NFL exec: U.S. Bank Stadium Wi-Fi network ‘in a strong place’ ahead of Super Bowl LII

A Wi-Fi handrail enclosure at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Like many football fans, I was jaw-dropping excited while watching the Minnesota Vikings’ dramatic walk-off touchdown win in last Sunday’s playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. Unlike many football fans but probably more like our readership, my next thought while watching the celebrations was: I hope the Wi-Fi holds up!

According to a top NFL IT executive who was at the game, the Wi-Fi network at U.S. Bank Stadium was more than up to the load applied to it by the Vikings’ exciting win and victory celebration, a good stress test ahead of the stadium’s hosting of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4. “There were an amazing amount of [Wi-Fi] connections” after the game’s end, said Aaron Amendolia, vice president of IT in the NFL’s office of the CIO, in a phone interview Thursday.

The “massive spike” in connectivity after the game’s exciting conclusion produced numerous social media posts from fans present, mainly on Facebook and Snapchat, Amendolia said. Though he didn’t have full networking statistics from the game, Amendolia did share one interesting number, the fact that there were approximately 37,000 unique connections to the Wi-Fi network during the game — a total greater than that at last year’s Super Bowl LI in Houston, where 35,430 fans out of 71,795 in attendance at NRG Stadium used the Wi-Fi at some point. Attendance at Sunday’s playoff game in Minneapolis was 66,612.

“I feel we’re in a strong place now” with the Wi-Fi network at U.S. Bank Stadium, Amendolia said. “We’re hoping to set some new records.”

Still no sign of bandwidth demand decline

Amendolia, part of the NFL’s networking team that ensures good connectivity at the league’s championship event, said testing work on the AmpThink-designed network (which uses Cisco Wi-Fi gear) started last year, and then ramped up through the current season.

Seen in the main concourse at U.S. Bank Stadium: Two IPTV screens, one Wi-Fi AP and a DAS antenna. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“Starting with the presason [games] we had staff sitting in seats, doing Facebook, visiting websites,” said Amendolia. “The unique architecture in each stadium makes Wi-Fi [performance] unique. We had people sitting in odd corners, and next to big concrete structures.”

Ever since Wi-Fi has been a part of Super Bowls, the total data used and numbers of fans connecting have steadily increased each year, always setting current records for single-day use of a large venue network. At Super Bowl 49 in 2015, fans used 6.23 terabytes of data on the Wi-Fi network at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.; the next year, it was 10.1 TB of Wi-Fi at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; and last year at NRG Stadium in Houston there was 11.8 TB of Wi-Fi data used. (Cellular data use on stadium DAS networks has also increased apace, from almost 16 TB at Super Bowl 50 to more than 25.8 TB last year.)

What’s interesting is that networking usage totals for games the following NFL season usually increase as well, not to Super Bowl levels but surpassing marks from years before. For this season’s opening game at the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, the Wi-Fi network there saw 8.08 TB of data used, a mark that trails only the last two Super Bowls.

“Super Bowls set the benchmark for the next season,” said Amendolia, who agrees that there may never be an end to the growth.

“Even if [current] usage levels off, there’s new technology like augmented reality and wearable glasses,” Amendolia said. “How does that change the future?”

Miami Dolphins go long on multiple social-media platforms for Gase intro

The team website was just one of the vehicles the Miami Dolphins used in their multi-platform social media campaign for the hiring of Adam Gase. All images: Miami Dolphins (click on any photo for a larger image)

The team website was just one of the vehicles the Miami Dolphins used in their multi-platform social media campaign for the hiring of Adam Gase. All images: Miami Dolphins (click on any photo for a larger image)

Intelligent marketers of professional sports know they have to get their messaging to where the fans are – the stadium, their living rooms, and in today’s world, their smartphones. Small wonder, then, that the NFL’s Miami Dolphins chose multiple social media outlets in early January to introduce their new head coach, Adam Gase, in a multi-platform, social-cast event.

The Dolphins engineered a live Q&A session and broadcast the press conference with Gase that spanned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Meerkat and Snapchat. This multi-platform event, the first of its kind in professional sports according to the Dolphins, included video and text chat and was intended to reach online fans and encourage engagement, said the event’s planners, Jason Jenkins, senior vice president of communications and community affairs for the Dolphins, and Surf Melendez, managing director of content and creative services for the team.

Joined by his wife, Jennifer, and their three young children, Gase told fans that outside of football, he was most looking forward to the Miami weather. “It was 15 degrees when we left” Chicago, he said, where he’d been working as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. By the end of the press conference, the Dolphins’ Facebook video page registered more than 100,000 views, with a peak of approximately 11,700 simultaneous viewers, according to the Dolphins’ press office.

“The whole point of [of the social-cast] was to make sure that we were using our brand and all our platforms in an innovative way,” Melendez said. “Whenever we communicate or get the brand out there, we try to be innovative, this time with a live, social broadcast.” The team also streamed Gase’s introduction on its website and the Miami Dolphins official smartphone app; Melendez said the intention wasn’t to bypass the general media but to complement them.

md2“We have the luxury of experimenting and innovating because our owner, Stephen Ross, and CEO [Tom Garfinkel] are there supporting us,” Jenkins added. “This is a new place to be.”

Technical challenges for new approaches

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A new place, and a challenging one, at least technically. Melendez said the first requirement was making sure they had enough smartphones for all the different platforms. “We needed the right people and the right devices to make sure we got the right shot, that the audio was good, that someone was posting and someone else was monitoring the feed,” Melendez explained.

He and his department are constantly experimenting with these different technology to improve or fine-tune performance. “We had a dry run [for the Gase introduction]. But once it’s go-time, things happen, like Wi-Fi,” he laughed.

Live video was another of the Dolphins' social-media tactics

Live video was another of the Dolphins’ social-media tactics

Still, the approach seemed to be a hit with Dolphins’ fans. “As we were broadcasting live, the responses were, ‘Wow, this is tremendous, they’re getting me in there’ [the Dolphins’ offices],” Melendez said. “This is a new and fresh place to be.”

In addition to reach, impressions and views, the Dolphins are closely monitoring how social media grows the brand and creates new revenue. Like most businesses, the Dolphins conduct regular lead-generation campaigns; most have been telephone-based, according to Melendez, but that is quickly changing.

“We’ve done a couple dry runs on social media, where you can put out a call to action and target a specific audience for leads,” he said. “The response was 4-5 times as fruitful for good, qualified leads.”

As a new medium, social media requires continuous education with the Dolphins’ partners on how to use the platforms. “We then educate our sponsors that social does X, Y and Z and how that benefits them,” Melendez said.

But the door for social education swings both ways, according to Vince Pannozzo, social media manager for the Dolphins. “We work with the team and with Facebook and Twitter directly to talk about personal brands as well as best practices,” he said.

“Cheerleaders, too,” Jenkins hastened to add.

The next big test of the Dolphins social strategy will come when the NFL’s free agency begins in mid-March. “That’s going to be a fun time to tune into what we’re doing,” Melendez said. “Generally we’re taking a step back at the content we’re creating overall and how we’re broadcasting, quote unquote, because we’re looking at how to serve up things that we used to do on more traditional avenues. It will look different next season.”

Facebook introduces ‘Sports Stadium’ game-day environment to join second-screen battle

Facebook screen shot of new 'Facebook Sports Stadium' service

Facebook screen shot of new ‘Facebook Sports Stadium’ service

Facebook is getting into the game-day sports conversation market with the introduction today of the Facebook Sports Stadium, “a dedicated place to experience sports in real-time with your friends and the world.”

While there is certainly no shortage of places online for live, game-day sports chatter — probably starting first with Twitter — the sheer reach of Facebook and its more-than-a-billion active users makes it an instant heavyweight, even if only a small percentage of Facebook users find and use the new service. (A quick search by yours truly took about 5 minutes to find the Sports Stadium page, and there was no indication we were actually there; it’s rather hard to single out due to all the other sports noise on Facebook, so…)

It will be interesting to see how the service works in real life, since one of the biggest problems I’ve always had with online “social streams” is that there is either way too much info from people I don’t care about, or information is too poorly organized to add to the second-screen experience. While Facebook’s post about the service promises the ability to incorporate posts from your friends along with “commentary from experts” as well as live scores, stats and play-by-play, it’s not clear how all this will appear in your Facebook app feed. And, initially the service will only be available to iPhone users in the U.S., for the upcoming NFL conference championship games this weekend and Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.

Since it looks like folks will be able to post their own on-site pictures into the Sports Stadium flow we are wondering if there will be any possible copyright issues a la Periscope, or if Facebook and the NFL have already figured out a cash deal to eliminate those concerns. If there is one edge that Facebook might have on other commentary streams it’s the real-name authentication necessary on Facebook, which might help cut down on the huge number of anonymous idiotic comments that can cram other live game-day streams and make them pretty much useless (we’re looking at you, ESPN).

It will also be interesting to see how quickly instant replays appear in the Facebook stream, as opposed to team game-day apps or stadium apps, which can typically make replays live within seconds. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who uses the service this weekend, since I typically only message with a few close sports friends on game days while also monitoring Twitter, streams that are reliably real-time and easy to manage.

Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium beefs up Wi-Fi and DAS ahead of College Football Playoff championship game

University of Phoenix Stadium before Super Bowl XLIX. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

University of Phoenix Stadium before Super Bowl XLIX. Photo: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

After just hosting a Super Bowl, one with record wireless traffic numbers, you might not think that the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., needed to upgrade its Wi-Fi and DAS networks. But with many more big events on the way soon, including hosting this season’s College Football Playoff championship game, the UoP Stadium isn’t sitting still, but instead is fine-tuning and expanding its networks to ensure fans stay connected as well as possible.

According to Mark Feller, vice president of technology for the Arizona Cardinals, more Wi-Fi has been added to the stadium networks for this football season, including lawn areas just outside the stadium and the Pat Tillman Plaza area on the north side of the stadium. For the Super Bowl last year the venue had extensive DAS coverage outside from a Crown Castle deployment, but in an email message Feller said adding Wi-Fi to the mix was always part of the plan. Here’s Mark:

“Our plan from the start was to have Wi-Fi outdoors for our fans to use and we are rolling it out as time allows. We have such good weather that there are thousands of people tailgating on game days. In addition, the Cardinals Mobile App (from Yinzcam) provides live Stadium Feeds, Replays, and the Red Zone Channel so our fans can keep up with the early games while they are outside.”

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement under the fascia as well as behind speaker covers.

Outside UoP Stadium, where the architecture allows for DAS antenna placement under the fascia as well as behind speaker covers.

Inside the stadium, Feller said there are now Gimbal beacons deployed for “selective messaging” alerts that are tied to the stadium app. The team also added a separate Verizon Wireless SSID to its Wi-Fi mix, giving Verizon customers reserved bandwidth as well as the ability to autoconnect. The Wi-Fi network uses Cisco gear and is managed and supported by CDW. At the Cardinals’ most recent home game, a 26-18 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 26, the Wi-Fi network carried 1.445 terabytes of data, with 22,502 unique connections, according to numbers provided by Feller. Out of the 63,500-seat stadium a maximum number of 19,559 concurrent users was seen that day, with the top sites connected to by fans being Apple, Facebook, Google, iCloud, Yahoo, Instagram, Twitter and ESPN, according to Feller.

Getting ready for the playoff championship

For both the biggest college game of the year (scheduled for Jan. 11, 2016) which like last year should be a big network event, as well as a host of other “big events,” like a U.S. Women’s soccer team game vs. China on Dec. 13 and the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, Feller said the UoP stadium team is continuing to expand the Crown Castle DAS as well, with more sectors in the stadium’s Club and Loft sections, as well as more coverage outside on the lawns. Portable Wi-Fi is also an option, Feller said, as the stadium adds temporary seating to expand for the big game of the collegiate season:

“Having the Super Bowl here did give us some ideas about increasing density in some areas where we put temporary seating. We tested some different WiFi portable enclosure systems that we could put up and take down quickly and figured out how to get cabling to them quickly as well. That will help us get set up for the CFP Championship.”

Levi’s Stadium update: Wi-Fi traffic steady at 2.3+ TB per game, Amazon and Google lead apps use

Scoreboard promo for the Levi's Wi-Fi network

Scoreboard promo for the Levi’s Wi-Fi network

Usage of the Wi-Fi network at the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium continues to hold steady at 2.3-plus Terabytes of data offloaded per game, according to the most recent statistics provided by the Niners’ network staff.

Though he’s no longer the team’s vice president of technology, former Levi’s network guru Dan Williams remains as a game-day consultant to the team, and he shared some recent network statistics with MSR, including some app usage marks that show Amazon Cloud Drive and Google APIs being among the top two applications being used over the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network.

According to Williams’ numbers, for the Niners’ Nov. 23 day home game against Washington, the Levi’s Stadium Wi-Fi network had 22,095 unique users, 35 percent of the total attendance; the peak number of concurrent users was 14,700, reached at 2:50 p.m. (near halftime), and the total data used was 2.31 TB, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

During the Thanksgiving day game against the Seahawks, the network had 23,371 users (36 percent of attendees) who used 2.38 TB of data, with a peak of 16,800 concurrent users at 7:15 p.m.

Video-replay statistics from the Levi’s Stadium app apparently do better when there are more home-team highlights to watch. During the victory over Washington, 1,074 fans watched 4,885 replays, with the 30-yard TD pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin racking up 953 total views from 398 unique users — meaning many users are watching the same replay more than once (maybe showing it to people sitting around them?). For the Seahawks game, 1,407 fans watched 3,875 replays, with a Kaepernick pass to Michael Crabtree accounting for the most views, 487 total from 180 unique users.

The top 4 apps used by fans on the network varied a bit from the two close games, but according to Williams Amazon Cloud Drive was the top app for both recent games. For the Seahawks game, the next three top apps were Google APIs, Facebook and SnapChat, while for the Washington game the next three top apps used were stadium video, Google APIs and Apple iTunes.

Stadium Tech Report: Wi-Fi, DAS and live video get good reception at Barclays Center

Concessions feature of Barclays Stadium app. Credit: Barclays Center

Concessions feature of Barclays Stadium app. Credit: Barclays Center

Sometimes, the best surprise is no surprise. That’s the case when it comes to technology deployments at the still-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the Wi-Fi, DAS and live video on both fixed and mobile platforms are all performing pretty much as expected.

According to Chip Foley, vice president of building technology for Forest City Ratner Companies (the developer of Barclays Center), perhaps the only mild surprise so far at the just-over-a-year-old Barclays is that the biggest Wi-Fi usage came not during a sporting event, but instead at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony this past August.

“We had 7,000 people using the Wi-Fi network at the VMAs, and I was a little surprised at that,” said Foley. At Brooklyn Nets games, Foley said, the average Wi-Fi load in the 17,500-seat arena is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 users per game. In a recent phone interview, Foley recapped the performance of the stadium’s cutting-edge technology, which also includes one of the first deployments of Cisco’s StadiumVision Mobile, which brings live video feeds to fans using the stadium app. There’s also Cisco-powered digital displays throughout the arena, and a robust DAS deployment to make sure regular cellular connections don’t fail.

HD Wi-Fi attracts 20 percent of attendees

Barclays Center, which opened in September of 2012, had the benefit that few NBA stadiums have in that it was built from the ground up with networking as a key component. If Foley has any regrets about the Cisco Connected Stadium Wi-Fi deployment, it’s that it hasn’t really been fully tested yet. Even during the VMAs, Foley said he was using the in-building Wi-Fi to watch 10 different streaming video views on his laptop, from the red carpet cameras to the behind-the-scenes views of stars getting their awards.

Chip Foley

Chip Foley

“Our goal was to build as robust a network as possible, so that we can handle big needs of one-off events [like the VMAs] as well as the 41+ Nets games every season,” Foley said. With two 1-gigabit backbone lines providing Internet access, Foley said the Barclays network is meeting its goal of being “as fast as your fiber connection at home.”

The only drawback so far seems to be getting more fans to try out the network connection when they are at the games or events. According to Foley, despite advertising and promotions, Nets crowds almost always hit a figure of between 20 percent and 25 percent of them being online, a “Groundhog Day” situation that has Foley wondering whether it’s a natural limit.

“That may just be the number of fans who want to use it [the network]” at a game, Foley said.

The Barclays Center DAS, deployed by ExteNet Systems using gear in part from TE Connectivity, is another non-surprise center for Foley.

“The DAS is great, we never get complaints [about cellular connectivity],” Foley said. “You dread hearing that people can’t send texts. That just hasn’t happened.”

Digital displays, both mobile and fixed

One of the more compelling features of the Barclays tech experience is the implementation of Cisco’s StadiumVision Mobile technology, which brings several live “channels” of video to any fan using the Wi-Fi connection and the stadium app, which was built by WillowTree. With views from the benches, behind the basket and quick replays, Barclays can bring an up-close and personal view to even those far away from the court.

StadiumVision Mobile app being used in Barclays Center. Credit: Barclays Center

StadiumVision Mobile app being used in Barclays Center. Credit: Barclays Center

“StadiumVision Mobile is great for the upper pavilion seats, you can now get a view from a different perspective, and get replays,” Foley said. According to Foley, Cisco engineers tested the technology’s performance to ensure that it worked at every seat in the house.

Fixed digital displays are also a key technology at Barclays, starting with the unique Oculus display built into the striking exterior of the building, and continuing to the hundreds of digital displays inside. Using the Cisco Stadium Vision digital display technology, Barclays Center is able to change and update information on single screens or on all screens on the fly, allowing for greater flexibility in terms of messaging and information like concession-stand prices. Barclays also uses its displays to show train schedules, giving fans better information to plan their departures from events.

“The Stadium Vision displays have been nothing but great for us — we sold a lot of advertising on them even before launch,” Foley said. “It’s fun for our content group to build out content for the L-boards [displays where an L-shaped advertisement brackets other information on the screen], and keep it changing. Restaurant operators can use an iPad to change prices [on their screens] right before an event. They don’t have to talk to us. Overall, it’s a lot less maintenance than I expected or anticipated.”

If Foley had one chance to do anything over again with displays, it would be to add more of them to the original mix. His lesson to future stadium display builders is: If you’re in doubt, put up more.

“We must have had 30-plus meetings regarding [internal] TV locations, with 3D modeling and fly-throughs,” Foley said. “For the most part, I’m happy. But if I could, I would have more clusters [of screens]. Wherever there is one screen now, I wish I had three. People always look at a cluster.”

Adding new screens after the fact, Foley said, isn’t as simple as going to Best Buy to pick up a discount TV.

“You might be able to buy a TV for a couple hundred bucks on Black Friday, but no one tells you that to put that in a venue, once you get past union costs, connectivity and everything else, it’s about $5,000,” Foley said. “It’s way more money to add them now.”

What’s next: iBeacon, Google Glass and more analytics

What’s in the future for Barclays technology? For starters, Foley will oversee deployment of Wi-Fi services for the outside spaces surrounding the arena.

“It’d be nice to have Wi-Fi for ticket scanning outside the venue,” said Foley. “That’s one of those things that you don’t understand the need for it until you open the stadium and see what happens.”

Barclays is also looking into testing the Apple iBeacon technology, which can send text messages to devices in very close proximity. Technologies like iBeacon and even digital signage must also cross internal administrative hurdles, such as simply training sales forces and alerting advertisers to the opportunities.

“For some of the streams, there’s the question of ‘how do we sell this’ — the team has never done this and sponsors may not be aware,” Foley said. “You also have to figure out things like how many notifications and emails should we send out. You don’t want to send out too many, because that turns people off.”

Foley said the Barclays social media team is also at the start of a process of mining statistics from places like Twitter, Facebook and other social media streams, to get a better handle on what fans are using the technology for and how the experience might be improved. One possible way is through a Google Glass application, something Foley agreed might not be for everyone.

“I’m fascinated by the possibility of something like an XML stats feed [in Google Glass] where you’d still be able to watch the game,” Foley said. “We’re getting closer! It’s not for everybody, but some portion of the population is probably thinking that way.”