NBA’s Charlotte Hornets partner with VenueNext for new app

The NBA’s Charlotte Hornets are partnering with app developer VenueNext to develop a new team and stadium app, which will be ready before the new NBA season begins, according to a press release from the team and the company.

The deal is VenueNext’s third NBA customer, after previously signing contracts with the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets deal also represents the second NBA team to move to VenueNext’s app platform following a 2015 deal where competitor YinzCam won a contract to redevelop 22 NBA team apps, including the Hornets’.

Like other VenueNext apps, the Hornets’ new app will support extensive digital ticketing services, as well as mobile payments and the ability for fans to use their devices to order and pay for concessions for express pickup at designated stands. The release said the new app will also “continue to remain the primary source of team-related news, video and content for Hornets fans.”

Screen shots of the new app were not available yet. According to the release, the new app will also support real-time scoring and game statistics, along with video highlights and “access to the Hornets’ radio broadcast and social media channels.”

VenueNext, which got its start as the app developer for the San Francisco 49ers and their new home, Levi’s Stadium, also has the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and the Minnesota Vikings among its pro sports team clients. VenueNext also designed the latest app for Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The company has raised $24 million in venture capital, $15 million of which came in a Series B funding last October.

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.

Stadium Tech Report: Sharks bite into digital future with new Wi-Fi, app strategy for SAP Center

Welcome to the Shark Tank. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Here’s a dirty secret about Silicon Valley sports: Even in this birthplace of the digital era, the hometown hockey arena has historically had some of the worst mobile connectivity around.

Despite the fact that loyal hockey fans always faithfully filled the seats to support their San Jose Sharks, the building now known as the SAP Center somehow never had the kind of wireless network you’d think its tech-savvy locals would demand.

But that was then. This is now.

After years of low connectivity, the “Shark Tank” is now filled with speedy, high-definition Wi-Fi that forms the base of a new digital-experience strategy for the Sharks and the SAP Center. The new digital experience includes a new team app as well as multiple LED screens in all parts of the stadium, bringing the old building screaming into the forefront of older venues retrofitted with technology that both enhances the fan experience while providing new business opportunities.

“If sports is behind the world in technology, we were even behind in sports,” said John Tortora, chief operating officer for the San Jose Sharks, about the building’s historical shortcomings. Interviewed between periods during a late-January visit by Mobile Sports Report to a Sharks game at SAP Center, Tortora said a sort of perfect storm of desires and needs arrived this past postseason, ending up as an initiative that brought in the arena’s first true fan-facing Wi-Fi network, an expanded LED-screen deployment throughout the arena and a new stadium app. Together, the elements are all aimed at supporting a data-driven strategy to improve marketing efforts while simultaneously providing a huge boost to the fan experience.

And make no mistake about it, better connectivity was an amenity fans wanted most of all.

High-density Wi-Fi provides digital backbone

Handrail enclosures bring Wi-Fi APs close to the fans. Credit: San Jose Sharks

Editor’s note: this profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, which also has in-depth looks at new networks at the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, and a recap of wireless activity from Super Bowl LI! DOWNLOAD your FREE COPY today!

“We had a survey of fans from the first half of last season, and the direct response was that the Wi-Fi needed to be improved,” Tortora said. Though there was some Wi-Fi in the building — according to Tortora, there was a system deployed in 2013 — it wasn’t anything the team wanted to talk about or promote; in fact, multiple requests by MSR to review the stadium’s networking infrastructure went ignored for years, prior to the new initiative now in place.

According to Tortora, there were also previously a number of different standalone apps for the various activities that took place in the building, including separate ones for the Sharks, the seasonal Disney ice shows, for youth hockey programs and for other SAP Center events like concerts. Bringing multiple apps together into a unified strategy led the Sharks to simultaneously seek a partner to help upgrade the mobile network infrastructure. Tortora said the Sharks found that partner in Cisco, which brought Wi-Fi gear and its StadiumVision digital-display system as well as some creative financing to the table.

“We had a chance to parallel both a new app and a new infrastructure, and Cisco was a great partner,” Tortora said. Though the terms are undisclosed, Cisco is also participating in the financing and operation of the network marketing elements as a partner to the Sharks.

Under-seat AP enclosure in the lower bowl. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The Sharks also brought in Wi-Fi deployment expert firm AmpThink to lead the network design, and used Daktronics technology for the multiple new LED boards, many of which are located in the previously blank-walled concourse and club areas. The result is a high-density Wi-Fi network operating at peak speeds, which forms the base for a high-touch digital experience that will ultimately give the Sharks deeper insight into fan behaviors, and a more personal way to deliver the right experience to each fan walking through the doors.

Going low and high to deliver Wi-Fi

Even before you get inside the building, you can connect to the new SAP Center Wi-Fi network, thanks to a bank of APs mounted on the outside walls. Allison Aiello, director of information technologies for the Sharks, said that many fans typically gather just outside the arena pregame, especially in a park just to the east side, and with the push toward more digital ticketing, providing pre-entry connectivity was a must.

Once inside the doors, fans are greeted by the innovative “Kezar” scanners from app developer VenueNext, which can scan either paper or digital tickets, with a green light on the top of the cylindrical system showing that a ticket is valid. Connectivity inside the entryways is also superb, as our tests showed Wi-Fi download speeds in the mid-60 Mbps range, even as crowds of fans came in through the doors.

Wi-Fi APs hanging from the rafters. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

A quick lower-level visit to the main data room showed some of the challenges of retrofitting an older building (the arena, which opened in 1993, had been known as the Compaq Center and the HP Pavilion before becoming the SAP Center in 2013): One of the members of our tech-tour entourage bumped his head on a low-hanging pipe, part of the ice-making infrastructure, on the way to the data center doorway.

With more than 20 years of cabling history inside its walls, the SAP Center wiring closets were an ongoing challenge for the implementation crew from AmpThink, which took pride in its work to streamline and organize the wiring as it installed the new network (with some of the cabling in new, Shark-specific teal coloring). Moving out into the lower seating bowl, AmpThink president Bill Anderson showed off some of the under-seat and railing-mounted AP enclosures, where attention to detail includes drilling concrete cores around the railings below the surface level so that shoes, brooms and other items don’t catch on areas where work has been done.

Anderson said the lower-bowl network is only operating on 5 GHz Wi-Fi channels, adding San Jose to an industry trend of leaving 2.4 GHz channels off the network in fan-facing areas. The main reason for this switch has to do with both the administrative challenges of the 2.4 GHz networks, along with the fact that almost all consumer devices these days support the wider bands of the 5 GHz space. Anderson also had high praise for Cisco’s new 3800 series of Wi-Fi APs that were used in the deployment, which can support dual 5 GHz channels.

According to the Sharks’ Aiello, there are 49 handrail Wi-Fi enclosures in the lower seating bowl, with 47 of those having two APs in each enclosure. For concerts, she said the arena can hang additional APs over the sideline hockey boards, which stay in place while the end zone boards are removed. The total number of APs in the stadium is 462. Our pregame network tests prior to a Sharks-Blackhawks game on Jan. 31 showed a Wi-Fi speed of 63.39 Mbps download and 57.59 upload, halfway down the stairs between sections 114 and 115.

Overhead Wi-Fi for the upper deck

In stadiums where under-seat or handrail APs are used, it’s usually best to not combine those placements with overhead APs since client devices will often seek to connect first to overhead APs, even if they are farther away. But due to a quirk in the SAP Center’s construction, AmpThink went with a deployment strategy of overhead APs for the arena’s upper seating deck, mainly because of the low ceiling that is closer to the seats than many other indoor venues.

A look at the overhead APs from below. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Though combining different AP architectures is tricky, AmpThink’s Anderson said it’s better to pick “the one that’s economically right” rather than staying stuck with one method. Overhead placements like SAP Center’s, which are hung from the walkways near the roof, are typically much cheaper per placement than under-seat or handrail deployments, which often require extensive work including core drilling through concrete floors.

“I was a little concerned at first [about the combination of overhead and railing placements] but the roof is close enough to work,” said Aiello of the dual placement methods. According to AmpThink’s Anderson, most of the overhead antennas are about 30 feet away from the seats, with the farthest being 45 feet away — still close enough so that the power needed to reach fans doesn’t bleed the signal down into the lower bowl. Aiello also noted that an under-seat or handrail AP design for the upper deck would have required the Sharks the extra expense and work to drill through the ceilings of the stadium’s premium suites, which are located between the two main bowl seating levels.

In the upper deck section 219, we tested the Wi-Fi at several seating locations and came up with consistently fast speeds, including one at 48.88 Mbps/44.96; at the lounge area along the arena’s top row we saw even faster speeds, including a mark of 68.00/68.52. We also saw many VenueNext railing-mounted beacon enclosures, part of a planned 500-beacon network that Aiello said will be coming online sometime soon.

Since hockey games have two long breaks built into each game, it’s extremely important for venues to provide good connectivity in concourse and club areas where fans typically congregate between periods. And even though the SAP Center is an older building — which sometimes makes aesthetics a challenge — AmpThink and the Sharks were able to hide almost all of the APs that are placed every 50 feet around the main circular concourse thanks to a small drywall facade that sticks out from the main wall to support directional and section-number signage.

While some of the Wi-Fi speedtests we took while roaming the concourse during the crowded pre-game were in the high 40 Mbps range, we also got a few tests much higher, with one at 67.94 Mbps/ 58.14 Mbps, and another at 63.76 / 55.96, the latter near a crowded concession area. And even with fans streaming in at a good clip, we even got one test at 69.62 / 70.54 near a doorway, showing that walk-around coverage appears to be solid throughout the building.

A VenueNext beacon mount in the upper deck. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

And even though the Sharks were eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs, fans used the SAP Center Wi-Fi at higher levels than normal during the postseason. According to Aiello, the stadium saw a peak of 5,013 concurrent users en route to a total of 1.3 terabytes of data used at the first home playoff game; the second home game saw 1.1 TB of data used, with 4,890 peak concurrent users.

New LED boards keep fans connected while out of seats

If the Wi-Fi APs will remain hidden to fans strolling the concourses, the new LED boards will have an opposite effect — instead of just a few TV screens here and there, the Sharks and Daktronics, along with AmpThink and Cisco have gone all-in with a strategy that has multiple-screen boards and long banks of LED strips that can all be controlled and programmed from a single location, thanks to the Cisco StadiumVision system.

Having networked and controllable screens is a huge plus for administration — according to Aiello the previous setup required manual walk-arounds to configure and check each display. AmpThink also helped reduce the wiring needed for all the new displays by connecting the LED boards to the IP cabling used for the Wi-Fi system.

This photo shows how close the ceiling is to the upper deck seats. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“The video, audio and Wi-Fi all used to be discrete systems,” said AmpThink’s Anderson. “Now they all roll up to one converged network.”

With StadiumVision, the Sharks will be able to program the displays on the fly, substituting advertising for live game action as quickly as hockey teams change players on the ice. Aiello noted that the combination of screens and a beacon system will allow the Sharks to sell more targeted advertising with real metrics showing the number of fans in the area of a display. Big displays mounted above doorways can also be changed to assist with foot traffic and transportation info for postgame exit flows.

App already providing more marketing leads

Wrapping it all together in the fans’ hands is the new app from VenueNext, a company Tortora said the Sharks had been in contact with since its inaugural launch of the Levi’s Stadium app for the San Francisco 49ers. While the VenueNext app will evolve over time to potentially add in a list of services, the ability to let fans move tickets around digitally has already helped the Sharks start down their desired path of having more personalized information to better reach current and prospective customers.

“During the preseason this year we had 2,500 tickets transferred per game, versus 800 during last year’s preseason games,” Tortora said. Because many of those transfers involved sending tickets to email addresses or phone numbers that weren’t current season ticketholders, Tortora said the Sharks were able to add approximately 7,500 new names to their ticket marketing database, which Tortora simply called “gold.”

Fans’ social media posts are featured on the scoreboard during pregame. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“To do digital tickets, fans have to download the app, so now we can market directly to that person,” Tortora said. That move will help the Sharks identify things like “who’s not coming to games and why,” which may help the team find out early if fans may not be wanting to renew season tickets, and market to them accordingly.

A Cisco-built fan portal is also part of the overall package, and eventually the team hopes to use that software to construct more-personal marketing messages that can be determined by factors including live presence and location within the building. As more data accumulates, Tortora said the Sharks plan to get even deeper into a strategy currently underway that revolves around dynamic ticket pricing.

“We can use data to find out where seats are in demand, and where some sections may not be selling well,” Tortora said, and shift prices accordingly. The team has already broken seating prices into 16 different categories for this season, with plans to expand that to 36 different categories for next season, Tortora said.

“Airlines do this, hotels do this,” Tortora said. “It’s all about being data-driven.”

The Sharks and Blackhawks get ready to rumble. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

LED screens above an entryway. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

More LED screens above the seating entry areas in the main concourse. Credit: San Jose Sharks

LED screens above entryway, where fans use the VenueNext ‘Kezar’ scanners to validate tickets. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Even more LED screens, on a different concourse. Credit: San Jose Sharks

New Report: New Wi-Fi, app and digital displays for San Jose Sharks’ SAP Center

MOBILE SPORTS REPORT is pleased to announce the Spring 2017 issue of our STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the ONLY in-depth publication created specifically for the stadium technology professional and the stadium technology marketplace.

Our profiles for this issue include a first-look visit to the San Jose Sharks’ newly wired SAP Center, where a Cisco Wi-Fi and StadiumVision network (deployed by AmpThink) has brought high-definition connectivity to the old familiar “Shark Tank.” We also have a profile of new DAS and Wi-Fi deployments at the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, as well as a recap of the wireless record-setting day at Super Bowl LI at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Plus, our first “Industry Voices” contribution, a great look at the history and progression of Wi-Fi stadium networks from AmpThink’s Bill Anderson. DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY today!

We’d also like to invite you to join in our first-ever “live interview” webinar, which will take place next Tuesday at 11 a.m. Pacific Time, 2 p.m. Eastern time. All the details are here, so register now and listen in next week for more in-depth views from Vivint Smart Home Arena, and their technology partners, Boingo and SOLiD.

We’d like to take a quick moment to thank our sponsors, which for this Stadium Tech Report issue include Mobilitie, Crown Castle, SOLiD, CommScope, Corning, Huber+Suhner, American Tower, and Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Their generous sponsorship makes it possible for us to offer this content free of charge to our readers. We’d also like to welcome new readers from the Inside Towers community, who may have found their way here via our new partnership with the excellent publication Inside Towers. We’d also like to thank our growing list of repeat readers for your continued interest and support.

NFL builds its own Super Bowl app, with no concessions delivery and fewer replays

Screen shot of map function on NFL Super Bowl LI app.

Screen shot of map function on NFL Super Bowl LI app.

The NFL has built its own Super Bowl mobile app, breaking with a recent history of using stadium-app specialists like VenueNext and YinzCam to develop specific apps for Super Sunday.

Also unlike recent years, the NFL’s Super Bowl app will not feature instant replays or have any kind of food or drink delivery services. Instead, there appears to be a big focus on promoting Super Bowl events (especially those for this weekend) and for helping out of town tourists find their way to Super Bowl events and to the game itself.

Curiously, an interview about the app with the NFL’s CIO claimed that this year’s app will also be the first to include the ability for fans at the game to watch Super Bowl commercials. The story also claims without any attribution that “In the past, commercials weren’t on the app in order to avoid using too much bandwidth in the stadium.” However, at the most recent Super Bowls, including the past two, stadium bandwidth has been more than sufficient enough to stream plenty of video. And in fact, both of the last two Super Bowl apps have included the ability for fans at the game to see Super Bowl commercials.

Last year’s app, developed by VenueNext for the Levi’s Stadium hosting of Super Bowl 50, definitely showed Super Bowl commercials, part of what the San Francisco 49ers network team said was a record-breaking day of app-based video watching. The Super Bowl 49 app, built by YinzCam, also included Super Bowl commercials according to this NFL video and according to our previous reporting.

Fewer replays, no food or beverage delivery service

Screen shot of transportation info links from Super Bowl LI app.

Screen shot of transportation info links from Super Bowl LI app.

And even though NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle is quoted in the previous story about the new app as saying “You won’t feel like you’re using two separate apps as fans have in the past,” the Super Bowl LI app contains a link to download the separate NFL Mobile app, which is apparently where Super Bowl highlights and replays will live. There was no confirmation from the NFL or Verizon about whether or not fans in the stands would be able to watch the live broadcast of the game via NFL Mobile. Fans not at the game will be able to use NFL Mobile to watch the game on cellular devices; fans can also stream the game from the FoxSports website, for PCs or tablet devices.

This year’s app will also not include any way for fans to use the app to order food or beverage delivery to their seats; last year’s app did have the ability to order in-seat delivery of beverages or to place an order for food and beverage express pickup, a service used for 3,284 orders. NRG Stadium, however, does not offer full-stadium in-seat ordering like Levi’s Stadium does; the stadium does have serving staff with wireless devices providing in-seat ordering services for club sections, which will likely be in use at the Super Bowl as well.