VenueNext debuts new strategy, products at University of Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tough market, lots of competition

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

Screenshot of the web-app ordering system at Florida.

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

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

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

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

POS, kiosk ordering and web-based apps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team-app builder Built.io acquired by Software AG

Screenshot of part of the Built.io app for the Kings.

San Francisco startup Built.io has been acquired by German software giant Software AG, a deal that will not mean the end to Built.io’s nascent stadium- and team-app business, according to an update from the company.

Started in 2007 as a company with tools to help enterprise businesses move operations to the cloud, Built.io made a splash in the sports scene when it was chosen as the base technology for the stadium and team apps for the Sacramento Kings and their tech-centered new stadium, Golden 1 Center. Built.io subsequently announced a separate business focused on sports operations, and signed the Miami Heat as its second client.

Publicly, Built.io has not announced any new sports customers since last year, and founder and former CEO Neha Sampat has shifted duties somewhat to another company that was part of a sort of conglomerate inside Built.io, a bit of a confusing situation that was cleared up with this message from a Built.io spokesperson late Friday:

Before its acquisition today, Built.io was the best known of the brands under the umbrella of a company called Raw Engineering, which also comprised the sports business and a company named Contentstack. Neha Sampat is still very much involved with Raw Engineering as president, and with Contentstack as CEO. Until recently, these three businesses – Raw Engineering, Built.io and Contentstack – all operated as one company, Raw Engineering, which was doing business as Built.io because that was the best known brand. In 2017, the decision was made to split the organization, in part to differentiate the sports offering and not have it be continuously confused with the things that Built.io was really known for, which is the enterprise integration platform. That platform [Built.io] was the business that Software AG acquired today.

According to the company spokesperson, the sports app business is still alive and well, so we will keep an eye out for more news from that standpoint.

Full-stadium Wi-Fi lands at Miami Heat’s AmericanAirlines Arena

Wi-Fi APs mounted on catwalks at AmericanAirlines Arena. Credit: Miami Heat (click on any photo for a larger image)

Fans attending Miami Heat games at AmericanAirlines Arena now have access to a full-stadium Wi-Fi network, as one of the last NBA venues without Wi-Fi has now fully embraced the wireless technology and what it enables.

“It’s all about wanting to elevate the fan experience,” said Matthew Jafarian, vice president for digital strategy and innovation for the Heat, in a recent phone interview. With construction on the network having started more than a year ago, the 350-plus access point network is now almost fully complete, with Wi-Fi gear from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, and main installation by M S Benbow & Associates (MSB).

Previously, AmericanAirlines Arena had been somewhat proud about its choice to rely only on cellular DAS for wireless connectivity inside the venue. But according to Jafarian, as fans of sporting events, concerts and other attractions steadily increase their digital activities, the inevitable need for more bandwidth caused the Heat to add Wi-Fi to the building they own and operate.

“With Heat games and with concerts and events, fans want to share more and we want them to be able to share their experience,” Jafarian said. Venue-wide Wi-Fi will also make it easier for fans to comply with the Heat’s decision to only allow digital ticketing for entry to Heat games. Jafarian added that the new Wi-Fi network will also allow for more back-of-house operations (like enabling mobile point-of-sale systems) to run more effectively.

‘Make it the best’

Following a directive to make the arena’s network “the best Wi-Fi out there,” the Heat went through an RFP process that looked at Wi-Fi gear providers like Cisco and Samsung before choosing the team of Aruba and MSB. Because of the need to get the network finished before this past season’s first games, Jafarian said the option of going under-seat with Wi-Fi APs wasn’t feasible because “there weren’t enough dark days” to complete the extensive construction needed for such a deployment.

Picture of a monitor at American Airlines Arena, showing wait time information (this photo was not taken during a game). Credit: Miami Heat

Instead, MSB engineered a top-down system with most APs mounted on the arena’s catwalks, which Jafarian said is “working well.” The network was live before the start of preseason games, Jafarian said.

The network also makes use of a captive portal from Purple for fan engagement management. According to Jafarian, the Heat saw more than 50,000 unique Wi-Fi connections over the first 60 days of operation, and sees an average of around 20 percent of attendees connecting to the network both for NBA games as well as for concerts, including recent performances by Jay-Z and The Weeknd.

This year the Heat also rolled out a new mobile app, developed by Built.io and Beyond Curious. “We’ve had a lot of success with the app,” said Jafarian. One of the more popular components, he said, is a wayfinding and line-length service powered by WaitTime, which is available both via the app as well as on monitors around the arena.

“The WaitTime [service] has been a big hit with fans,” said Jafarian.

Stadium- and team-app builder Hopscotch adds $5 M in Series B funding

Screen shot of new Notre Dame app built by Hopscotch.

Hopscotch, one of the newer entrants in the team- and stadium-app development space, announced a $5 million Series B round of funding earlier this month, which the company said would be used to help support the rapid growth Hopscotch has seen over the past year.

Founded in 2014 after a project with Madison Square Garden led CEO Laurence Sotsky to build a business around team and stadium apps, Hopscotch had previously raised $12.5 million in Series A funding, according to the company. According to Sotsky, a beta customer relationship with the University of Mississippi in 2016 gave Hopscotch an entree to the large-college market, and since then the company has signed app deals with a who’s-who list of top universities with prominent athletic programs, including Notre Dame, Oregon, Ohio State, Auburn, UCLA, Washington, Baylor, Penn State, Michigan State and Arizona, among others. Hopscotch also signed a deal with T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

While the list of customers is impressive, there is a bit of a caveat to Hopscotch’s sudden rise. According to Sotsky, Hopscotch gained many of its new customers this summer by taking over app development deals previously held by CBS Interactive and IMG College. As the rights holder for many universities, CBS Interactive’s apps have historically been centered around media, including streaming video and other team content. According to Sotsky, Hopscotch is replacing code in those previous apps from the inside out, bringing the company’s “Fan Engagement Platform” to add services like ticket purchasing and advertising services. However, in many cases the apps are still identified by previous developers in places like the Apple App Store, a tactic Sotsky said was done deliberately so that previous users of the apps could just update to get the new app instead of having to install a new app.

Hopscotch CEO and founder Laurence Sotsky

Duplicate deals at schools?

But what Hopscotch doesn’t tell you is that some of these deals may not be exclusive, as in the case of Baylor University, which is listed under “customers” on both the Hopscotch website as well as the YinzCam website. YinzCam, which developed a game-day app for Baylor when the school built its new football stadium in 2014, remains the “official” app, according to Becky King, associate vice president for information technology services and interim CIO at the Waco, Texas, school.

However complete or incomplete they may be, Hopscotch’s college deals will at least give the company another fighting place to take on other providers in the team/stadium app marketplace like YinzCam, VenueNext, Venuetize and Built.io. With $17.5 million in total funding now, the El Segundo, Calif.-based Hopscotch may add to its current total of 40 employees, while building out its product roadmap to include more services for game days, like wait-time apps or traffic and parking services.

In a phone interview Sotsky said Hopscotch is already trying beta tests of interactive advertisements, like one last basketball season at Auburn where fans using the app would get a message good for a free breakfast sandwich at a nearby Hardee’s if the opposing team missed two consecutive free throws late in a game. Though most stadium and team apps have been challenged so far just to get fans to download and use the apps — never mind generating revenue — Sotsky is betting that Hopscotch will find a way to help venues, teams and advertisers work together to build something that benefits fans while also delivering some ROI.

“If you deliver the right kind of ads you can get great revenue traction,” said Sotsky.

Join us TODAY: Twitter chat July 27 with Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat, Built.io and BeyondCurious

Want to know more about how and why the Miami Heat and the Sacramento Kings chose the platform and services for their new team and stadium mobile apps? Join us in a Twitter chat on Thursday, July 27 at 10 a.m. Pacific Time in the U.S. (1 p.m. Eastern) with representatives from the Kings, the Heat and their platform providers, including app-platform developer Built.io and design firm BeyondCurious.

The chat with hashtag #SportsTechChat will be led by yours truly, and while it will be “directed” at the Kings and the Heat, anyone can join in with replies or their own thoughts during the hour we are chatting live. Follow me on Twitter (@PaulKaps) for the chat and for updates on the world of stadium and large public venue technology in general.

Built.io formally announces sports-app business

Screenshots from Built.io’s under-development mobile app for the NBA’s Miami Heat. Credit: Miami Heat

Built.io, the startup behind the Sacramento Kings’ new team and stadium app, formally announced its “fan experience platform” today, putting the company more directly in competition with market leaders YinzCam and VenueNext.

A San Francisco-based company, Built.io did not have a standalone sports-app business when it was selected by the Kings to be the base app technology for both the Kings’ team app as well as the app for the Kings’ new home, the Golden 1 Center. Since that arena’s launch last year, Built.io has also signed the Miami Heat as a customer, ahead of today’s formal launch of the sports-app platform.

In the larger sports world, YinzCam is by far and away the company with the most apps developed for teams and stadiums, with many of its content-focused developments used by numerous pro league teams as well as many large colleges. VenueNext, which entered the world as the app developer for the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium a few years ago, has since signed up multiple pro teams like the NHL’s San Jose Sharks as well as entertainment entities like Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Of the two market leaders, Built.io’s platform-based approach to app building — where third-party components for features like wayfinding and parking can be added via an API structure — is more like VenueNext’s, though YinzCam also has the ability to add third-party components as needed. The challenge for all stadium- and team-app builders, as well as for venue owners and teams, is to get fans to download and use the apps, so that teams can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digitally connected customers.

Screenshot of part of the Built.io app for the Kings.

While there is plenty of promise and perceived opportunity in team and stadium apps, the current reality sees fans at stadiums using public social-media apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, or other tools like email and search, far more often than team- or stadium-specific apps. However, by driving fans to use apps for digital ticketing and other necessary service transactions, team and stadium apps are likely to be more used over time, following the adoption curves for other businesses like coffee shops and airline tickets.

Though still small, Built.io has been around for a bit, as it was founded in 2007. The company has previous experience connecting larger enterprise businesses, experience founder Neha Sampat told us will work well as stadiums and teams become more connected in all their businesses.

“What the Kings are trying to do is a large-scale enterprise use case,” said Sampat in an interview last year. “There are a lot of big-data analytics and so much personalization that is dependent on data.”

Sampat said Built.io’s model of a “back end as a service” and its ability to quickly connect other programs’ APIs should be a good fit for the Kings, as well as for other teams looking to blend more services and functions into team and stadium apps.