Twitter, Live Nation and Aruba are investors in $9 million Series A round for Levi’s Stadium app developer VenueNext

Screen shot from VenueNext's Levi's Stadium app

Screen shot from VenueNext’s Levi’s Stadium app

Almost as interesting as today’s news of a $9 million Series A venture round for Levi’s Stadium app developer VenueNext is the list of participants in this round of funding, which includes Twitter Ventures, Live Nation Entertainment and Aruba Networks, among others.

While there’s also an interesting story to be mined about lead investor Causeway Media Partners, whose managing partner Mark Wan is one of the San Francisco 49ers’ “one percent” minority owners, the other listed investors offer an interesting take on VenueNext’s potential future beyond its current single client, Levi’s Stadium.

In a press release announcing the funding, VenueNext CEO John Paul said the funds would be used mainly to expand the VenueNext team to support deployments of venue apps for 30 different new clients before the end of the calendar year. Though VenueNext has yet to name a client other than Levi’s Stadium, its upcoming list is expected to include not just sports stadiums but entertainment venues as well, a facet which partially explains the potential investment interest for Live Nation.

Aruba Networks, now owned by HP, is the gear used in the Wi-Fi and beacon networks at Levi’s, which are integrated tightly with the app, so perhaps the Aruba investment is a small way to gain influence at venues still considering Wi-Fi infrastructure purchases. And while we caution that all this is guesswork at this point, Twitter Ventures’ interest in VenueNext is most likely related to the app’s ability to integrate live video, which at some point could conceivably come from the phones of Twitter users via Vine or Periscope. Like we said, interesting partners to have!

Midseason version of Levi's Stadium app, with clearer icons on main screen

Midseason version of Levi’s Stadium app, with clearer icons on main screen

Much different approach

While VenueNext is still a newcomer in the stadium-application marketplace — trailing far behind established players like YinzCam and MLBAM in numbers of deployed apps — its approach to embracing a small number of fan-focused and revenue-generating features like concessions, ticketing, replays and loyalty programs is much different than most stadium apps, which have historically tried to cram as many features in as possible. VenueNext’s top calling card right now may be the in-seat food and merchandise delivery feature it implemented at Levi’s Stadium last year, impressive mainly because of its advertised ability to reach every seat in the 68,500-seat stadium (which worked pretty well for football games but not so much when hockey crowds showed up).

But what may prove more interesting and useful to other potential clients are VenueNext’s integrated ticketing and marketing-analysis features, which not only make it easier for fans to purchase and redirect tickets, but also allows teams to build databases with rich information about fan purchasing preferences.

On both fronts, VenueNext was successful at Levi’s Stadium last season, with the app accounting for more than $800,000 in food and beverage purchases (according to VenueNext) while also registering more than 200,000 unique users, who are all now a part of the Niners’ marketing database. And while the instant replay feature didn’t get as much fan traction as was originally thought, its backbone systems were impressive in action, and were witnessed last season by a weekly parade of IT guests from interested teams.

Originally conceived and funded by Aurum Partners LLC, an investment entity controlled by the Niners’ owners, VenueNext is part of a sports/technology group of investments by Causeway (including SeatGeek), a boutique-ish firm whose partners have a long history in investment and finance, including being owners of the Boston Celtics. Wan will also join VenueNext’s board as part of the investment round, according to VenueNext.

UPDATE: Wan wrote a post on Medium about the investment.

(VenueNext image parade follows. Credit all Levi’s Stadium photos and app screenshots: Paul Kapustka, MSR. Credit John Paul photo: VenueNext. Enjoy!)

First replay tablet app, which adds info about the play

First replay tablet app, which adds info about the play

Second replay tablet app, which adds a thumbnail to the replay

Second replay tablet app, which adds a thumbnail to the replay

Photo of directions function in Levi's Stadium app.

Photo of directions function in Levi’s Stadium app.

Probably the first time many fans heard the term "NiNerds" (Nov. 23, 2014)

Probably the first time many fans heard the term “NiNerds” (Nov. 23, 2014)

NiNerd sporting the new neon vest.

NiNerd sporting the new neon vest.

John Paul, CEO and founder, VenueNext

John Paul, CEO and founder, VenueNext

Season opener issues: Picture of app late in the first half.

Season opener issues: Picture of app late in the first half.

Niners’ CEO gives Levi’s Stadium operations a ‘B’ grade

Jed York, Niners CEO, speaking at tech summit at Levi's Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Jed York, Niners CEO, speaking at tech summit at Levi’s Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, who caused a stir last week by apologizing for his team’s play on Twitter, on Thursday gave the operation of his club’s new Levi’s Stadium an above-average grade of “B” for the first four months of its inaugural season.

Speaking at a technology-focused fan-experience and innovation summit held Thursday at the stadium’s “501” club, York said “I’d give us a ‘B’ on our execution [at Levi’s Stadium] this year,” citing parking issues and foot-traffic flow into the stadium as problems not yet fully solved for the 68,500-seat facility in Santa Clara, Calif.

Given the new stadium’s complicated location — in the middle of a busy corporate-headquarters area and right next to the Great America theme park — it was probably somewhat of a given that there would be parking struggles the first season, as fans, police, traffic directors and stadium workers all figured out how to make the dance work. Though some progress has been made during the season, York said that “parking and just getting people here” remain the biggest issue he sees at Levi’s Stadium.

While the Niners have tried to use technology to solve the problems of getting fans inside (with app-based parking maps and wayfinding), York said that despite plans to funnel fans through the correct gates to get more quickly to their seats, many fans still just head for the gate that’s closest to their parking or train arrival spot, which has sometimes led to big backups at the check-in lines.

On the networking side of things, York said all seemed to be going well with the stadium’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks, which have performed well in a series of ad hoc tests conducted by MSR in visits this season.

“We haven’t had any [network] glitches, but we’ve been doing a lot of tweaking,” York said. The Levi’s Stadium app has been the center of most of that tweaking, with continual upgrades to add features and fix problems like an Android bug that surfaced in a mid-November revision. York said that the Niners have been careful to make sure the human engineering behind the technology is solid before launching new things, like having enough runners to support the feature that allows food to be ordered and delivered to seats.

Levi's Stadium ready for the Pac-12 championship game

Levi’s Stadium ready for the Pac-12 championship game

And though it hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, York said the team might debut a planned feature of having team merchandise available for purchase and delivery to seats at the next home game, Dec. 20 vs. San Diego. John Paul, CEO of Levi’s Stadium app developer VenueNext, also spoke at the summit Thursday and said in an interview that the Dec. 20 game might also see the debut of a new feature that adds in mass transit and Uber wait times. (A good idea for fans going to the stadium is to check on game day morning for any updates to the app.)

On the app side, York said one surprise was the fairly low uptake of fans using the app’s instant replay features. After fans watched 7,800 replays during the regular-season home opener (the first game replays were available in the app), usage has gone down, with less than 4,000 replays watched during the last home game against Seattle.

“We thought that mobile replays would be absolutely a home run feature, but it hasn’t got that much traction,” said York. The culprit, he said, might be the twin HD displays above each end zone at Levi’s Stadium, which are somewhat stunning in their clarity. “We do have great video boards,” York said.

In his talk York also thought out loud about the possibility of using wearable technology to both better help prevent player injuries as well as being able to provide more rich detail for fans, like how hard a hit was on the field. But he also stressed that technology at Levi’s Stadium was not meant to be used for technology’s sake, but instead to improve the experience of being at the game. And improvement on the stadium staff’s execution, York said, will go a long way to making it all work together.

“When we get to an A, or A+, people will really be blown away,” York said.

Levi's Stadium at twilight

Levi’s Stadium at twilight

Wednesday Wi-Fi Whispers: Niners-Brocade News, Coming Soon

Welcome to “Wednesday Wi-Fi Whispers,” our clever title for a new rumors and news snippets column debuting… right about now. The idea here is to keep this a bit more informal than our regular, solid news coverage, to give a home to those whispers of things we hear that might be happening in the world of stadium Wi-Fi. First up is the yet-to-come formal announcement of the stadium-technology partnership between the San Francisco 49ers and networking gear supplier Brocade.

Brocade and the Niners: It’s all about 802.11ac

When the Niners finally broke ground on their new stadium that is being built in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara, just north of San Jose) back in April, team president Jed York let loose with a tweet that all but announced which Silicon Valley company would get the prized stadium-technology deal. In a bit of a surprise, it wasn’t Cisco Systems, the 900-pound gorilla of networking, whose main corporate campus is seriously “just down the block” from the Niners’ new digs.

If you don’t know Brocade that just means you don’t follow networking technology. Having covered this company in my previous tech-writing lives I was surprised since I thought of Brocade as a core/backbone gear provider, and not a company that had products for things like Wi-Fi access. Silly me. With not a lot of digging I discovered that Brocade had signed a partnership with Motorola several years back and now in fact was heavily into Wi-Fi access points, the key technology in any stadium build.

And though Brocade hasn’t yet commented officially on the Niners deal — a formal press conference is apparently just around the corner — we did speak recently with David Hunt, a senior technical marketing engineer at Brocade, who said that among other innovations you can look to see Wi-Fi gear with the new 802.11ac protocol (which provides much higher throughput than current technology) when the Niners’ stadium is ready. Hunt said that Brocade is already assuming that data loads when the new stadium opens in 2014 will eclipse what is being used now, so look for all kinds of new gear and smart-networking designs to ensure that what will probably be the world’s most wired crowds will stay wirelessly connected.

Cisco, which has an entire building at its nearby HQ that is decked out like a sports bar (as part of its Connected Stadium marketing push) must be smarting a bit to have lost the Niners deal to its smaller neighbor Brocade, whose HQ is also just around the corner from the new site. But in the end Cisco will probably sign up a lot more stadium customers, since Brocade is likely to do the Niners’ arena as kind of a “see what we can do” deal rather than part of a big strategy to go after stadiums. Still, it’s not a bad place to showcase your stuff if you are trying to sell to enterprise technology buyers. Those people spend a lot of time — and money — in Silicon Valley already. Stay tuned to MSR for more when the formal announcement is made. The wait is probably not gonna be long.

Will Time Warner Cable surf from the beaches to the stadiums?

In a cool side-gig thing we did last week we got to hear about how Time Warner Cable has brought Wi-Fi to the beaches in Southern California — according to Rob Cerbone, VP of wireless product management at TWC, the beach Wi-Fi uses solar-powered ACs mounted on lifeguard stands to bring web surfing to the shore.

(By the way, I am shameless about seeing how many times I can milk that web surfing/real surfing line. Twice now, and I’m probably not done yet.)

As we cornered Cerbone after his panel talk we asked the obvious MSR question — if you could bring Wi-Fi to the beach, when can we expect to see TWC bringing Wi-Fi to stadiums? Seems like a natural fit, given the content TWC likes to send over its cables. The official word from Cerbone: No comment. But the body language seemed to say, you might hear something soon. Since TWC plans to have more than 10,000 wireless access points deployed in LA by the end of the year — should be interesting to see where some of them end up. There are a lot of beaches, but more malls… and stadiums.

SEAT Conference — who’s going?

Here’s a free plug for the SEAT 2012 conference, which takes place in Boston the first week of August. With this agenda it looks like a place for MSR and our industry leading stadium Wi-Fi coverage and analysis. We are working on finding a way to get there… if we can, we will see you there.

Is your stadium unwired? Let us know!

Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance. No! Now is the time on Wednesday Whispers when we profile a stadium that has Wi-Fi… but since this is the first time out there are no profiles and we are sad. Is your place “unwired?” Drop us a line and let us know. It could be the start of a grand tour… MSR visits the country’s unwired stadiums! Preferably, with a hot dog and beer in hand. Until next week… stay unwired, my friends.