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

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

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

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

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

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

Going digital for directories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing search times to under a minute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The directories got a good workout during Final Four weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An AP placement in the rafters

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

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

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

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

Adding to the fan experience

Editor’s note: This report is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new Wi-Fi network at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn., and an in-depth research report on the new Wi-Fi 6 standard! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

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

Close-up of an AP placement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cisco Vision on the driving range

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

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

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

More photos from Pebble Beach below.

An on-course mobile AP placement. Credit: Cisco


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

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

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

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

WaitTime arrives at Sydney Cricket Ground

WaitTime monitor at Sydney Cricket Ground. Credit: WaitTime

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

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

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

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

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

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

PGA Tour gives CBRS a test

Volunteers track shots with lasers on the fairways of PGA Tour tournaments. Credit: Chris Condon/PGA TOUR (click on any photo for a larger image)

CBRS technology doesn’t need spikey shoes to gain traction on the fairways, if early results from technology tests undertaken by the PGA Tour at courses around the country are any indication.

A recent 14-state test run by the top professional U.S. golf tour tapped the newly designated Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which comprises 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. Golf courses, which typically lack the dense wireless coverage of more populated urban areas, are easily maxed out when thousands of fans show up on a sunny weekend to trail top-ranked players like Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy or perennial favorite Tiger Woods.

To cover the bandwidth needs of tournaments, the PGA Tour has over time used a mix of technologies, many portable in nature given the short stay of a tournament at any given course. Like Wi-Fi or temporary cellular infrastructures used in the past, the hope is that CBRS will help support public safety, scoring and broadcast applications required to keep its events operating smoothly and safely, according to the PGA Tour.

“We’re looking at replacing our 5 GHz Wi-Fi solution with CBRS so we can have more control over service levels,” said Steve Evans, senior vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour. Unlike 5 GHz Wi-Fi, CBRS is licensed spectrum and less prone to interference the Tour occasionally experienced.

CBRS will also make a big difference with the Tour’s ShotLink system, a wireless data collection system used by the PGA Tour that gathers data on every shot made during competition play – distance, speed and other scoring data.

“CBRS would help us get the data off the golf course faster” than Wi-Fi can, Evans explained. “And after more than 15 months of testing we’ve done so far, CBRS has better coverage per access point than Wi-Fi.”

The preliminary results are so encouraging that the Tour is also looking to CBRS to carry some of its own voice traffic and has already done some testing there. “We need to have voice outside the field of play, and we think CBRS can help solve that problem,” Evans added.

But as an emerging technology, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of CBRS. Compatible handsets aren’t widely available; the PGA Tour has been testing CBRS prototypes from Essential. Those units only operate in CBRS bands 42 and 43; a third, band 48, is expected to be added by device makers sometime in the first half of 2019.

“We’re waiting for the phones to include band 48 and then we’ll test several,” Evans told Mobile Sports Report. “I expect Android would move first and be very aggressive with it.”

CBRS gear mounted on temporary poles at a PGA Tour event. Credit: PGA Tour

The PGA Tour isn’t the only sports entity looking at CBRS’s potential. The National Football League is testing coach-to-coach and coach-to-player communications over CBRS at all the league’s stadiums; the NBA’s Sacramento
Kings are testing it at Golden 1 Center with Ruckus; NASCAR has been testing video transmission from inside cars using CBRS along with Nokia and Google, and the ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., recently launched a live CBRS network that it is currently using for backhaul to remote parking lot Wi-Fi hotspots.

Outside of sports and entertainment, FedEx, the Port of Los Angeles and General Electric are jointly testing CBRS in Southern California. Love Field Airport in Dallas is working with Boingo and Ruckus in a CBRS trial; service provider Pavlov Media is testing CBRS near the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with Ruckus gear. Multiple service providers from telecom, cable and wireless are also testing the emerging technology’s potential all around the country.

Where CBRS came from, where it’s going

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, an in-depth look at successful deployments of stadium technology. Included with this report is a profile of the new game-day digital fan engagement strategy at Texas A&M, as well as a profile of Wi-Fi at Merceds-Benz Stadium, home of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY now!

CBRS has undergone a 6-year gestation period; 150 MHz worth of bandwidth was culled from the 3.5 GHz spectrum, which must be shared (and not interfere) with U.S. government radar operations already operating in that same spectrum.

From a regulatory perspective, CBRS’s experimental status is expected to give way to full commercial availability in the near future. Consequently, wireless equipment vendors have been busy building – and marketing – CBRS access points and antennas for test and commercial usage. But entities like the PGA Tour have already identified the benefits and aren’t waiting for the FCC to confer full commercial status on the emerging wireless technology.

CBRS equipment vendors and would-be service providers were hard to miss at last fall’s Mobile World
Congress Americas meeting in Los Angeles. More than 20 organizations – all part of the CBRS Alliance – exhibited their trademarked OnGo services, equipment and software in a day-long showcase event. (Editor’s note: “OnGo” is the alliance’s attempt to “brand” the service as something more marketable than the geeky CBRS acronym).

The CBRS Alliance envisions five potential use cases of the technology, according to Dave Wright, alliance president and director of regulatory affairs and network standards at Ruckus:
• Mobile operators that want to augment capacity of their existing spectrum
• Cable operators looking to expand into wireless services instead of paying a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)
• Other third-party providers looking to offer fixed broadband services
• Enterprise and industrial applications: extending or amplifying wireless in business parks and remote locations; Internet of Things data acquisition.
• Neutral host capabilities, which some have likened to LTE roaming, an important development as 5G cellular services ramp up.

Previously, if customers wanted to extend cell coverage inside a building or a stadium, their best option was often distributed antenna systems (DAS). But DAS is complicated, expensive and relies on carrier participation, according to Wright. “Carriers also want to make sure your use of their spectrum doesn’t interfere with their macro spectrum nearby,” he added.

CBRS uses discrete spectrum not owned by a mobile operator, allowing an NFL franchise, for example, to buy CBRS radios and deploy them around the stadium, exclusively or shared, depending on their requirements and budgets.

More CBRS antenna deployment. Credit: PGA Tour

On a neutral host network, a mobile device would query the LTE network to see which operations are supported. The device would then exchange credentials with the mobile carriers – CBRS and cellular – then permissions are granted, the user is authenticated, and their usage info gets passed back to the carrier, Wright explained.

With the PGA Tour tests, the Essential CBRS devices get provisioned on the network, then connect to the CBRS network just like a cell phone connects to public LTE, Evans explained. The Tour’s custom apps send collected data back to the Tour’s network via the CBRS access point, which is connected to temporary fiber the Tour installs. And while some of Ruckus’s CBRS access points also support Wi-Fi, the Tour uses only the CBRS. “When we’re testing, we’re not turning Wi-Fi on if it’s there,” Evans clarified.

While the idea of “private LTE” networks supported by CBRS is gaining lots of headline time, current deployments would require a new SIM card for any devices wanting to use the private CBRS network, something that may slow down deployments until programmable SIM cards move from good idea to reality. But CBRS networks could also be used for local backhaul, using Wi-Fi to connect to client devices, a tactic currently being used at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

“It’s an exciting time… CBRS really opens up a lot of new opportunities,” Wright added. “The PGA Tour and NFL applications really address some unmet needs.”

CBRS on the Fairways

Prior to deploying CBRS access points at a location, the PGA Tour surveys the tournament course to create a digital image of every hole, along with other data to calculate exact locations and distances between any two coordinates, like the tee box and the player’s first shot or the shot location and the location of the hole. The survey also helps the Tour decide how and where to place APs on the course.

Courses tend to be designed in two different ways, according to the PGA Tour’s Evans. With some courses, the majority number of holes are adjacent to each other and create a more compact course; other courses are routed through neighborhoods and may snake around, end-to-end.

“In the adjacent model, which is 70 percent of the courses we play, we can usually cover the property with about 10 access points,” Evans explained.

Adjacent-style courses where the PGA Tour has tested CBRS include Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.; Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Penn.; and East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

In the second model, where the holes are strung back to back, the PGA Tour may have to deploy as many as 18 or 20 APs to get the coverage and throughput it needs. That’s the configuration used during a recent tournament at the TPC Summerlin course in Las Vegas, Nev., Evans told Mobile Sports Report.

On the course, CBRS APs get attached to some kind of structure where possible, Evans added. “Where that doesn’t make sense, we have portable masts we use – a tripod with a pole that goes up 20 feet,” he said. The only reason he’d relocate an AP once a tournament began is if it caused a problem with the competition or fan egress. “We’re pretty skilled at avoiding those issues,” he said.

A handful of PGA Tour employees operates its ShotLink system, which also relies on an army of volunteers – as many as 350 at each tournament – who help with data collection and score updates (that leader board doesn’t refresh itself!). “There’s a walker with each group, recording data about each shot. There’s technology for us on each fairway and green, and even in the ball itself, as the ball hits the green and as player hits putts,” said Evans.

The walker-volunteers relay their data back to a central repository; from there, ShotLink data then gets sent to PGA Tour management and is picked up by a variety of organizations from onsite TV broadcast partners; the pgatour.com Website; players, coaches and caddies; print media; and mobile devices.

In addition to pushing PGA Tour voice traffic over on to CBRS, the organization is also looking for the technology to handle broadcast video. “We think broadcast video capture could become a [CBRS] feature,” Evans said. The current transport method, UHF video, is a low-latency way to get video back to a truck where it can be uploaded for broadcast audiences.

A broadcast program produced by the organization, PGA Tour Live, follows two groups on the course; each group has four cameras and producers cut between each group and each camera. That video needs to be low latency, high reliability, but is expensive due to UHF transmission.

Once 5G standards are created for video capture, the PGA Tour could use public LTE to bond a number of cell signals together. Unfortunately, that method has higher latency. “It’s fine for replay but not for live production,” Evans said, but is expected to eventually improve performance-wise. “The idea is eventually to move to outside cameras with CBRS and then use [CBRS] for data collection too,” he added. “If we could take out the UHF cost, it would be significant for us.”

In the meantime, the Tour will continue to rely largely on Cisco-Meraki Wi-Fi and use Wi-Fi as an alternate route if something happens to CBRS, Evans said. “But we expect CBRS to be primary and used 99 percent of the time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t treat it like plumbing’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile web instead of an app

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

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

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

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

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

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

A much cheaper experiment than an app

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measurable and repeatable results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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