Analysis: NBA, NHL teams getting into Wi-Fi without single league-wide strategy

So who needs a league-wide stadium networking strategy, anyway? Neither the NBA nor the NHL has such a beast, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping the deployment of fan-facing Wi-Fi services that now reach almost every NBA arena and almost two-thirds of NHL venues.

The two biggest leagues for professional indoor sports in the U.S. may share a lack of a single, public league-wide networking strategy, but they also share a similarity that may make such strategies unattainable, even if they existed. Namely, because the venues that the teams play in are almost always used for multiple purposes – like concerts and other events – it’s hard for one league or one team to exert control over what goes on inside.

But even though there’s no single-item menu for bringing wireless technology to stadiums, that doesn’t mean the leagues aren’t helping teams find the best ways forward. According to Michael Gliedman, senior vice president and chief information officer for the NBA, he and his IT experts are constantly meeting with all the teams in the league, sharing contract information and best-practices to ensure that NBA arenas are “as wireless as they can be.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 4.38.32 PMAnd in a quick interview with the NHL’s boss, the same impression came across: that the leagues may not be dictators, but they are doing lots of behind-the-scenes work to ensure the fan experience doesn’t get disconnected.

The “we’re just a tenant” point was made to us directly by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, during his live visit to the Coors Light Stadium Series game between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium in February. In a great non-answer answer, when we asked Bettman directly if there was a league- wide plan to bring Wi-Fi to all stadiums, he answered, “All our arenas are being upgraded [from a technology standpoint]. From bigger video boards to Wi-Fi we know our fans want what they want, when they want it.”

In other words: Gary gets it, but you’re not going to get him to issue any kind of Roger Goodell edict for league-wide Wi-Fi that still hasn’t happened, three years after it was said. He’s too smart to pin himself down like that. But with 19 out of its 30 arenas already having free fan-facing Wi-Fi, and more on the way, Bettman and the NHL are making pretty good progress when you consider that the league doesn’t have as much income as the other large U.S. pro sports.

NBA Wi-Fi getting more publicity

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of our new Stadium Tech Report HOOPS AND HOCKEY ISSUE, available for free download. In addition to this story it contains additional profiles and team-by-team tech capsules for all 30 NBA teams. Download your copy today!

On the hoops side, in a recent phone interview with MSR Gliedman said that while the NBA “has never published a ‘you have to do this’ menu,” he and his office are engaged with teams on multiple levels, from reviewing carrier contracts to offering best-practices advice on new technology and how-to on deployments. But like the NHL, since many of its teams play in venues with multiple tenants, the final decisions on tech deployments like Wi-Fi networks rests with the teams themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 4.38.39 PMWith 24 out of the NBA’s 29 venues already wired for Wi-Fi, the need for an overarching “strategy” for wireless deployment may already be a moot point. On the promotion side, things have improved a bit from last year, when our look at NBA stadium Wi-Fi found that while many stadiums had Wi-Fi, only a few had any information about it on their team websites.

As the calendar changed to 2015, almost half of the teams with Wi-Fi now have some kind of information about the service on their team web pages, although only six teams (representing five facilities) have a note about Wi-Fi in the all-encompassing “A-Z guides” that are probably the first place a lot of fans would look for such info. While the lack of online information about Wi-Fi in NBA stadiums is still puzzling, we’ve also come to the conclusion that it may not matter that much if teams have in-arena promotions for the Wi-Fi services. One message on the arena big screen, for example, is probably a lot more effective at getting fans connected than any web page item.

Upside and downside of the scattered approach

While it’s easy to point to the hundreds of millions in revenue dollars generated by Major League Baseball’s unified digital and stadium-networking approach as a barometer of success, there may be a lot of benefit in letting individual teams chart their own paths when it comes to in-building networks and the digital access that follows. Even the limited look at the league-wide deployments found in our most recent profiles sees four completely different ways of reaching toward the same goal, of using wireless networks to build an improved fan experience that can also be tapped for more granular marketing data.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 4.44.11 PMSince no single technical or software platform has yet established dominance in the stadium Wi-Fi, DAS or stadium app marketplaces, the competition right now can only benefit stadium owners and operators, since it increases the choices available while keeping pricing down. The flip side of that equation is that venue owners and operators need to arm themselves with either better education or a qualified partner to help sift through the choices to find one that makes fiscal sense, as well as the capability to handle the still-growing demand for wireless data bandwidth, which as of yet shows no signs of plateauing.

With any luck, the information side is one place where we can help, with our stadium profiles and other supplemental reports like our annual State of the Stadium survey, which once again this year will be delivered at the SEAT Conference, this year in July right here in San Francisco. In addition to our quarterly reports we have some other projects in the works, including a focused report on beaconing technology, which is rapidly finding converts for its ability to hyper-locate digitally connected fans. Stay tuned to the MSR website and sign up for our email newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything. And if you have a story to share, by all means give us a holler so that others can learn from your successes, as well as from your lessons learned along the way.

NHL’s Bettman: Better tech coming to all NHL stadiums

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, at Levi's Stadium press conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image).

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, at Levi’s Stadium press conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image).

He wasn’t really there to talk about stadium Wi-Fi, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was kind enough to spend a couple minutes geeking out about wireless connectivity with Mobile Sports Report following a press conference at Levi’s Stadium to announce a new NHL online stats operation powered by software giant SAP.

If you are a hockey fan (and there are lots of them in town this weekend for the Coors Light Stadium Series game Saturday at Levi’s) you are going to like the new NHL stats platform, which has an incredible amount of information available today basically at fans’ fingertips, since it works well online and on mobile devices as well. Full player breakdowns, advanced stats you didn’t know you needed and the (coming soon) ability to compare current players to players from the past should provide a lot more depth to the general knowledge of the sport.

But for the MSR audience we asked Bettman specifically if the NHL was doing anything on a league-wide basis to ensure that fans at NHL venues had enough wireless connectivity to, say, view the new SAP stats package during games.

New SAP-powered NHL stats on a mobile device

New SAP-powered NHL stats on a mobile device

“All our arenas are being upgraded [from a technology standpoint],” said Bettman in a quick Q&A with MSR following the formal press conference. “From bigger video boards to Wi-Fi we know our fans want what they want, when they want it.”

Since not every NHL arena has fan-facing Wi-Fi — watch for a list in an upcoming MSR report — we asked Bettman if the league was prepared to offer any financial help to get all venues wired. The problem, he said, is that in many stadiums the NHL team is a tenant and not an owner, so teams aren’t able to step in and deploy wireless networks. Plus, many of the NHL stadiums are older buildings, which are generally harder to retrofit with wireless networks.

“It’s easier to do when you’re in a greenfield situation, building a new stadium like this,” Bettman said, gesturing to the new walls surrounding him in the tony Levi’s Stadium United Club.

With the league-sanctioned stats platform, the NHL seems to be taking a step in the path blazed by Major League Baseball, where a unified digital strategy brings live action and other league information to fans in a single package. We asked Bettman if the NHL had any plans to add features like video replays to its stats offering, maybe moving more in the direction of MLB or even the NFL’s NFL Now offering.

New NHL stats page showing player info

New NHL stats page showing player info

“We’re looking at it,” Bettman said of offering video. On the new stats package idea overall, Bettman said “if there was one word to describe it, it’s ‘more.’ More data, more speed. We’ve gone from nothing to a rocket ship. Wait until you see what’s next.”

As far as the stats operation goes, what we saw Friday was pretty good, and holds the promise of getting even better. For starters the operation (which, according to SAP runs on its SAP HANA enterprise cloud service) will incorporate new, cleaner design than previous NHL stats offerings, as well as visualization tools to better show stats in graphical format. Coming in the near future is a feature that is really cool: The ability to compare current players’ stats to those of players from the past, thanks to an ambitious effort to find things like old scoresheets from as far back as the 1920s, and having that information scanned into the new digital system. SAP did a similar thing with Duke basketball, helping build a historic-comparison site for Duke fans.

Bettman and the NHL folks will be around Saturday to see if the ice stays frozen for the Stadium Series game between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. Ice rink in the sun picture below.

Levi's Stadium with ice rink in place

Levi’s Stadium with ice rink in place