Intel True View coming to Niners, Vikings apps; but will anyone watch?

Screen shot of an Intel-powered 3D view of an NFL game.

From a sports viewing standpoint, there may not be a more compelling new technology lately than Intel’s True View platform, which can provide 360-degree 5K-resolution looks at a sporting event that are equally stunning and informative, a true leap in performance for TV-watching fans. Last week, a move by Intel to provide venture funding for app development firm VenueNext seemed like a great deal for fans of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings, whose stadium apps are slated to get the Intel technology to support 3D replay views, perhaps as early as next season.

While both the funding and the replay plans are positive moves for sports fans, our question is, will anyone really watch? While VenueNext’s app platform seems to be gaining momentum with pro teams from all the major U.S. sports leagues, the instant replay function — which was part of VenueNext’s first platform, the app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium — has never really caught on, peaking at the start and slowly dwindling thereafter. Replays on other mobile platforms, however — like Twitter — are enormously popular, with one Vikings video alone earning more than 4 million views.

VenueNext CEO John Paul at last week’s Intel event.

Though the Intel/VenueNext announcement garnered a lot of headlines last week, none of the other stories mentioned how little-used the instant replay function is. In fact, almost every team or stadium that has instant-replay functionality in its app declines to provide any statistics for the feature, a shyness we can only attribute to the fact that the numbers are embarrassingly low. The only one VenueNext was able to tell us about was the Niners’ app, which according to VenueNext generated approximately 1,000 views per game last season.

During 2014, the first season Levi’s Stadium was open, the app peaked early with 7,800 replays during that year’s home opener; by the end of the season that number was down to fewer than 4,000 replays per game, which prompted Niners CEO Jed York to label the service’s low uptake a surprising disappointment. Now it’s even used far less often. (VenueNext competitor YinzCam also has instant replay available for many of its team apps, but also does not provide team-by-team viewing stats.)

One reason York cited for the low replay use was the quality and frequency of replays shown on the Levi’s Stadium large video boards; while in the past many pro teams kept replays to a minimum (especially if they were unflattering to the home team) the acceptance of replay review in many leagues and a general change of behavior now sees almost constant replay showing, as well as live action on in-stadium video boards. And while the process to produce in-app video replays is stunningly quick, even the fastest replay functionality combined with the need to navigate a device screen is usually well behind live play.

Screen shot of instant replay service inside Levi’s Stadium app.

Since the amount of funding Intel is providing VenueNext was not announced, it’s hard to tell whether or not either company will consider the transaction worthwhile if the replay viewing numbers remain low. Another problem with the app replays is that many are confined to in-stadium views only due to broadcast rights restrictions; compare that handcuff to the openness of Twitter, where a video of the “Minnesota Miracle” walkoff TD shot by a quick-thinking Minnesota Vikings employee (Scott Kegley, the team’s executive director of digital media & innovation) during last year’s playoffs garnered more than 4 million views and recently won a Webby award.

If there’s a dirty not-so-secret about stadium wireless connectivity, it’s that almost every report we’ve ever seen about app and service usage inside venues puts use of open social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook far, far above team and stadium app usage. Though stadium and team apps are gaining more traction recently due to their embrace of service functionality for things like parking, concession transactions and digital ticketing, we still haven’t seen any reports or evidence that in-stadium instant replays are gaining in use.

Will Intel’s revolutionary technology change the game for in-app replays? We’ll track the developments and keep asking for stats, so stay tuned.

Technology central to Target Center renovations

The new scoreboard is one of the highlights of the Target Center renovation. Credit: Target Center (click on any photo for a larger image)

For Minneapolis residents who passed by every day, the renovation of the Target Center might have seemed like a mining project, chipping away at a somewhat blank slate until a sparkling gem was revealed.

Now complete, the 2-year, $145 million project to update the 28-year-old downtown venue has brought the 19,356-seat arena to the forefront of advanced fan experiences, with its main tenants, the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Lynx, now able to offer fans amenities like open club spaces, high-density Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, and a new mobile app as well as a huge new center-hung video scoreboard.

All those features are located inside the arena’s shiny new exterior, which includes a multi-level atrium with glass windows facing the streets, replacing the old concrete walls. According to Ted Johnson, chief strategy officer for the Timberwolves, the renovation “touched every surface,” with new seats, bathrooms and other hard-to-notice items like a real loading dock to make it easier to move equipment (like concert staging) in and out of the arena.

Technology to the forefront

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Target Center’s new entryways use lots of glass. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

On top of the physical changes came the technology layer, with obvious improvements including the center scoreboard, which Johnson said is “the largest in the Midwest,” and four new large video boards in each of the stadium’s upper corners. New LED ribbon boards circle the stadium bowl as well, with one lower one and another series of ribbons above higher entryways that create what Johnson calls an “optical illusion” of a second continuous ribbon.

A new fiber-based network backbone was also installed, to support a cellular DAS deployment as well as a new Wi-Fi network designed and deployed by AmpThink, a company extending its mark in Minneapolis after previous Wi-Fi deployments at U.S. Bank Stadium and the Mall of America.

According to AmpThink, the Wi-Fi network inside the Target Center has approximately 400 access points, but since many of those are the newer Cisco 3800 versions with two radios in each AP, there are actually about 550 radios serving the stadium.

During a visit to the arena during a game in November, Mobile Sports Report found solid Wi-Fi speed results in all parts of the venue, including the upper seating areas and the concourses. Walking around the upper concourse by section 240 we got a Wi-Fi speed test of 34.42 Mbps on the download side and 45.20 on the upload; in the same location, a test of the DAS network for a Verizon Wireless client saw speeds of 22.88 Mbps / 22.66 Mbps.

Moving into the upper stands, at the top rows of section 239 we still got Wi-Fi speeds of 33.73 Mbps / 61.56 Mbps; looking up, we could see multiple Gillaroo antennas mounted up in the catwalks, along with the glowing blue lights of the APs.

Lots of light is a hallmark of the new Target Center. Credit: Target Center

Down in the open gathering area near the brewpub (located in the stands behind one of the baskets) we got Wi-Fi marks of 21.26 Mbps / 67.07 Mbps. Then in one of the stadium’s club suites we got a test of 42.27 Mbps / 68.83 Mbps, with all tests taken during game-action times. We did not get any lower-bowl seating area tests, where AmpThink said it has deployed APs under seats.

Linking digital displays and Wi-Fi

In addition to its Wi-Fi design and deployment, AmpThink is also assisting the Timberwolves in using the digital displays to drive fan engagement with the app and the Wi-Fi network. The AmpThink tests, Johnson said, along with the decision to switch to VenueNext for a new app (which supports more fan services than the previous, content-focused team app), are part of a deliberate strategy to build a next-generation “seamless fan experience” that starts long before fans get to the arena.

“We’ve used Flash Seats for some time now — we were one of the first [teams] to disable paper printing [for tickets],” Johnson said. “We had already educated fans to use a mobile device, so we decided to use that advantage as much as we could.”

A big part of the physical renovation, Johnson said, included improvements to the intersections between the arena and downtown Minneapolis’ famed Skyway, the connected maze of in-building public walkways and skybridges that links much of downtown together.

“Right now 12,000 to 15,000 people a day come through our building via the Skyways, and about 66 percent of our fans come into the building through there [the Skyway],” Johnson said. As part of the renovation the Target Center added digital displays to its Skyway territory, and the team is part of a city-wide plan to bring beacon technology to the Skyway system so that a wayfinding app could be used to help visitors, residents and anyone else better find their way around.

New video boards on the concourses relay messages to fans walking by

San Antonio Spurs refresh mobile app with new features from YinzCam

Screen shot of new app design for the San Antonio Spurs. Credit: YinzCam

The San Antonio Spurs announced a new version of the team’s mobile app, which includes new features both for fans attending Spurs home games at AT&T Center as well as for fans following the team remotely. The new features were added to the app by developer YinzCam, which also designed previous versions of the team’s app.

According to YinzCam and the Spurs, a new interface designed for clarity and faster navigation will help fans find new features like blue-dot wayfinding (available only for Apple iOS devices) as well as new interactive maps available for both iOS and Android devices. Another update is the inclusion of on-demand replays for fans at AT&T Center, with four different camera angles to choose from, according to YinzCam.

In a nod toward a trend of team and stadium apps adding more attendance-specific services, the new version of the Spurs app will inlcude a “Season Ticket Member Club,” which the Spurs and YinzCam said will provide special offers and discounts, as well as the ability for season ticket holders to have single sign-on access to Ticketmaster’s account manager, which they can then use to digitally manage their tickets.

What’s not clear is if this update is an addition to an update YinzCam was scheduled to provide to the Spurs in the wake of a 2015 deal with the NBA under which YinzCam was to redesign 22 NBA team apps, including the Spurs’. Since that deal several teams have replaced YinzCam with a competitor — the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets are all currently working with VenueNext to deliver their team apps. The Orlando Magic are also a VenueNext client, the first NBA team to pick that developer.

YinzCam, however, still claims to have developed 21 of the NBA team apps in use this season, including apps for the following teams: Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards. The Sacramento Kings and the Miami Heat use apps designed by Built.io, another newcomer in the stadium and team-app market. This year the Detroit Pistons turned to Venuetize for their team app in their new home, Little Caesars Arena. According to this release Venuetize also helped design the new app for the Portland Trailblazers. The Dallas Mavericks’ team app is supplied by Tixsee.

Tampa Bay Lightning pick Venuetize for new Amalie Arena app

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Amalie Arena have selected developer Venuetize for a new team and stadium app that will bring features including a multi-purpose digital wallet that will help fans manage their ticket options for hockey games and other events at the venue.

Screen shot of the new Amalie Arena app by Venuetize.

Announced in January, the new app is already available for iOS and Android devices. According to the team, the app supports the ability to purchase concessions and merchandise with a mobile device, as well as being able to perform detailed ticketing transactions including transfers and even transfers of discounts.

The deal with the Lightning represents Venuetize’s second NHL deal this season, following the company’s win to provide a similar stadium and team app for the Detroit Red Wings (and the Detroit Pistons) at Little Caesars Arena. Venuetize also previously built an integrated app for the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.

With new entrants like Hopscotch challenging established app players like YinzCam and VenueNext in the stadium and team app arena, Venuetize seems to be claiming its own turf with apps that lean heavily on transaction features, as well as the ability to easily shift between sporting events and other events at stadiums.

YinzCam, which made its name early in the space with content-focused apps, recently unveiled a feature that allows app users to order and pay for food and beverages. Clearly, the ability to support more transaction-based services seems to be part of the increased table stakes in the stadium and team app market going forward.

San Jose Sharks add more features to SAP Center stadium app

The San Jose Sharks announced today a raft of upgrades to their stadium app, including a feature that will allow fans to toggle through four separate modes of functionality, for Sharks games, SAP Center events, minor-league hockey info and information about the Sharks-associated public skating rinks in the area.

Now called the San Jose Sharks + SAP Center app, the mobile-device program developed by VenueNext and Adept Mobile will bring to life some previously mentioned services for Sharks fans, including the ability to order Sharks merchandise and in-stadium “experiences” — like purchasing a message on the big video board — directly from the app.

Screen shot of new ‘marketplace’ options in Sharks app

Other new features include live audio broadcasts of Sharks games and games for the AHL’s Barracuda; augmented reality experiences; and a message preference and inbox feature that will allow fans to self-regulate the frequency of in-app communications with the team.

The ability to toggle between different versions of the app — say, for Sharks hockey games or for a concert at SAP Center — is a feature finding its way into most stadium apps these days, including VenueNext’s app for the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium. The Sacramento Kings have a similar two-apps-in-one strategy for the team and for Golden 1 Center, in an app developed by Built.io.

For fans, it’s a way to have all the arena-going information in one place, while for the teams and venues it’s a way to keep current customers informed of all the associated businesses. (On its face the feature sounds like a smart idea, but so far we haven’t seen any metrics from any teams showing proof that it is really working for either fans or teams/venues.)

Putting the ability to order experiences like big-screen messages (just $75!) or visits from the Shark’s toothy mascot into the app seems like a good idea, since those actions can now be acted on in the moment instead of having to plan far ahead. And for fans who like to hear play by play either at the rink or at home, having team audio is a great feature and alternative to radio.

‘Super’ Wi-Fi and DAS at U.S. Bank Stadium ready for Super Bowl 52

A look at downtown Minneapolis from inside U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

After Sunday’s stunning last-second victory, the Minnesota Vikings are one step closer to becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own home stadium. Should the Vikings beat the Eagles in Philadelphia this weekend, Super Bowl 52 visitors should prepare for a true Norse experience inside U.S. Bank Stadium, with repeated blasts from the oversize “Gjallarhorn” and a fire-breathing dragon ship that will launch the home team onto the field. Skol!

But even if the hometown team falls short of making the big game this season, on Feb. 4, 2018 the stadium itself should do Minneapolis proud, especially when it comes to wireless connectivity. With two full regular seasons of football and numerous other events to test the networks’ capacity, both the Wi-Fi and DAS networks inside the 66,655-seat U.S. Bank Stadium appear more than ready to handle what is usually the highest single-day bandwidth stress test, namely the NFL’s yearly championship game. (Though the selfies and uploads following Sunday’s walk-off touchdown toss may have provided an early indicator of massive network use!)

In a mid-November visit to U.S. Bank Stadium for a Vikings home game against the Los Angeles Rams, Mobile Sports Report found robust coverage on both the Wi-Fi and cellular networks all around the inside of the stadium, with solid performance even amidst thick crowds of fans and even in the highest reaches of the seating bowl. Speedtests on the Wi-Fi network, built by AmpThink using Cisco gear, regularly hit marks of 40 to 50-plus Mbps in most areas, with one reading reaching 85 Mbps for download speeds.

And on the DAS side of things, Verizon Wireless, which built the neutral-host network inside U.S. Bank Stadium, said in December that it has already seen more cellular traffic on its network for a Vikings home game this season than it saw at NRG Stadium for Super Bowl LI last February. With 1,200 total antennas — approximately 300 of which were installed this past offseason — Verizon said it is ready to handle even double the traffic it saw at last year’s game, when it reported carrying 11 terabytes of data on stadium and surrounding macro networks.

Good connectivity right inside the doors

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A new Verizon DAS antenna handrail enclosure (right) at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (The enclosure lower left is for Wi-Fi).

James Farstad, chief technology advisor for the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), the entity that owns U.S. Bank Stadium, said he and his group are “very pleased” with the state of the wireless networks inside the venue heading toward its Super Bowl date.

“You’re never really satisfied, because you want it to be the best it can be,” said Farstad in an interview during our November visit to Minneapolis. “But generally speaking, we’re very pleased with the state of the networks.”

Those networks are tested the very moment the Vikings open the doors for home games, especially in warmer weather when the signature big glass doors — five of them, all 55 feet wide and ranging in height from 75 to 95 feet — swing out to welcome fans. As the entry that points toward downtown, the west gate can account for as much as 70 percent of the fans arriving, according to the Vikings, putting a big crush on the wireless networks in the doorway area.

To help keep people connected in crowded situations, Verizon deployed extra DAS antennas on short poles in front of both the west and east end zone concourse areas, part of a 48 percent increase in overall DAS antenna numbers added during the football offseason. Even with thick crowds streaming into the stadium, we still got a DAS speedtest of 77.35 Mbps download and 32.40 Mbps upload on the concourse just inside the west doors, and just below the Gjallarhorn.

Walking around the main level concourse, connectivity hardware is easy to see if you know what you’re looking for; part of the extensive DAS coverage includes dual antennas hanging off a single pole above wide walkway segments. And in one instance, we saw a good example of aesthetic integration, with a Wi-Fi AP attached just behind two IPTV screens, with a beacon attached to the side and a DAS antenna mounted just above everything else.

First big test of railing-mounted Wi-Fi?

Moving into the seating bowl, visitors may not know that many of the Wi-Fi network’s 1,300 APs are hiding there in plain sight — inside silver handrail enclosures, many of which now sport bright, bold section numbers to help fans find their seats. Believed to be the first big football-sized stadium that relied mainly on railing-mounted APs, the proximate network design from AmpThink is proving to be a winner in performance, producing regular-season game data totals of around 3 terabytes per event and maybe more importantly, keeping an optimal number of fans attached to the AP closest to them for the speediest connection.

Top-down antennas provide coverage for suite seating

Sitting next to AmpThink president Bill Anderson in the stadium’s press box you get a great view of the field, but it’s doubtful Anderson watches much football action given that he spends most of a game day glued to a screen that shows live detailed performance for every Wi-Fi AP in the building. While the analytics program produces a wealth of interesting data, the one metric that keeps Anderson’s attention is the one showing how many fans are connected to each AP, a number that will be no more than 50 and ideally somewhere around 25 connections if the network is performing as it should be.

On the day we visited, on Anderson’s screen there was one AP showing more than 200 devices trying to connect to it, an issue Anderson noted for immediate problem-solving. But with only a handful of others showing more than 50 connections, Anderson was confident that AmpThink has been able to figure out how to solve for the main dilemma for Wi-Fi in large enclosed structures, namely keeping APs from interfering with each
other. The large clear-plastic roof and wall areas at U.S. Bank Stadium don’t help, since they reflect RF signals to add to the network design degree of difficulty.

But the multiple railing-mount network design – which AmpThink duplicated at Notre Dame University, whose new network is seeing the highest-ever data totals seen at collegiate events – seems to be fulfilling AmpThink’s goal to produce networks with steady AP loads and consistent, high-density throughput in extremely challenging environments. The railing-mounted APs provide connectivity that couldn’t be delivered by overhead antennas, like in Notre Dame’s open concrete bowl and in U.S. Bank Stadium’s similar wide-open seating area, where no overhead structure is within 300 feet of a seat.

Two DAS antennas hang from a pole above the main concourse

“I think we have a network strategy that produces good uniform performance” in venues like U.S. Bank Stadium, Anderson said. “It’s pretty darn exciting to have a formula that works.”

More antennas get DAS ready for big game

And even though Verizon knew the Super Bowl was coming to U.S. Bank Stadium when it built the neutral host DAS for the 2016 opening, it came right back this past offseason and added approximately another 300 new antennas (mainly for its own use and not for the shared DAS), all in the name of unstoppable demand for mobile bandwidth from fans attending events.

Diana Scudder, executive director for network assurance at Verizon, said in a phone interview that “the consumer appetite [for wireless data] is insatiable,” especially at the NFL’s biggest game, where DAS use has grown at a fast clip the past few years. Scudder said these days Verizon pretty much plans to see double whatever the last Super Bowl saw for each following big game, and adds network capacity accordingly. Verizon’s numbers from the past three Super Bowls are a good guide, with the carrier reporting 4.1 TB used at Super Bowl 49, 7 TB at Super Bowl 50, and 11 TB at Super Bowl 51.

AmpThink’s handrail-mounted AP enclosures seem to have played a hand in part of Verizon’s DAS upgrade, as some of the new DAS enclosures seem to mimic the Wi-Fi ones with their smaller silver enclosures. Scudder did say that Verizon used contractors to assist with the new antenna deployment enclosures and mounts, but did not cite AmpThink by name. Verizon also deployed some under-seat antenna enclosures for its upgrade, a tactic the company also used for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Even up in the most nosebleed of seats — in U.S. Bank Stadium’s case, section 345, which has seats almost touching the roof in the southwest corner, we got a DAS speedtest on the Verizon network of 60.87 Mbps / 44.22 Mbps, most likely from some antennas we could see mounted just above the seats on ventilation pipes a bit toward the field. And hanging from the middle of U.S. Bank Stadium’s roof are a pair of Matsing Ball antennas, which point down to provide cellular service for media and photographers on the sidelines, as well as for floor seating for concerts and other events.

Ready to add more bandwidth on the fly

Even less unseen and probably not appreciated until it’s needed is the stadium’s backbone bandwidth, provided by sponsoring partner CenturyLink.

A Wi-Fi enclosure in section 345, near the stadium’s roof

Though some stadiums are touting 100 Gbps pipes coming in, the U.S. Bank Stadium setup makes the venue its own ISP, according to Farstad.

With six 10-Gbps pipes that are always active — and on two separate network infrastructures for redundancy — the stadium can turn up its bandwidth on the fly, a test the venue got on its first public event.

According to Farstad, when U.S. Bank Stadium opened for the first time with a soccer game on Aug. 3, 2016, the stadium operators expected about 25,000 fans might show up for a clash between Chelsea and AC Milan. But a favorable newspaper article about the stadium led to more than 64,000 fans in the house, a surge that backed up the light-rail trains and saw the concession stands run out of food.

“We were watching the Wi-Fi system during the first break [in the soccer game] and it was coming down fast,” Farstad said. But the ability to increase capacity quickly — Farstad said that within 45 seconds, the stadium was able to provision new bandwidth, a task that in other situations could take weeks — the Wi-Fi survived the unexpected demands, proof that it should be able to handle whatever happens on Super Bowl Sunday.

“I think we can handle the Super Bowl traffic,” Farstad said.