Stadium Tech Report: With advanced wireless network and app, Baylor brings ‘NFL Experience’ to McLane Stadium

McLane Stadium, Baylor University. Credit all photos: Baylor University

McLane Stadium, Baylor University. (click on any photo for larger image) Credit all photos: Baylor University

Just a few years ago, the Baylor University football program wasn’t a topic of national conversation. But now after a Heisman trophy, a Big 12 championship and perennial top rankings, Baylor is doing its best to stay at the front of the college football pack — and that effort extends to its new stadium, where Baylor has put in place a wireless network and a feature-filled app designed to bring an “NFL experience” to the Waco, Texas campus.

Now in its first season at the brand-new McLane Stadium, Baylor is already delivering an in-stadium fan technology experience that, like the team itself, ranks highly in the nation. Thanks to a Wi-Fi deployment from Extreme Networks, a DAS from AT&T and a new stadium app from sports-app leader YinzCam, Baylor is able to bring high-quality wireless connectivity to all parts of the 45,140-seat facility, along with advanced app features like live and on-demand streaming action video, as well as seating and parking maps for the new facility.

Like the recently opened Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Baylor had an advantage with McLane Stadium in being able to make technology part of the original design, instead of having to retrofit it in later. “It’s an amazing opportunity to have a new stadium and be able to plan for technology from the bottom up,” said Pattie Orr, Baylor’s vice president for information technology and Dean of university libraries, in a recent phone interview. “It sure is nice to have technology in mind from the beginning.”

The house that RG3 built

McLane Stadium - Opening Game Day vs SMU

McLane Stadium – Opening Game Day vs SMU

But just like the Baylor team, the plan for the new stadium and its technology underpinnings had to come together quickly. Even late in the 2011 season, when then-Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was just starting to turn heads with his on-field heroics, the idea of building a new football facility on campus hadn’t yet been formally approved. In 2011, Baylor still played games in Floyd Casey Stadium, a 50,000-seat facility that opened in 1950, located about four miles from campus.

And then, RG3 happened. As many people associated with Baylor will tell you, when the Bears and Griffin quickly vaulted into the national consciousness — especially after a dramatic RG3-led win over Oklahoma and his subsequent winning of the Heisman trophy — the push for a new stadium quickly gathered steam. (For more background, read this excellent history of the stadium’s origin from the Waco Tribune-Herald.)

“Two years ago we still weren’t sure the stadium was coming,” said Bob Hartland, associate vice president for IT infrastructure, who also participated in the phone interview. “Then there was the Heisman trophy, and everything started becoming a reality.”

After the university gave its formal approval in July of 2012, planning for the $266-million facility could begin — with Orr and Hartland’s tech team having to employ a bit of crystal-ball thinking.

“We knew we needed to deliver for mobile devices,” said Hartland. “The hard thing was trying to predict what was going to happen 2 years out [when the stadium would open].”

Pattie Orr, VP of IT for Baylor

Pattie Orr, VP of IT for Baylor

Bringing an ‘NFL experience’ to Waco

And even though Baylor is private and smaller than its Big 12 conference competitors, the IT team made no small plans. “We wanted an NFL experience,” Orr said. To her, that meant an interactive mobile app that delivered live video to each and every seat.

“The best thing we could do was be forward looking,” said Orr. “What we pictured was, ‘could we have it in our hands?’ In the stadiums of the past, fans loved the big screens, and they still do. But there’s nothing like having it right in the palm of your hand.”

Orr said the Baylor IT team visited some existing stadiums with advanced networks, like AT&T Stadium and Gillette Stadium, as part of a technology vetting process. Eventually the Baylor IT department whittled the Wi-Fi selection down to three different approaches — one that included under-the-seat antennas, one that proposed an under-the-concrete solution, and one that relied mainly on overhead APs. That final one, from Wi-Fi provider Extreme Networks, became the winning bid, in part because the Baylor team liked its less-intrusive technology.

If you look closely under the overhangs, you can see Wi-Fi APs

If you look closely under the overhangs, you can see Wi-Fi APs

“Overhead [APs] are just less intrusive, operationally,” said Hartland, noting the need to drill holes in concrete and do special cleaning or weather-hardening for under-the-seat APs. If you look at McLane, you can see multiple overhang areas around the entire seating bowl, which facilitates overhead AP placements. According to news reports, the Extreme Wi-Fi deployment has 330 APs.

Baylor’s Orr also liked the Extreme Purview Wi-Fi analytics software, which provides detailed views of network usage.

“Analytics provide what you need to know,” Orr said. “If you’re in the dark on the fan experience, and don’t know which apps are being used, how can you tune it or make it better?”

On the DAS side, Baylor went with AT&T as the neutral host, though AT&T already has signed up main competitor Verizon Wireless as a client, meaning that the two largest providers of cellular service have enhanced coverage at McLane Stadium through the AT&T DAS, which reportedly has 486 antennas.

“Our goal was a high-density solution, for both cellular and Wi-Fi,” Orr said.

Solving for the standing-on-the-seat problem

Wi-Fi "coach" helps out at McLane Stadium.

Wi-Fi “coach” helps out at McLane Stadium.

While the network has been an early success — Orr said Baylor is already seeing Wi-Fi take rates as high as 33 percent of all attendees at games so far this season — there have also been a few interesting fixes that have been necessary, including re-tuning Wi-Fi APs to get around the interference quirk of students standing on their seats.

Call it technology meeting tradition, with tradition winning: A Baylor tradition to have underclass students standing for the whole game turned into students standing on top of seats at their new section in McLane Stadium — a shift that led to unexpected interference with the original Wi-Fi antenna placements. (One of the quirks of Wi-Fi networks is that the water inside human bodies is a very effective blocker of Wi-Fi signals.)

“We had not anticipated the students standing on seats, and that extra 20 inches really made a difference,” Hartland said. According to another story in the local paper, large band instruments also blocked Wi-Fi signals. Hartland said that since the original problems the IT team and Extreme have developed work-arounds and new antenna placements to fix the issue.

“It’s pretty fantastic that our students are so excited,” said Orr of the standing-interference issue. “You don’t see things like that much at the NFL level.”

Live video and app ‘coaches’

On the app side, Baylor went with YinzCam, a company with numerous stadium apps under its belt for all the top U.S. professional leagues. YinzCam, like Extreme, is also a partner with the NFL, giving YinzCam an edge in winning NFL stadium deployments.

Like other stadium apps, the Baylor In-Game app from YinzCam features multiple camera-angle choices for replays and live streaming video, as well as a host of stats and other team information. Important to Baylor and its new stadium are maps that help direct fans to parking areas, as well as to specialty concession stands in a facility that is new to everyone this season.

Using the app at McLane Stadium

Using the app at McLane Stadium

“We have some well-known smoked onion rings [at the stadium] and the app can help fans find which stands are selling them and how to get there,” Orr said. The parking feature on the app, she said, can send text directions to fans. Also special to Baylor is a “brick finder,” an app that lets fans who participated in a stadium fundraiser find where the brick with their name on it is.

One more NFL-like feature with a collegiate twist is Baylor’s embrace of the Extreme “Wi-Fi coaches” program, which has network-knowledgeable staff members walking around stadiums in highly visible gear offering hands-on help with connectivity and stadium app use. While Extreme has used the coaches program at pro venues like New England and Philadelphia, at Baylor Orr took advantage of in-house “talent,” using students in the MIS program as roaming “coaches,” giving them some real-world experience at network troubleshooting and customer service.

“We put them [the student coaches] in bright vests and have them stationed near concession stands, to offer a friendly face,” Orr said. “They’re terrific, and they give us real-time feedback.”

Orr said Baylor also has a journalism department student intern leading the technology team’s social media effort, which encourages fans to tweet out problems or questions they might have.

“With my gray hair I’m not too good on social media, but one thing I learned is that we need to embrace it,” said Orr. Hartland said that YinzCam reps told Baylor they “just need to get out there” on social media to support the app, and he reports pleasant surprises when the IT team tweets back.

“On social media, [fans] don’t expect to be contacted,” Hartland said. “They really appreciate it when we get back to them.”

Stadium Tech Report — NFL stadium technology reports — AFC East

Editor’s note: The following team-by-team capsule reports of NFL stadium technology deployments are an excerpt from our most recent Stadium Tech Report, THE FOOTBALL ISSUE. To get all the capsules in one place as well as our featured reports, interviews and analysis, download your free copy of the full report today.


Reporting by Chris Gallo

Buffalo Bills
Ralph Wilson Stadium
Seating Capacity: 71,757
Wi-Fi – No
DAS – Yes, 200 antennas
Beaconing – No

The Buffalo Bills have had a busy offseason. After the passing of longtime owner Ralph Wilson, the organization was bought by Buffalo husaband-and-wife team of Terry and Kim Pegula for $1.4 billion. Even while the future of the team was uncertain, the stadium named after its longtime owner became fan-friendlier. New gates to enter the stadium, HD video boards, and increased cell service are just a few of the improvements. No Wi-Fi, but Ralph Wilson Stadium does have over 200 DAS antennas.

New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium
Seating Capacity: 68,756
Beaconing – No

The New England Patriots are doing everything to get fans off the couch and in Gillette Stadium, with Wi-Fi outfitted by Extreme Networks, a team-centric Game Day Live mobile app, and a squad that’s won the AFC East 5 years in a row. Is it time for another Patriots Super Bowl run?

Miami Dolphins
Sun Life Stadium
Seating Capacity: 75,540
Wi-Fi – Yes, 1,100 access points
Beaconing – Yes

Near the end of the 2013 season, Sun Life Stadium became one of the NFL’s first venues to feature beacon technology. The Qualcomm Gimbal contextual awareness platform delivers coupons for concessions as fans walk by and alerts them of shorter wait times on the concourse. Plus, AT&T upgraded the stadium with more than 1,100 Wi-Fi access points and DAS antennas a year ago. All of this has the Dolphins delivering one of the better wireless game day experiences. The search to find a new Dan Marino, however, is still a work in progress.

New York Jets
MetLife Stadium
Seating Capacity: 82,500
Wi-Fi – Yes, 850 access points
DAS – Yes, over 600 antennas
Beaconing – No

There are lots of benefits to hosting a Super Bowl – including the improved connectivity of your stadium. After AT&T and Verizon spent over a year outfitting MetLife Stadium with their own DAS deployments, the stadium saw a 60 percent increase in wireless data from the previous Super Bowl. Safe to say the stadium is well-equipped to easily connect fans with 850 Wi-Fi access points and more than 600 DAS antennas. MetLife Stadium enters its fourth season and continues to make the fan experience unforgettable. Now can the Jets make 2014 an unforgettable season and find their way back to the playoffs?

Extreme Networks, NFL announce deal for Wi-Fi analytics

Extreme Networks and the NFL today announced a deal that makes Extreme the league’s official provider of Wi-Fi analytics, a non-binding agreement that simply makes Extreme’s diagnostics technology available to teams with Wi-Fi networks in their stadiums.

Extreme will also be the official provider of Wi-Fi analytics for the upcoming Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, one of four NFL facilities currently using Extreme’s analytics technology. Two of those stadiums, the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, use Extreme equipment for their entire Wi-Fi installation.

While the deal does not mean that the NFL will be paying for any team to install full Wi-Fi networks using Extreme technology and equipment, it does give Extreme a bit of a leg up and some league-approved exposure as teams continue to look for suppliers to help them build out their internal wireless infrastructures. Wi-Fi analytics technology, typically housed in back-end networking gear, helps provide real-time looks into network performance, along with detailed statistics about how customers are using the networks, from what types of content they are uploading or downloading, to how long they are staying engaged. Operators can use such performance statistics to fine-tune networks as well as to figure out strategies for providing compelling, engaging content and a better overall fan experience with wireless.

“Enhancing the fan experience is one the NFL’s top priorities and the decision to team up with Extreme for Wi-Fi analytics is a great step forward in achieving our goals,” said NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, in a prepared statement. “We were impressed with Extreme’s implementations with the Patriots and the Eagles and we believe this agreement will help our clubs deliver on the high standards we have put in place to give our fans the type of experience they deserve.”

In addition to its own deployments for the Eagles and Patriots, Extreme is also providing Wi-Fi analytics at MetLife Stadium and at Ford Field in Detroit, even though the overall Wi-Fi infrastructure at those fields uses equipment from different providers. John Brams, director of sports and entertainment at Extreme, said analytics provide a key component of stadium networks, giving operators valuable insight into performance metrics and into how and what users are using the network do to.

“When you ask questions like how do you measure the return on investment for the network, to answer those questions you need the stats,” Brams said in a phone interview. “One of the biggest things teams can leverage is visibility into their environment.”

Stadium Tech Report: Wi-Fi ‘coaches’ help fans find network in New England and Philly

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Extreme Networks

What good is a stadium Wi-Fi network if the fans don’t use it? To help avoid the obvious answer, the providers of wireless services in the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field are now supplying “Wi-Fi coaches,” roaming groups of helpers who help fans get connected to the in-stadium network. With assistance from the digital sidelines, fans at those two stadiums can now conquer what may be the biggest hurdle to in-stadium connectivity: Just figuring out how to make your device work.

In a phone interview with John Brams, director of hospitality and venues with Enterasys (the stadium networking company recently acquired by Extreme Networks), we asked about what problems the providers had experienced with their new networks at Gillette and the Linc. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the biggest concerns wasn’t technical, but simply user confusion.

“After we installed the networks, we quietly realized that the [biggest] fundamental issues weren’t with the design — it was user issues,” Brams said. When you consider that the average age of a Patriots fan at the game is 51 or 52, Brams said, it’s understandable that many of them might not know how to do things like download an app or find a Wi-Fi connection for their phone. Communicating with fans at the games is also problematic, he said.

“You can’t just pick up the phone and call people, and you can’t really have a help desk at the stadium,” Brams said. What the Enterasys/Extreme folks hit on was a plan familiar to any NFL fan, who knows all about the long list of assistants for things like offensive line play and special teams: Give the fans their own Wi-Fi coaches.

Coaches roam stands to help fans connect

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at the Linc. Credit: Extreme Networks

Wi-Fi coach in the stands at the Linc. Credit: Extreme Networks

Now at both Gillette and the Linc the Extreme folks have 16 or more Wi-Fi coaches roaming the stands and concourses during games, readily identifiable in team-color jackets that announce them as friendly types to help fans connect to Wi-Fi. According to Brams, it’s not just the fans who benefit from the outreach program — the teams and stadiums also get instant feedback from users, which can help them quickly pinpoint any network problems.

“From a team perspective, the coaches are a great way to interact with the fans,” Brams said. “You get immediate feedback and if there are any problems, you get the information from the fan and quickly close the loop.”

The personal show-me coaching works very well in a stadium situation, Brams said, because fans will quickly pass on successful tactics to those sitting nearby. “If one person learns how to do something, it spreads like a chain reaction,” Brams said. One problem the Extreme coaching team has been communicating to users was a known bug with the team app and Android platforms, which could be fixed with a simple download. The bottom line, Brams said, is to ensure a good network experience the first time out — otherwise, fans might never try to connect again.

“I ran into one fan at Gillette who said the network didn’t work — but the last time he tried it was 2 years ago,” Brams said. “You need to deliver the first time they use it.”

Steady increase in Wi-Fi usage

At both Gillette, where the network was installed last season, and at Lincoln Financial, which is in its first year of Wi-Fi, Extreme is seeing a steady increase in usage, Brams said. An interesting side note is that while numbers of users are rising steadily, the amount of data being consumed overall is growing more rapidly, suggesting that the fans who do connect are starting to do more.

On the coaching front, Extreme is looking into helping its team customers find ways to expand the program, perhaps with some device-charging stations staffed by more Wi-Fi coaches. The idea is also open to possibilities for branding and advertising on the coaches’ jackets as well as at the charging stations, Brams said, with the final options limited only by the stadium owner and operators’ imaginations.

The best part of the program is when a coach helps a fan connect to the Wi-Fi, which is often a game-changing experience in the world of stadium connectivity. “These places [stadiums] used to be such a connectivity black hole,” Brams said. “Now people are excited when they connect.”