sensors and threat detectors, there is going to be a need for greater wireless connectivity, sometimes in new areas of the venue that may not have previously had a priority for bandwidth. Entry areas in particular, and perhaps also spaces just outside venues, will likely need more carrier-class connectivity going forward, as venues seek to automate more transactions like ticket-taking and parking payments.

Installation of more mobile concessions technology, like kiosks and even vending machines, will also increase the need for overall connectivity, as will a shift to more fans using mobile devices for concessions ordering and payments as described previously. Venues are also likely going to want to increase the amount of digital displays in their buildings, to assist with crowd control, wayfinding and social-distancing policing – again leading to more demand for both wired and wireless connectivity.

Layer in more increases in communication demands just from a fan-education standpoint as well as any growth in demand for public safety and other operational needs and it’s clear that providing or upgrading existing networks to a much more robust state is probably the first to-do item on many venues’ work lists as they seek to support the return to venues. The good news is, from a technology and market perspective, there may not be a better time to be seeking new horsepower and capacity on a wireless-networking front.

On the Wi-Fi side, the advent of Wi-Fi 6 networking gear – now available from most top vendors – should provide a large boost in performance and capacity for venue networks, at costs only slightly higher than the past generation of equipment.

On the cellular side, 4G DAS networks remain a key tool in bringing a multi-carrier solution to providing basic access to most devices, while the arrival of nascent 5G services will enable carriers and venues to bring new kinds of services to guests, including applications with low-latency needs like virtual reality and other high- bandwidth broadcasts. Also, the emergence of networks using the CBRS bandwidth for potential “private” LTE networks may provide venues with an additional method of adding secure, standards-based communications for things like back-of-house operations, in-venue gaming, and Wi-Fi like services or Wi-Fi backhaul to areas where Wi-Fi signals can’t reach.

While budgetary concerns, venue aesthetics and demand for levels of services will still likely make overall networking choices a very local decision, the idea of trying to move forward in a pandemic age without a high level of basic wireless connectivity seems to be a non-starter.

A situation that changes day to day

As we said at the start — right now, the only thing everyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. From our interviews, however, it is very apparent that for almost all the people we have talked to, few see standing still as a viable alternative. There are almost assuredly going to be some missteps, some money and time spent on technologies or procedures that don’t pan out, some anger and frustration on all sides, as we all adjust to new ways of doing things we’d long taken for granted. There will also be successful moves, victories small and big, which we hope to share to help accelerate the “Return to Venues” as much as possible.

Here at Stadium Tech Report, nothing has changed in our core directive — trying to help bring the best information possible to our readers so that they can be successful in operating their venues.

Appetize sees more contact-free concessions for venues going forward

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

While the timeline for fans returning to large public venues for sports and events is still uncertain, one thing that does seem inevitable is that the future of stadium concessions will see more ways for fans to get food and beverages without human interactions.

That’s certainly the view from Appetize, one of the top players in the venue point-of-sale technology business. In a recent call with Appetize chief strategy officer Kevin Anderson, he said the last few weeks have been among the busiest in company history, as teams, schools and venues seek ways to make concessions operations more touch-free going forward. Though there are no government mandates yet making such technologies a necessity to open venues, it makes sense that when events come back fans might be feel safer using technology-aided methods like ordering and paying online, or paying with touchless device systems (like Apple Pay), as opposed to traditional human-based counter interactions.

“Most of our customers, including venues and managed-service food companies, are realizing that if their venues are not able to accept [contactless] payments today they will have to — and if they don’t have mobile or online ordering, they will need to do that as well,” Anderson said.

App- or web-based ordering should increase

Appetize, which sells a wide range of software and hardware for stadium and other point-of-sale systems, has also recently added support for web-based ordering in venues, something that other vendors like VenueNext have also rolled out. While stadium and team apps with support for in-venue food ordering (with either delivery or pick-up options) have been around in various forms for several years, the idea of a web-based “app” with similar functionality is a newer and growing idea, one that could gain even more traction whenever venues open again.

An Appetize screenshot of what a mobile payment screen could look like.

What web-based systems have in their favor is that they can be used by fans almost instantly, without having to go through the process of downloading an app.

A web-ordering system, Anderson said, “is very well positioned for a post-Covid world” since it could give venues the flexibility of a walk-up encounter without the human interaction. In one scenario Anderson said fans could use their device’s camera to scan a sign or display with a QR code, which would bring up a menu for the concession stand close to the sign. Fans can then order and pay without having to stand in a line, and get an alert to pick up their order when it is ready.

“Venues are not going to bulldoze concession stands, but they will have to figure out how to space out people in lines and how to incentivize people to pay with contactless systems,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be the future.”

Still bullish on touch-screen kiosks

Anderson also thinks that touch-screen kiosks will still be popular going forward, even if some people feel less safe touching a payment or ordering screen.

“We’re still bullish on kiosks,” said Anderson, who said 90 percent of Appetize’s venue deployments included some kind of touch-screen system. For many of its systems, Anderson said Appetize uses antimicrobial screen protectors, and going forward they foresee having sanitization stations near any touch-screen device.

“If you just use one finger to touch the screen and then you sanitize it after you’re done, that’s still better than being two feet away from someone speaking to you,” Anderson said.

Other less-human-contact ideas for venue concessions include more vending machines and grab-and-go type windows, where prepared, boxed items will help keep fans safer. Appetize is also already working on systems where food and beverages can be placed inside lockers that fans can access with a mobile device.

“I think you’ll see more concession stands flipped inside out, where you can just grab a sandwich in a package with a bar code and go,” Anderson said.

MSR Behind the profiles: 2019 Final Four, part 2

On the press bus to the stadium for the semifinals. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Over the course of the last year, I’ve had several requests from readers to shed more light on what goes on “behind the scenes” on my various stadium visits. Here’s the first in a planned series I’m calling “Behind the profiles,” giving you some flavor of the fun and interesting things and people I experience on my trips to check out stadium technology deployments. In honor of the basketball tournaments we are all now missing, here is my “trip diary” from my visit last year to Minneapolis to see how U.S. Bank Stadium’s Wi-Fi networks held up under the big-game stress — along with some other interesting side trips! Please let me know if you find these interesting or fun to read and I will write some more… 2019 was a true banner year for MSR visits!

(If you need to catch up, here is part 1 of this missive)

Sunday, April 7: Geeking out on Wi-Fi 6

If Saturday had been all about walking around, my Final Four Sunday was all about staying in. But the day of relative inaction on the basketball court played right into my strategy for the weekend, which was: Find a way to maximize my four days in Minneapolis to get the most work done possible.

Sunday, that meant I was all in with the AmpThink team, basically on two levels. One, I wanted to get a real in-depth look at the temporary Wi-Fi network the company had installed at U.S. Bank Stadium to cover the seats that weren’t part of the stadium’s usual football configuration. For the Final Four, that mean extra seats along the courtside “sidelines” that actually were erected over the lower-bowl football seats and then extended out to the edge of the hardwood floor, as well as all the temporary seats in each end zone that stretched the same way out to the basketball court.

An AmpThink under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure at the Final Four.

After a “team breakfast” at a great breakfast-diner kind of place the AmpThink team and I got inside the arena in a break between practices (you are not allowed near the court when practices are going on) and I got an up-close look at how AmpThink stretched the network from the football configuration out to the temporary Final Four floor. Though AmpThink covered most of the bowl seating at U.S. Bank Stadium with innovative railing-mounted antenna enclosures (which Verizon copied when it added DAS capacity ahead of Super Bowl 52, which was held in the stadium the year before), for the temporary seating AmpThink went with an under-seat design, with AP boxes located under the folding chairs and switches located underneath the risers.

The temporary network, as it turned out, worked very well, but the funniest story to come out of the deployment was one of theft — after Saturday’s games the network analysis showed one of the APs offline. Further exploration by the AmpThink team found that the AP itself was no longer around — some net-head fan had apparently discovered that the under-seat enclosures were not secured, and for some reason thought that a Cisco Wi-Fi AP would make for a fine Final Four gift to take home. My guess is that future temporary networks might see some zip-ties used to lock things down.

After a cool tour underneath the temporary stands to see how AmpThink wired things, we spent the better part of the afternoon hanging out and talking about Wi-Fi 6, a topic the AmpThink brain trust was well wired on. Eventually that day of brainstorming, interviewing and collaboration led to the joint AmpThink/MSR Wi-Fi 6 Research Report, which of course you may download for free.

It was the best use possible I could think of for the “day off” Sunday, where if you are involved with the Final Four you are basically waiting around until Monday night. And since the AmpThink team is rarely ever in one place together for a full day — later that year, for example, AmpThink would be busy deploying new networks at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Dickies Arena — it was an extremely cool opportunity to be able to spend time tapping the knowledge of AmpThink president Bill Anderson and his top lieutenants.

Still feeling the physical effects of my Saturday — and knowing Monday would be even more taxing — I headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon, catching the end of the women’s Final Four at the second of the two local brewpubs next to the Marriott. Though the championship game wouldn’t take place until Monday evening, I had an early start ahead to a long day of again, maximizing those stories.

Monday, April 8: Allianz Field, the Mall of America, and the championship game

Every quarter, Mobile Sports Report tries to find a good mix of profiles to educate its readership. Typically we try to keep the profiles in season, for relevance and timing. But other times, you just go get a good story because it’s interesting. Or, if you can, you do multiple stories on one plane ticket, something that speaks to the bottom line of being an entrepreneurial startup that has to keep an eye on the budget.

So while other “media” at the Final Four may have been taking late breakfasts or hitting the gym Monday morning, I was in an Uber out to Allianz Field, the new home of the MLS Minnesota United. Though it wasn’t scheduled to open until later in April, the folks behind the networking technology — a local company called Atomic Data — had agreed to give MSR a look-around at the Wi-Fi deployment, a great opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

An under-seat Wi-Fi enclosure at Allianz Field.

Yagya Mahadevan, enterprise project manager for Atomic Data and sort of the live-in maestro for the network at Allianz Field, met us at the entry gate and gave us the full stadium walk-around, which was great to have, bad hip issues be damned. I really liked the tour and being able to write the story about how Atomic Data got its feet in the door at a major professional venue, and hope the company can do the same for other venues in the future. I’m also hoping to get back to Allianz Field for a live game when such things start happening again, because the place just looks sharp and I am kind of all in on the way MLS teams are tapping into the fan experience without charging hundreds of dollars a seat like some other pro leagues in the U.S.

After an hour or so of touring Allianz Field it was back in another Uber to the Mall of America, where I had scheduled an interview with Janette Smrcka, then the information technology director for the Mall. (Janette is now part of the technology team at SoFi Stadium, and we hope to have more talks with her soon!) Janette, who I had gotten to know while reporting on the Wi-Fi deployment at the Mall of America, had told me about a cool new project involving wayfinding directories at the Mall, a story which fit perfectly with the new Venue Display Report series we were launching last year.

After sitting down with Janette to get the specifics on the display gear I went into the Mall itself and wandered around for a while (OK, I also did stop to get a chocolate shake at the Shake Shack) watching people use the directories. My unscientific survey showed that people used them quite a bit, with all the design elements Janette and her team coming into play, like deducing that people would be more willing to use smaller-sized displays since they could shield them with their bodies, making the interaction more private. Little things do matter in technology, and it’s not always the technology that matters.

In the mall you couldn’t forget what was going on that weekend — as if the fans wandering around in their school gear would let you. I jumped back on the light rail to get back to the hotel and had my media-celebrity moment heading up to my room, when John Feinstein himself held the door to the elevator so I could get there in time.

Wi-Fi, hoops and a brat and a beer

As soon as I got to the stadium on the press bus I skipped the whole press working-room thing and headed up to the football press box to secure a spot. Turns out I didn’t need to worry as most of the media still either wanted to be closer to the court or closer to the workroom to get their stories done on deadline. Fine for all us. By now I had completely learned all the elevator and escalator pathways I needed to know to get around the stadium in record time. I took Wi-Fi speedtests, I took DAS speedtests, I watched the crowd get into the excitement of being at the “big game.”

Some Final Four fans using directories at the Mall of America.

For sure, part of the fun of attending bucket-list events these days is tied to the mobile device. A big part of the fun. I watched many, many people take pictures of themselves and their companions, take pictures or videos of the action on the court, or just (in some cases) walk around with their phones on video broadcast, relaying the live scene to an audience of who knows who. To me that’s one of the main points of these networks our industry sets up and runs — enabling those who are lucky enough to be there live to be able to share that experience, somewhat instantly, with those closest to them (or their imagined wider audiences).

Though these stadium visits can sometimes be lonely and somewhat strange — I mean, who’s there to cheer for the Wi-Fi? — at the Final Four I considered myself part of the general audience, a witness to the fun and excitement of “being there.” And by halftime I had already done all the “work” I needed to do — the Wi-Fi was strong, as was the DAS — so I camped out in the press box and waited for the second half to begin, so I could go out and get the bratwurst and beer I felt I’d earned.

It took a little bit of walking around to find the stands I wanted to hit — I wanted a beverage that was local, not national, and a brat done right — and I found both somewhat fortunately close to the press box. I took my bounty to a stand-up counter space located just off the main upper concourse and for the time of my meal I was just another hoops fan, enjoying the close contest between Virginia and Texas Tech. Then it was back to the press box and more just-fan watching, an exciting finish and then trying to capture the perfect “confetti burst” photo for the cover of our upcoming issue.

After goodbyes to David and his crew and the AmpThink team, since I didn’t have any stories to write I was on the first press bus back to the hotel, where I quickly crashed ahead of my flight back home Tuesday morning. It was a long weekend in Minneapolis and my hip hurt, but I had done what I needed to do, notebook full of stories that I could write while I recovered from the upcoming surgery.


It’s hard to take a photo showing how a Final Four feels in a football stadium, but this isn’t bad

Showtime for the championship game


Any questions that Minneapolis knows how to do brats right?

The big football displays couldn’t be used while game action was in play, but during timeouts they were on, sometimes showing cool social media posts

The well-deserved Final Four MSR approved dinner

Wi-Fi breathes new life into ‘The Swamp’ at the University of Florida

Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium got a full-venue Wi-Fi network this fall. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Can Wi-Fi help bring new life to an old venue? In a way, that happened this fall when the University of Florida lit up a stadium-wide Wi-Fi network at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the 88,548-seat venue known by most as just “The Swamp.”

Though at Florida, like most SEC stadiums, the fans don’t really need any technology to fire them up, the addition of a NFL-caliber Wi-Fi network from Extreme Networks and Verizon was quickly embraced by fans in Gainesville, with one early contest against Auburn cresting the 11-terabyte mark for total data used. If nothing else, with the network in place a whole world outside of the stadium walls gets to see the arm-chomping craziness that makes Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one of the nation’s premier college football venues, thanks to social media and other apps that let fans share their game-day experience.

But beyond the obvious benefits for fans, the new network also brought new features to the Gators’ back-of-house business operations, including being able to connect a new point-of-sale system for concession stands, while also providing the potential for better digital engagement with the people in the stands. According to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, the addition of Wi-Fi has given Ben Hill Griffin Stadium somewhat of a new lease on life, with the ability of the new to augment the old.

“We had a lot of the inherent challenges of putting technology into a 90-year-old venue,” said Stricklin, “but it’s also interesting how technology allows you to work around those challenges.”

Under-seat APs in the club section

By partnering with stadium-application developer VenueNext, which has recently expanded its services to include a back-end POS system, Florida can now offer fans at home games a wide menu of digital-powered services, like the ability to order food and drinks ahead of time for pickup at express windows, and the ability to click on a phone to say “Water Me,” to have cold water delivered to the sunny-seat sections of the stadium.

For the business of running the stadium, the new VenueNext POS system allowed Florida to shed its old cash-drawer system to one that can now provide a connected way to manage concession stands.

“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,” Stricklin said. “It’s a fascinating idea that technology can extend the useful life of a facility.”

Scenes from a retrofit: drilling and conduits

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, which is available to read instantly online or as a free PDF download! Inside the issue are profiles of the new Wi-Fi deployment at the University of Oklahoma, as well as profiles of wireless deployments at Chase Center and Fiserv Forum! Start reading the issue now online or download a free copy!

Like many other big-bowl stadiums at the big foot- ball schools, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a work built over time, with different renovations and additions adding layers of concrete and seating in ways that definitely did not have wireless networking in mind. And like many other schools, Florida had a tough time historically making the case for the capital outlay needed to bring Wi-Fi to a venue that might only see six or seven days of use a year.

At his previous job as athletic director for Mississippi State, Stricklin was part of an SEC advisory board that just five years ago didn’t see stadium Wi-Fi as a priority. Fast forward to 2019, and both the world in general and Stricklin have changed their views.

Flashing covers conduit leading to under-seat APs

“At one point, Wi-Fi was seen as a luxury item [for stadiums],” said Stricklin. “Now, connectivity is like running water or electricity. You’ve got to have it.”

An RFP process for a full-stadium Wi-Fi network ended up getting Florida to choose a $6.3 million proposal from Verizon and Extreme, which have paired together for similar big-stadium deployments before, mainly at NFL venues like Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.

“Obviously they’re experienced,” Stricklin said of the Extreme-Verizon pairing. “The success they’ve had before played a big role in increasing our comfort level.”

Like at those stadiums, at Florida Verizon has its own separate SSID for Verizon customers, who can be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi upon entering the stadium. Other guests can sign in for free via a portal screen.

According to Matt Vincent, Florida’s director of infrastructure operations, construction of the network actually started during the 2018 season, with small-section roll-outs of the service. Over this past summer, however, the heavy lifting went in, with Extreme finishing the full-stadium design with 1,478 APs, all Wave2 802.11ac. Of that number, approximately 1,200 are in the main seating bowl, with most of those located in under-seat enclosures.

Unlike some other under-seat deployments where a separate core drill was done for each AP location, at Florida Extreme was able to reduce the number of concrete holes needed with some ingenious use of conduit and metal plating. In many areas of the stands, one hole through the concrete supports a number of APs, with conduit and metal plating covering the connections under and behind the seats and benches.

Gator fans can now share game memories while at the stadium

If you know what you are looking for, when you wander the maze of concourses under the seating sections you can spot a new network of conduit pipes that bring the cabling from the network out to the seats. In concourses, clubs and other areas with overhead mounting places, Extreme also used omni-directional antennas and other typical indoor equipment for coverage.

Getting to 11+ TB with fast, consistent coverage

At Florida’s biggest home game of the year, an Oct. 5 game against Auburn (a 24-13 Florida victory), Gator fans used 11.82 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network, one of the top totals ever seen at a college venue. Mobile Sports Report visited the stadium for a Nov. 9 game against Vanderbilt, and found strong performance on the network stadium-wide, including in harder-to-cover areas like concourses and narrow seating areas under overhangs.

Starting our testing in the club-seating lounge area, MSR got a Wi-Fi speedtest of 68.6 Mbps on the download and 65.2 Mbps on the upload, in front of a stuffed alligator with a very toothy grin. Heading down to the main entry gate, we got a mark of 50.2 Mbps / 61.8 Mbps as fans were streaming in just ahead of game time.

In a somewhat enclosed seating area on the lower level behind one end zone, we got a test of 21.9 Mbps / 29.9 Mbps just as the Gator mascots took the field for pregame activity. Moving up into the upper deck of section 43, we got a mark of 47.8 Mbps / 50.9 Mbps just after kickoff. Heading under the upper deck stands to the top concourse we got a mark of 43.6 Mbps / 55.5 Mbps, while drawing puzzled stares from fans wondering why we were taking pictures of the metal tubes running up the back of the seating floor.

An AP underneath a bench seating area

Stopping under the other end zone for a Gatorade break, we sat at some loge-type seats and got a mark of 61.2 Mbps / 64.4 Mbps. Then moving back out into the stands we got our up-close picture of the sign welcoming us to “The Swamp,” where we got a speedtest of 54.0 Mbps / 53.8 Mbps.

An island of connectivity among the crowds

While Florida’s Vincent spends most of his game days working to assure the network keeps running at top performance, he said that stadium staff enjoys the Wi-Fi as well.

“It’s been just a night and day difference for everyone since we added the Wi-Fi,” Vincent said, noting a tweet from a fan during the Auburn game that said “the only place in town his phone could connect was at the stadium.”

While saying the decision to deploy Wi-Fi was still somewhat of a leap of faith, Stricklin gave credit to the Florida staff members who prepared the reports outlining the benefits such a system could bring to the venue, for both the fans as well as for the school.

“It’s a little like Indiana Jones when he steps out [over the cliff] and doesn’t see the floor below him,” Stricklin said. “It’s an intense capital outlay [to build a Wi-Fi network] and I don’t know that we’ll ever see it all returned in terms of numbers. But again, I thank the staff and partners like VenueNext who all had a great vision of what a connected stadium could do. With mobile ticketing, you have the opportunity to learn who’s in your stadium. There are concrete ways we can use connectivity to engage, learn about fans, and keep up with them. It’s a wise investment.”

The white dots are under-seat APs

Wi-Fi coverage was good throughout ‘The Swamp’

Conduit carrying cables to under-seat APs proceeds in an orderly fashion up the underside of the stands

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 Anthony 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.”