Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium nears the finish line

Sorry, this venue is not open yet! Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

If there’s a huge tease to the audience at this year’s SEAT Conference in Atlanta it’s that there is no official visit planned to the nearby stadium that is on everyone’s mind, the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Built right next door to the Georgia Dome, the new venue looks all finished from the outside, but there are still construction chain-link fences around it keeping anyone from getting too close to the building. A quick visit by yours truly Sunday afternoon got the pictures seen here, including the angular, glassy construction, the big metal falcon (caged for now) but no live look at the halo video board (though we thought we could see the curves inside).

Jared Miller, chief technology officer for AMB Sports & Entertainment, told us on the phone last week that Mercedes-Benz Stadium “is definitely in the final throes” of development, which is scheduled to end on Aug. 26 when the Falcons host their first NFL preseason game. There also may be an earlier public-unveiling event but the NFL date is the first scheduled full-scale opening of the Falcons’ new roost.

Miller spelled out a few previously unconfirmed facets of the technology deployment going on inside the stadium — the Wi-Fi gear is from Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company; and lead contractor IBM will also be supplying the stadium’s mobile apps, with separate versions for the Falcons, the Atlanta United FC of the MLS, and one for the stadium itself (to be used for concerts, college football games and other non-NFL or non-MLS events).

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in all its glory

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will also have a neutral host DAS run by the Falcons using Corning ONE gear.

No in-seat delivery for concessions

Another interesting twist is that Miller said the while the Falcons’ apps will have the ability to allow fans to order food and drink, it will be for pickup at express windows only, and NOT for delivery to seats, a service seen at other venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Miller said the AMB team has taken a different approach and expects fans to roam about more inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has many different “experiential” zones where fans can watch the action from someplace other than their seat.

But even with all the different technology and lower food prices, Miller is betting that the one thing that visitors will keep talking about is the halo video board, the main “big screen” that wraps around the inside of the roof in a full circle.

“When fans enter they’re going to look up and go, ‘Wow!’ and do it the first time, and the 10th time they visit,” Miller said. Miller said he was walking back to the stadium recently and saw the halo board in action, and stopped in awe. “I look up and am just blown away by it,” he said. Falcons fans and other interested visitors are looking forward to feeling that feeling soon. More photos below!

Anyone see a halo board in there?

Yes, it’s very close to the Georgia Dome.

Mr. Blank, uncage this bird!

Seen on the MARTA train in from the airport: Still time to get a gig at the stadium!

A better look at the big bird

TapIn2, Float Hybrid and Bud Light team up on food/drink delivery for minor-league ballpark

PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Credit: RailRiders Instagram

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders have introduced a mobile-device food and beverage order and delivery system for fans at PNC Field, the 10,000-seat home venue for the 2016 Triple-A national champions.

Behind the new system is a partnership of TapIn2, a delivery-app startup that provides a similar service for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cincinnati Bengals; Float Hybrid, an “interactive experience” design agency; and Bud Light, a title sponsor for event delivery services like the new food/beverage service for the RailRiders. The RailRiders are a New York Yankees affiliate.

Screenshot of PNC Field ordering app

According to a press release about the deployment, PNC Field integrated TapIn2’s SmartVenue delivery software system with the existing point of sale system to provide the support for mobile-device ordering and delivery. Available to fans in reserved-seat sections of the park only (not in general admission bleachers or lawn spaces), the delivery system supports a wide range of options for both food and drink ordering and delivery.

In an email reply, Keith Bendes, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships for the San Francisco-based Float Hybrid, said the system saw an average order total of $18.85 on the opening day of the service, and about $16.08 per order ongoing. Average delivery times so far are about 6-7 minutes per order, Bendes said.

Though PNC Field doesn’t have in-stadium Wi-Fi or an enhanced cellular DAS system, Bendes said the macro networks in the stadium’s town of Moosic, Pa., appear to be strong enough to keep fans able to connect on their mobile devices.

It will be interesting to follow the deployment of delivery services in smaller venues like minor league parks, which may be an easier operation than the system that supports in-seat delivery to venues like the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium.

Timberwolves, Lynx partner with VenueNext for new stadium/team apps

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx announced a partnership with app developer VenueNext, under which VenueNext will build stadium and team-content apps for the NBA’s Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Lynx.

The deal represents the second NBA contract for VenueNext, which has already launched a successful app and associated marketing programs with the Orlando Magic and their home arena, Amway Center. The VenueNext partnership with the Timberwolves and Lynx coincides with a current renovation of the teams’ home arena, the Target Center, which will also get a new Wi-Fi network along with the new app in time for the 2017-2018 NBA season. The Lynx app, according to the team, will be ready before the start of the 2018 season.

Screen shot of old Timberwolves app. Anyone got an old Blackberry in a drawer that could run this?

Though service specifics and screenshots of the new apps are not yet available, the press release out today said that fans can expect the usual menu of VenueNext-type app features, including digital ticketing, arena information, and team content. In other arenas, like the NFL’s Levi’s Stadium, VenueNext apps support features such as in-seat concession ordering and delivery; other VenueNext apps like the one for the Kentucky Derby offer mobile betting.

According to the Timberwolves, the new app will replace their current mobile app, which was created by app developer YinzCam. In 2015, YinzCam sold an equity stake in the company as part of a deal to re-do 22 NBA team apps.

(If you search for mobile apps on the Timberwolves website, you can see a geeky-cool photo of the team’s first mobile app running on a vintage Blackberry, which they claim was the first NBA team mobile app.)

VenueNext, which signed the San Jose Sharks as its first NHL client this season, also recently added some more venture funding to strengthen its business operations.

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.

Super Bowl LI Wi-Fi sees drop in average per-fan use total

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Under seat Wi-Fi APs visible down seating row at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

While Super Bowl LI in Houston set records for most total Wi-Fi used in a single day event, the actual amount of average Wi-Fi data used per connected fan actually dropped from the previous year’s game, from about 370 megabytes per user at Super Bowl 50 to about 333 MB per user for Super Bowl 51.

Using official totals provided by the NFL’s official analytics provider, Extreme Networks, there was a total of 11.8 TB of data used on the Wi-Fi network at NRG Stadium in Houston during Super Bowl 51, compared to 10.1 TB used during Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

While the total Wi-Fi data number represents approximately a 17 percent increase from Super Bowl 50 to Super Bowl 51, the most recent game had 35,430 users who connected at least once to the network, an almost 30 percent leap from Super Bowl 50’s 27,316 unique users. So while Super Bowl 51 had more unique users (and more peak concurrent users as well) and a higher data total, the average amount of data used per connected fan decreased, from about 370 MB per user to about 333 MB per user.

Data for Super Bowls in years past is thin (mainly because stadium Wi-Fi didn’t really exist), but it’s certainly the first time in very recent history that the per-user average has dropped from one Super Bowl to the next. Super Bowl 49, held at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., saw a total of 6.23 TB of Wi-Fi used, with 25,936 unique users, for a per-user average total of 240 MB. We don’t have any stats for unique users at Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium, but with the total Wi-Fi used there at 3.2 TB the average was also presumably much lower as well, unless there were also 50 percent fewer connected users.

Did autoconnect drop the average?

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

Wi-Fi gear visible above concourse kiosk at NRG Stadium. Credit: 5 Bars

The drop in per-user average data for Wi-Fi is curious when compared to the huge leap in overall DAS stats for the last two Super Bowls, with Super Bowl 51 checking in at 25.8 TB of data, a figure that does not include statistics from T-Mobile, which is declining to report its data total from the game. At Super Bowl 50, all four top wireless carriers combined saw 15.9 TB, so the total for Super Bowl 51 is about 62 percent higher — and if you add in the estimated 3-4 TB that was likely recorded by T-Mobile, that leap is even bigger.

Unfortunately cellular carriers do not provide the exact number of connected users, so there is no per-user average data total available. It would be interesting to know if the expanded DAS preparations made at Super Bowl 50 and at Super Bowl 51 actually connected more total users, or allowed users to use more data per user. We have a request with Verizon for more stats, but it may be a long wait.

One theory we have here at MSR is that it’s possible that a large number of autoconnected devices may have increased the unique-user total while not necessarily adding to the overall Wi-Fi data-used total. In our reporting about the NRG Stadium network we noted that Verizon, which helped pay for the Wi-Fi deployment, had reserved 40 percent of the Wi-Fi capacity for its customers, many of whom could have been autoconnected to the network even without them knowing. We have asked both Extreme and Verizon for a breakdown on Verizon users vs. other wireless customer users on the Wi-Fi network, but have not yet received a response.

Arizona State upgrades DAS, Wi-Fi at Sun Devil Stadium

Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State. Credit all photos: ASU

Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State. Credit all photos: ASU

When Arizona State University started renovating Sun Devil Stadium three years ago, the project wasn’t so much a simple wireless refresh as it was a total reset of what technology, sports and academia could co-create.

In addition to expanded Wi-Fi and DAS for the stadium (a venue that includes classrooms, meeting rooms and retail outlets), ASU activated a virtual beacon trial. The university also joined up with Intel to explore how Internet of Things devices might yield better environmental information about the bowl, including acoustic data, Jay Steed, assistant vice president of IT operations, told Mobile Sports Report.

The university’s IT department understood that a richer fan experience for football and other events would require a robust network. Steed and his colleagues visited other venues like Levi’s Stadium, AT&T Stadium, Stanford and Texas A&M to get a better handle on different approaches to networking, applications and services.

Regardless, some sort of refresh was overdue. Wedged between two buttes in the southeastern Phoenix suburb of Tempe, the 71,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium was completed in 1958 and needed infrastructure and technology updates. Wi-Fi access was limited to point-of-sale systems and stadium suites; fans generally relied on a DAS network.

Time for an upgrade

Editor’s note: This profile is from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace. Read about the Sacramento Kings’ new Golden 1 Center and the new Wi-Fi network for the Super Bowl in our report, which is available now for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site!

“The stadium needed a lot of facelifting, not just from a technology perspective but also for the fan experience, like ADA compliance and overall comfort,” Steed said. “We didn’t just want to rebuild a venue for six football games a year, but extend its availability to 365 days and make it a cornerstone and anchor for the whole campus.”

The 'Inferno' student section got a priority for better connectivity.

The ‘Inferno’ student section got a priority for better connectivity.

The reset included tearing out the lower bowl to “punch some new holes” — new entry points to the stadium — and to add conduits and cabling for the new 10-gigabit fiber backbone for the stadium. The network can be upgraded as needed to 40- and even 100-gigabit pipes, according to Steed.

“We wanted to make sure it could support fans’ [connectivity needs] and all the facility’s operations with regard to video and StadiumVision, learning and education, and Pac-12 needs as well,” he said.

The overall stadium renovation was budgeted at $268 million; the technology upgrades will total about $8 million.

The university added 250 new DAS antennas. The vendor-neutral network includes AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, which share 21 DAS sectors to keep cell service humming inside the stadium.

On the Wi-Fi side, ASU opted for Cisco’s access points. The networking vendor was already entrenched across the 642-acre campus; Steed and the IT department prefer the simplicity of a single-vendor network. Cisco helped with the hardware and RF engineering for Sun Devil Stadium. CenturyLink offered guidance on the networking and fiber pieces of the project, while Hunt-Sundt, a joint venture, was the contractor for most of the physical construction.

Wireless service for ‘The Inferno’

When the renovation is officially completed later in 2017 (most of the network is already live), there will be 1,100 APs in and around Sun Devil Stadium. The student sections, also known as The Inferno, get more APs and bandwidth since historical data has shown students to be the biggest bandwidth consumers in the stadium. Consequently, the ratio in the student sections is one AP to every 50 users; the rest of the bowl’s APs each handle about 75 users on average, Steed said.

Breakaway look at an under-seat AP

Breakaway look at an under-seat AP

ASU’s new Wi-Fi network was engineered to deliver 1.5 Mbps upstream and 3 Mbps downstream, but Steed said so far users are getting better performance – 8 Mbps up and 12 Mbps down. “We’re getting about 25 percent saturation,” he added. “Many users put their phones away during the games, but we see spikes at halftime and during commercial breaks.” Regardless, ASU continually monitors Wi-Fi and DAS usage and adjusts bandwidth as needed.

Another big challenge is the desert climate – temperatures regularly soar into triple digits. With about 450 under-seat APs in the bowl, Steed and his team had to make sure the enclosures could withstand heat and didn’t obstruct the walkways. “We’ll see how well the electronics do, baking at 120 degrees six months out of the year,” he laughed.

ASU is also working with Intel, using the stadium’s APs as part of an Internet of Things trial. As Steed described it, IoT sensors work alongside stadium APs to measure temperature, noise, vibration and other environmental data. “We also look at lighting control and water distribution and flow,” he said.

Concourses also got expanded Wi-Fi and DAS coverage.

Concourses also got expanded Wi-Fi and DAS coverage.

Automating the control of environmental functions like heating, cooling, power usage and facilities management will help the university toward its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2025, Steed added. The trials are designed so that the technology can be expanded across the university, possibly for campus transportation kiosks or student concierge services. IoT devices could give students and visitors information about adjacent buildings or landmarks around campus.

Separate but related, the university is also testing cloud-based, Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology from Mist Systems. These “virtual beacons” use sensors attached to an AP to flag information or a point of interest for students or stadium visitors. “The virtualized beacon technology helps us understand where people are walking around and what they’re looking at in the stadium and elsewhere around campus,” Steed said.

They’re currently being tested in some of Sun Devil Stadium’s suites; Steed foresees expanding that to the student union to help guide people to meeting rooms, retail facilities or food vendors, for example.

Steed credited excellent communication and collaboration among the university’s athletic and IT departments and other players in the upgrade equation. “Our athletic director, Ray Anderson, brought the CIO and me into his office and really worked together with us,” he explained. “The biggest piece of our success was knowing that the AD supported our recommendations and brought us in as valued advisors.”