Zippin checkout-free system debuts at stadiums in Sacramento, Denver

A Zippin-powered checkout-free concessions stand at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento in 2019. Credit: Zippin/Sacramento Kings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Checkout-free shopping payment systems, where customers simply take items off shelves and are charged automatically as they leave the store, are now arriving in sports stadiums, with startup Zippin leading the way with active installations in Sacramento and Denver.

At the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center and at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, trial concession stands powered by Zippin have already opened and been used by fans, both before the pandemic (in Sacramento) and during the past season at Empower Field, where the Denver Broncos had some games this fall with limited fan attendance.

The checkout-free store idea, pioneered by Amazon a few years ago, uses pre-visit payment information (collected either via an app or a credit-card swipe before entry) and a combination of in-store recognition technology — usually a mix of cameras, weight sensors and artificial intelligence software — to “see” what customers are taking off the shelves, and to charge the customers for those items as they leave the store.

While many customers are amazed the system actually works even after they leave a store, the potential checkout-free systems have to solve one of the biggest pain points of stadium visits — waiting in line for concessions — has generated considerable interest among venue owners and operators. And with transaction times in both Sacramento and Denver averaging less than a minute — and some in Sacramento as quick as 10 seconds — it’s a also good bet that fans will quickly embrace more checkout-free operations so that they can get back to their seats to watch the event they paid to attend.

Fans can’t believe it works

“It’s so intriguing to watch a fan go through the [checkout-free] process, and see how they react,” said Jay Morrison, district manager for Aramark, the concessionaire at Empower Field. At one of the Broncos games this fall Morrison was watching fans exit the Zippin-powered concession stand “and they would look around, sort of stand there and say that they can’t believe it,” Morrison said. And then, of course, the fans would share the experience on social media.

“In all my years of being in F&B, I’ve never seen somebody taking a picture of somebody buying a soda,” Morrison said.

Overhead cameras track customers as they select items. Credit: Zippin

While Amazon may have pioneered the checkout-free idea when it opened its first Amazon Go store in 2018, the market now has a growing number of startups seeking to become the back-end suppliers. But Zippin, a San Francisco-based startup with 50+ employees and $15 million in venture funding, is the first to crack into the stadium concessions market, an area that seems ripe for such innovation, especially given the new reality of supporting concession operations during a pandemic.

In Denver, Aramark had already decided to trial the Zippin technology at Mile High well before the pandemic put a premium on less human contact for transactions.

“The unintended benefit is that [checkout-free] fits perfectly with Covid and beyond,” said Aramark’s Morrison.

John Rinehart, president for business operations with the Sacramento Kings, noted that the Zippin system’s entry gate inherently delivers a way to enforce social distancing by limiting capacity inside the store as necessary.

Getting fans back to their seats

Like in Denver, Sacramento had decided to try the Zippin system well before the pandemic hit — at Golden 1 Center a Zippin-powered store was opened in September in 2019, as part of what Rinehart said is a continued desire to use technology to improve the fan experience.

“It’s kind of in our DNA to look out for these things,” said Rinehart of the arena that opened in 2016 with some of the most advanced wireless networking and display technologies, as well as one of the most innovative stadium apps.

Entry gate at Zippin stand at Empower Field. Credit: Zippin

At Golden 1 Center, the Zippin store was an open area on the main concourse, and in addition to coolers with drinks it also had an assortment of snacks, as well as a way to use Zippin to pay for hot food items like popcorn or pizza. According to Rinehart a customer would purchase a ticket for the hot items inside the Zippin store, and then go next door to a hot-food stand where their order would be fulfilled.

In Denver, Aramark added the Zippin technology to one the “Drink Market” stands it had opened at the stadium the year before, which were basically walk-through stands with self-serve glass-door drink coolers. In 2019, those stands used a unique visual-scanner system from Mashgin where fans would place items to be scanned and priced. The only staffing needed was one person at the end of the line to check IDs and to open cans and bottles before fans left.

With the Zippin technology, fans can either download an app or use their credit cards at the entry gate. Once they are authorized, they enter the store, select their items and simply walk out through the exit gate (again, where they would encounter one staffer for ID check and bottle/can opening).

According to Aramark’s Morrison, having support both for an app as well as walk-up credit card access was a key selling point for Zippin, since many fans have historically proven “resistant” to downloading and registering through an app.

While education on how the store works is necessary — in Denver and Sacramento both stadiums had signage as well as email instructions for the systems — Morrison also said that fans seem to learn the system quickly and are happy to tell others how it works.

And in both stadiums, operators saw fans coming back for repeated visits during a single game, since they knew they wouldn’t have to wait long.

“If you know what you want, you can get in and out in less than 10 seconds,” said the Kings’ Rinehart. Both Denver and Sacramento operators said they saw average visit times of around 45 seconds, an unthinkable speed for anyone who’s ever spent an entire baseball inning or half a football quarter waiting for a hot dog and a beer.

Minimal reconfiguration needed

According to Zippin CEO Krishna Motukuri, the Zippin-powered stands don’t need a lot of technology or networking support. The camera systems, he said, only use about 15-to-20 Mbps of network bandwidth, and the AI computations are done on the edge modules Zippin installs on the site.

Ceiling cameras seen in Zippin Denver stand. Credit: Zippin

Motukuri said Zippin operates under a software-as-a-service module, charging venue owners and operators a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee. According to Aramark’s Morrison the cost of a Zippin deployment is far cheaper than buying similar technology from Amazon, which Aramark had initially considered.

At Golden 1 Center Rinehart said the Zippin system was fairly easy to deploy, since the open-concourse setting allowed them to bring cameras down from above. In Denver, Aramark and the Broncos actually had to raise the ceiling on the area used, so that the Zippin cameras could have a better range of focus.

And according to Aramark’s Morrison the Zippin system reduced the needed real estate for checkout, using less than a third of the space required by the Mashgin systems. “That let us put four more beverage coolers into the space,” Morrison said. In addition to the cameras, a Zippin system also requires entry and exit gates, as well as sensors for all shelves holding items.

Using the pandemic to ‘leapfrog’ to the future

Zippin’s Motukuri, who founded the company in 2015, said that the Covid pandemic has exposed some of the issues that still plague other concession systems, the fact that there still may be a wait to purchase items.

“Self-checkout doesn’t get rid of lines,” Motukuri said. “Our system is not just frictionless, it’s contactless. It offers venues an opportunity to leapfrog ahead.” According to Zippin, a new Zippin-powered concession stand is set to open at the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center when fans are allowed back in that building.

In Denver, Aramark’s Morrison said that the speed enabled by the Zippin system was part of the process that allowed the venue to re-open with limited attendance.

“The state of Colorado [regulators] observed us, and we had to deliver on the commitment [to safer operations],” Morrison said. “Having the self-order system was part of what enabled us to get back to having fans.”

(Zippin promotional video below)

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.”

New Report: Inside the technology at SoFi Stadium and Allegiant Stadium

Stadium Tech Report is pleased to announce our FALL 2020 issue, with profiles of two of the most innovative new venues to open – SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! While neither venue will host fans this NFL season, our profiles will dig in-depth to tell you about the technologies in place to make these stadiums the most advanced when it comes to the game-day experience. We also have a substantive news analysis story about how venues and product and service suppliers are planning to tackle two of the biggest venue issues when it comes to hosting fans during a pandemic – venue entry and concessions operations.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this issue include Corning, Boingo, MatSing, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, Comcast Business, American Tower, CommScope, AmpThink and ExteNet Systems. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our ongoing partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank the SEAT community for your continued interest and support.

We would like to take a moment here and give some special thanks to the people at SoFi Stadium and at Allegiant Stadium, and to all the other subjects we interviewed for this issue, for their extra help when it came to providing interview time and especially photos to help bring our publications to life. We quite literally couldn’t have done this without your help, and we look forward to visiting venues again in the near future!

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

Ohio State adds another top-5 Wi-Fi day; Nebraska, Mile High also add to list

Even in the middle of a game-long rainstorm, fans at Ohio Stadium for Ohio State’s 38-7 victory over visiting Wisconsin on Oct. 25 still used 17.0 terabytes of data on the stadium’s new Wi-Fi network, a total that is the fourth-highest number we know of in our ongoing unofficial tally of big stadium Wi-Fi events.

According to figures provided to us by Ohio State, there were 61,997 unique devices connected to the Wi-Fi network during the Wisconsin game, with a peak concurrent connection mark of 35,074. Though still one of the biggest Wi-Fi days ever, the Wisconsin numbers did not hit the record levels set earlier this fall when Michigan State played at Ohio Stadium and a record 25.6 TB of data was seen on the network.

Editor’s note: You can now read our Stadium Tech Report profile of the new Ohio State network instantly online, with no registration or email address needed! JUST CLICK RIGHT HERE and start reading our latest report today!

More Wi-Fi at Mile High, and Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium

The stadium now known as Empower Field at Mile High also saw some recent big Wi-Fi days, including a couple concerts and a couple Denver Broncos home games. According to statistics provided to us by Russ Trainor, senior vice president for IT for the Broncos, the new top mark at the venue came during a Garth Brooks concert on June 8, 2019, with 12.63 TB used (now good for 10th on the new version of the Wi-Fi list, below). The Garth Brooks show also produced a record number for unique connections at Mile High, with 48,442 devices on the network.

The recently refreshed Wi-Fi network at Mile High seems to be producing regular totals in the 8-9 TB range, as Trainor said several other events this year crested the 8 TB mark, including 8.98 TB for an Oct. 13 game against the Tennessee Titans; 8.47 TB for a Rolling Stones concert on Aug. 10; and 8.09 TB for a Sept. 15 game against the Chicago Bears. The Bears game saw a Mile High record set for most concurrent Wi-Fi connections, at 37,163, while the Stones concert saw the highest stadium throughput mark, at 22.5 Gbps. According to Trainor the 8+ TB average event data marks at Mile High are up from an average in the 6 TB range a year ago.

At Nebraska, whose network we profiled a year ago, a similar range of Wi-Fi traffic days has been seen at home games this fall, with a high-water mark of 11.2 TB seen in and around the stadium on Sept. 28, when ESPN’s College Gameday was in town for the Ohio State-Nebraska matchup. According to statistics provided to us by Dan Floyd, director of IT for Nebraska Athletics, and Andrew Becker, Nebraska venue technology specialist, Memorial Stadium also saw 9.2 TB for a Oct. 5 game with Northwestern, and 8.5 TB for a Sept. 14 game with Northern Illinois, and 8.3 TB for the Aug. 31 home opener against South Alabama.

For the Ohio State game, Nebraska said it saw a top peak concurrent connected user number of 38,062, out of 89,759 in attendance that day.

New list coming soon!

On a final note for this post, please enjoy the “final” version of our all-time Wi-Fi list below, in its current format. Stay tuned for a post (coming soon) explaining some new thinking we are going to put into place regarding venue Wi-Fi totals reporting, an idea that will try to encompass some of the great and varied feedback we’ve been getting all fall. In that post we will finally explain why the current list keeps expanding without a bottom… and what new figures we think may be more interesting than just total tonnage. Stay tuned!

THE MSR TOP 36 FOR WI-FI

1. Michigan State vs. Ohio State, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 5, 2019: Wi-Fi: 25.6 TB
2. Super Bowl 53, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga., Feb. 3, 2019: Wi-Fi: 24.05 TB
3. NCAA Men’s 2019 Final Four semifinals, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn., April 6, 2019: Wi-Fi: 17.8 TB
4. Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 25, 2019: Wi-Fi: 17.0 TB
5. Super Bowl 52, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn., Feb. 4, 2018: Wi-Fi: 16.31 TB
6. Miami (Ohio) vs. Ohio State, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 21, 2019: Wi-Fi: 13.7 TB
7. NCAA Men’s 2019 Final Four championship, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn., April 8, 2019: Wi-Fi: 13.4 TB
8. Florida Atlantic vs. Ohio State, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 31, 2019: Wi-Fi: 13.3 TB
9. Cincinnati vs. Ohio State, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 7, 2019: Wi-Fi: 12.7 TB
10. Garth Brooks Stadium Tour, Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo., June 8, 2019: Wi-Fi: 12.63 TB
11. 2018 College Football Playoff Championship, Alabama vs. Georgia, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga., Jan. 8, 2018: Wi-Fi: 12.0 TB
12. Auburn vs. Florida, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla., Oct. 5, 2019: Wi-Fi: 11.82 TB
13. Super Bowl 51, NRG Stadium, Houston, Feb. 5, 2017: Wi-Fi: 11.8 TB
14. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Sept. 8, 2019: Wi-Fi: 11.58 TB
15. Ohio State vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Sept 28, 2019: Wi-Fi: 11.2 TB
16. Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 6, 2018: Wi-Fi: 10.86 TB
17. Super Bowl 50, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 7, 2016: Wi-Fi: 10.1 TB
18. Taylor Swift Reputation Tour, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., July 27, 2018: Wi-Fi: 9.76 TB
19. Northwestern vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Oct. 5, 2019: Wi-Fi: 9.2 TB
20. Tennessee Titans vs. Denver Broncos, Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo., Oct. 13, 2019: Wi-Fi: 8.98 TB
21. Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles, NFC Championship Game, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa., Jan. 21, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.76 TB
22. Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New England Patriots, AFC Championship Game, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 21, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.53 TB
23. Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Sept. 14, 2019: Wi-Fi: 8.5 TB
24. Rolling Stones No Filter Tour, Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo., Aug. 10, 2019: Wi-Fi: 8.47 TB
25. South Alabama vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Aug. 31, 2019: Wi-Fi: 8.3 TB
26. Taylor Swift Reputation Tour, Broncos Stadium at Mile High, May 25, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.1 TB
27. Chicago Bears vs. Denver Broncos, Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo., Sept. 15, 2019: Wi-Fi: 8.09 TB
28. Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass., Sept. 7, 2017: Wi-Fi: 8.08 TB
29. SEC Championship Game, Alabama vs. Georgia, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 1, 2018: Wi-Fi: 8.06 TB
30. Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys, Divisional Playoffs, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, Jan. 15, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.25 TB
31. Stanford vs. Notre Dame, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., Sept. 29, 2018: 7.19 TB
32. (tie) Southern California vs. Notre Dame, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., Oct. 21, 2017: 7.0 TB
Arkansas State vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Sept 2, 2017: Wi-Fi: 7.0 TB
33. Tennessee vs. Florida, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla., Sept. 21, 2019: Wi-Fi: 6.94 TB
34. WrestleMania 32, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, April 3, 2016: Wi-Fi: 6.77 TB
35. Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb., Oct. 7, 2017: Wi-Fi: 6.3 TB
36. Super Bowl 49, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 1, 2015: Wi-Fi: 6.23 TB

CBRS demos, 5G talk highlight venue news at Mobile World Congress

A legendary telecom building in downtown Los Angeles, the city that was the home of last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas show. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Some live demonstrations of wireless devices using spectrum in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) topped the venue-specific news at last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in Los Angeles.

At Angel Stadium in nearby Anaheim, a group of companies led by Connectivity Wireless and JMA teamed up to do some live demonstrations of use cases for the CBRS spectrum, a swath of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz range that uses the cellular LTE standard for device communications. One demo we heard about reportedly used a Motorola push-to-talk (PTT) handset to carry on a conversation from a suite behind home plate to centerfield, a “home run” distance of at least 400 feet.

Mobile Sports Report, which doesn’t often attend trade shows, found lots for venue technology professionals to be interested in at the show, including the live demonstrations of CBRS-connected devices in the JMA booth that included handsets, headsets and standalone digital displays using CBRS for back-end connectivity. MSR also sat down with Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology, to talk about 5G for stadiums and why the push for the new cellular standard doesn’t mean the end of Wi-Fi. Read on for highlights of our visit to LA, which also included an interview with Boingo’s new CEO Mike Finley and with Paul Challoner, a CBRS expert at Ericsson.

Look at me, I can hear… centerfield

MSR wasn’t able to make it to the press event held at Angel Stadium, but we heard from multiple sources that the trial CBRS network installed there for a short stint in October by Connectivity Wireless and JMA performed as advertised, especially with the aforementioned full-field PTT talk between two devices, with one of those more than 400 feet away from the CBRS radio.

The worth of the ability for a device to communicate to a access-point radio at such a distance should be clearly apparent to venue wireless professionals, who may want to tap into CBRS networks to increase connectivity inside their venues. With more powerful radios than Wi-Fi and connectivity that utilizes the mobility and security of the LTE standard, teams and venues may look to CBRS for back-of-house communications that would benefit from being separated from the shared Wi-Fi infrastructures. While we are still waiting for the first publicly announced contract win for CBRS in venues — even the Angels are still weighing the decision to go forward with a CBRS deal — being able to show networks working live is a big step forward in the “is it real” phase.

Connecting digital displays, and more PTT

If there was a true “hot spot” for CBRS activity on the MWC show floor, it was at the JMA booth, where the wireless infrastructure company was running a live CBRS network with all kinds of devices running off it. JMA, which was showing its own CBRS radio cell (a kind of access point-on-steroids radio that will provide connectivity to client devices in a CBRS network) as well as a version of its XRAN virtual network core software, had a working prototype of one of the first commercially announced CBRS networks, a wireless deployment of digital displays for the parking lots at the American Dream shopping mall in New Jersey.

A prototype of the CBRS-connected displays JMA is installing at the American Dream mall. (Don’t miss the Jimmy Hoffa joke at the bottom)

According to JMA director of markets and solutions Kurt Jacobs, the 600-acre parking lot at the huge new mall near the Meadowlands (it will have an amusement park and an indoor skiing slope, among other attractions and stores) was a perfect place to harness the ability of CBRS networks. The displays, large LED signs that can change dynamically to assist with parking instructions and directions, needed wireless connectivity to provide the back-end information.

But after considering a traditional deployment with fiber backhaul and Wi-Fi — which Jacobs said would have cost the mall at least $3 million to deploy with construction taking 6 months or more — the mall turned to JMA and a CBRS network deployment, which Jacobs said will use nine radios and 13 antennas to cover the signs, which will be spread out at key traffic junctions. Total cost? About a half-million dollars. Total deployment time? About eight weeks, according to Jacobs. Jacobs said the system will also eventually be able to support mobile CBRS radios inside security vehicles for real time updates from the lots.

Verizon to cover all NFL stadiums with 5G… and lots of Wi-Fi

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

Heidi Hemmer, Verizon

MSR was fortunate enough to get on the appointment schedule of Heidi Hemmer, Verizon’s vice president of technology. A few days after Verizon had publicly announced a spate of 5G deployments in NBA arenas, Hemmer doubled down on the carrier’s 5G commitment to NFL stadiums, saying the current list of 13 stadiums with some kind of Verizon 5G coverage would soon expand to the entire league.

While hype is heavy around 5G — if you’re a football fan you’ve no doubt seen the Verizon TV commercial where Verizon’s technology development director Eric Nagy walks around various stadiums touting the service — Hemmer was clear that 5G is just part of a full-spectrum stadium wireless solution, one that will likely include 4G LTE as well as Wi-Fi well into the future.

While Verizon is clearly proud of its cutting-edge 5G deployments, the company is also probably the biggest provider of Wi-Fi networks in large stadiums, with many NFL and even some large colleges having Verizon-specific SSIDs for Verizon customers, usually as part of a sponsorship deal from Verizon. Verizon is also a big bankroller of distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments inside stadiums, sometimes acting as the neutral host and other times participating as a tenant on the in-venue cellular networks.

A fuzzy shot of a 5G antenna in the wild at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver

According to Hemmer, having as much connectivity as possible allows Verizon to provide the best possible experience for its customers. The eventual end goal, she said, would be a world where fans’ phones “dynamically” connect to whatever network is best suited for their needs, from Wi-Fi to 4G to 5G. Currently, many of the Verizon Wi-Fi deployments will automatically connect Verizon customers to Wi-Fi in a venue where they have previously logged on to the network.

And while the millimeter-wave 5G deployments inside stadiums right now don’t come close to covering the full space of any venue (at the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High, for instance, there are only 16 5G antennas in the building), they do provide a different level of connectivity, with much faster download speeds and less latency. Hemmer said those characteristics could spawn an entirely new class of services for fans like better instant-replay video or advanced statistics. While MSR hasn’t personally tested any 5G networks, the early word is that in some situations download speeds can be in the gigabit-per-second range.

“Speeds are important to our customers and 5G can really push up the fan experience,” Hemmer said.

New Boingo CEO bullish on venues business

Mobile World Congress was also MSR’s first chance to meet Mike Finley, who became Boingo’s CEO back in February. A former Qualcomm executive, Finley said that Boingo’s history of being a neutral-host provider for venues should continue to drive more business in that realm, especially as newer complex possibilities like CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 networks emerge.

“We are satisfying a need” that venues have for connectivity expertise, Finley said, especially when it comes to relationships with wireless carriers.

At MWC, Boingo was part of the CBRS Alliance’s multi-partner booth space promoting the OnGo brand for CBRS gear and services. In its space Boingo was showing its new converged virtualized core offering (which was using JMA’s XRAN product) with a live combined CBRS and Wi-Fi 6 network running side by side. A booth representative with an iPhone 11 device was able to quickly switch between the two networks, offering a glimpse at the potential future networking choices venues may be able to offer.

Ericsson Dots target stadiums, CBRS

In its large MWC booth, connectivity gear provider Ericsson had a special display for venue equipment, including a weather-hardened version of its Radio Dot System that Ericsson booth reps said should be appearing soon in some U.S. sporting venues. Ericsson was also showing some Dots that it said would support CBRS, a service Ericsson sees great promise for in venues.

Paul Challoner, Ericsson’s vice president for network product solutions, said it will be interesting to see whether or not venues will need to pursue licenses for CBRS spectrum when those are auctioned off next year, or whether venues will choose to use the unlicensed parts of the CBRS spectrum. Like others at the show, Challoner was excited about Apple’s decision to include support for CBRS bands in the iPhone 11 line — “it’s a fantastic boost for the CBRS ecosystem,” he said.

More MWC photos below!

Some of the Ericsson Dot radios designed for inside venue use

A prototype digital display kiosk from JMA, Intel and LG MRI, with space up top for CBRS gear

Another wireless-enabled display kiosk, this one in the Ericsson booth. Looks like wireless and digital displays are the next hot product.