Shift4 buys VenueNext for $72 million

Shift4, a provider of integrated payment processing for a wide range of industries including retail, hospitality and lodging, has purchased stadium app provider VenueNext for $72 million to jump-start a bigger move into the large public venue marketplace.

According to press materials released by Shift4, the acquisition “significantly expands Shift4’s presence in large and growing verticals, adding to recent wins in the sports market, and expanding TAM with entry into entertainment, universities, theme parks, airports, and other verticals.”

Claiming it had more than $200 billion in payments processed for 200,000 businesses in 2019, Shift4 becomes the biggest player in the stadium app and concessions technology marketplace, where VenueNext previously competed with firms like Venuetize and YinzCam. Recently, Venuetize had made inroads on some team deals previously held by VenueNext, including with the San Jose Sharks.

As venues move toward more comprehensive digital solutions for services like ticketing, concessions and retail, it makes sense that payment-processing firms like Shift4 might want to target the space. Last year Shift4 signed a partnership deal with the Las Vegas Raiders to be the credit-card processing partner at the team’s new Allegiant Stadium. Shift4 is no stranger to Las Vegas, since the company’s systems are used in many of the city’s casinos.

VenueNext, a company started in part to provide the stadium app for the opening of the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in 2014, had recently pivoted to provide more back-end POS services and a more open app platform, a move that netted the company the University of Florida as its first big-school college customer. As far as we know VenueNext had raised $24 million in venture funding over its private existence; it’s not yet known how its investors made out in the Shift4 deal.

We are setting up interviews with the companies involved, so stay tuned for more updates on this story.

Pandemic planning puts focus on venue entry, concessions

Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is using signage messages to help fans stay socially distanced. Credit: Miami Dolphins

As some venues take baby steps forward in allowing limited fan attendance at events, for most venues the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are forcing owners and operators to take a longer look at the technologies and procedures that can help provide safer situations for large crowds inside public spaces for the foreseeable future.

And if keeping fans farther apart from each other is one of the simplest and best methods of enabling safer gatherings, it makes sense that many venues and technology and service providers are currently concentrating on venue entry and concession operations, with an eye toward using technology and procedures to cut down or eliminate the long lines that have long been a part of a game-day experience.

Before the pandemic changed events forever, many venues and fans were stuck in the systems and practices that had been the same for decades. While some forward-looking venues were experimenting with innovative digital technologies for entry and concessions operations, most were still caught somewhere in between the past and the future, with a mix of digital ticketing, paper tickets, cash transactions for parking and concessions, and bottleneck walkway traffic situations often caused by the random geography of stadiums, some built as long as 100 years ago. Fan behavior often contributed to these crowded situations, with the last-minute crush of entries from people who stayed at tailgate gatherings until just before kickoff a somewhat unwanted tradition at many stadiums across the country. But now, all that has changed.

The forced changes of Covid

In a wide series of interviews with venue owners and operators, team representatives, and technology manufacturers and service providers, we’ve seen general agreement with the idea that many of the “old ways of doing things” at events will no longer be possible as the pandemic continues, and most likely even after it subsides from its current critical state. Going forward, events in large public venues will need to adopt technologies and procedures aimed at not just keeping fans safe, but also to make them feel safe, and confident that the stadium operation is doing all it can in those regards.

The two areas of operations we are focusing on with this story are the two that easily account for the high- est potential of long lines: Stadium entry, and concessions. While historically these two operations have been fan-experience pain points in almost every venue, the good news is that mature technologies already exist to help solve for problems in both areas – and some best practices have already emerged from forward-looking venues and providers who embraced these ideas prior to the pandemic. What follows is a look at some of the technologies and services available for entry and concessions operations, with insights from early adopters and from the companies involved in the deployments.

Digital tickets and faster scanning

Editor’s note: This story is from our recent STADIUM TECH REPORT Fall 2020 issue, which you can read right now, no email or registration required! Also in this issue are profiles of the technology behind two of the most innovative venues to ever open, SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas! START READING NOW!

Just like when airline ticketing went from printed paper to mostly mobile-device systems, so has the stadium and event entry business been changing. Prior to the pandemic, most venues of any size had at least some kind of digital ticketing system in place, with many moving to digital-only processes over the past few years. While there were still some holdouts, most of the people we interviewed agreed that the desire to make activities like parking lot and stadium entry faster and contact-free is now driving venues to adopt digital ticketing at a rapid pace.

“The tone has completely changed,” said Karri Zaremba, who until recently was chief operating officer at stadium app developer Venuetize (Zaremba is now a senior vice president with Major League Baseball, for ballpark experience and ticketing). According to Zaremba, this past summer teams and venues were showing “an eagerness and hunger” for digital ticketing systems that Venuetize hadn’t seen before.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out a plan to reform venues and remove humans from the [interaction] equation,” Zaremba said.

George Baker, founder and CEO of parking technology provider ParkHub, agreed that the need to reduce hand-to-hand or face-to-face transactions is driving more technology in venue entry, beginning at the gate to the parking lot. ParkHub, which recently signed a deal with venue management firm Spectra to provide parking-lot technology to Spectra-managed properties, also raised an additional $15 million in venture funding this spring to help accelerate its business.

Parking attendants can scan digital tickets, a safer and faster alternative than cash. Credit: ParkHub

According to Baker, while fans may have long resisted any changes to the way things have always been done, he is confident that the safety of digital transactions, plus the expanding features available via digital platforms – such as premium lot differentiation and the ability to reserve spots ahead of time – will accelerate the use of technology in parking lot entry as well as many other game-day transactions. And as more fans use digital payment methods for parking, teams and venues can also better manage their inventory, with real-time updates.

“For venues, it’s no longer a nicety, it’s a necessity,” said Baker of digital transactions.

One venue that has made a name for itself by its use of innovative fan-facing technology is the Los Angeles Football Club’s Banc of California Stadium, which opened in 2018. Christian Lau, chief technology officer for Major League Soccer’s LAFC, said contact-free entry and transactions have always been a part of the venue’s plan.

In fact, before the pandemic started the club was working with security technology provider Patriot One to help develop a new entry-gate system that would include innovations including eliminating the need for the single-person metal detectors as well as future support for entry via facial recognition technology. LAFC is using entry gate technology from Axess, a Salzburg, Austria- based provider.

“It is all part of redefining our great fan experience, and redefining the security stack,” said Lau. “We want to let you walk into the stadium like you’re walking into a Target store.”

Other venues, including the University of Oklahoma, are already borrowing from the airline playbook, by putting in more self-scanning ticket kiosks. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the first pro football teams allowing fans to attend in limited numbers, said they have installed new metal detectors that allow fans to keep things like keys and cell phones in their pockets when entering. Kim Rometo, vice president and CIO for the Miami Dolphins, said that Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium now has “walk-through, multi-zone metal detectors” that let fans keep items in their pockets to speed up entry.

Temperature scans are a costly addition

One technology that got a lot of attention this summer was thermal detection devices, usually cameras that could scan people to detect a high body temperature, one of the signs of a possible Covid-19 infection. While such cameras are already in use in some places like airports, we have yet to find a major U.S. sports venue that has committed to installing thermal cameras for fan entry. The reason why? A combination of high costs (each scanner device can cost $10,000 or more) and unclear results, especially when used in large-scale operations like fans coming in to an event.

While many sports teams are using thermal detection devices to help keep staff and players safe as they enter team buildings and the stadiums, the prospect of trying to extend those operations to thousands of fans is a problem that requires an extra level of operational procedures. Chip Swisher, director in the smart solutions practice at CenturyLink, said venues looking to install thermal detection systems need to consider placement (since the cameras do not work as well in bright sunlight) and other mitigating factors, like fans just getting hot from being in the sun at a tailgate party. Teams will also need to develop procedures on how to handle fans who do show a high temperature, either with cooling tents (where they can be re-tested after a short time period) or with further testing or ways to refuse entry.

At some venues temperature checks are being performed, by staff members with handheld devices, a process that may possibly introduce more safety issues than it solves by forcing the person-to-person proximity. For most venues, the temperature-check process is currently a “wait and see” item, as they monitor what other venues are doing and what, if any, requirements for temperature checks are made by local governent or health officials.

Spacing and timed entry and departure

If television views of some of the first games with fans allowed in the stands are any proof, the idea of keeping fans spaced far apart in the stands seems to be working, except at some college games where students apparently violated safety precautions by massing together once inside the venue, often without masks.

For most teams that are starting to allow fans into stadiums, the digital ticket and the team or stadium application is the primary vehicle for keeping fans at safe distances when they enter and stay at the venue.

“We stretched existing solutions to meeting the need [for distancing],” said the Dolphins’ Rometo. “Ticketmaster introduced the ability to define seating pods for social distance and space them six feet from one another. We [also] program the digital tickets to display the preferred gate for social distancing along with a specific entry time. All social distancing signage will be displayed on Cisco Vision throughout the concourses and we augmented eight LED boards at entrances to communicate entrance times.”

While some venues have floated the idea of having set departure times, Rometo said that at Hard Rock Stadium fans can leave at any time they choose. If they stay until the end, she said, ushers will try to dismiss rows in an order to keep social distancing – but added that the space available inside the venue should keep crowds from forming.

“Hard Rock Stadium can hold more than 65,000 so we fully expect dismissing 13,000 will still occur in a timely fashion,” said Rometo of the team’s expected early attendance allowance.

And while some teams are eliminating tailgating completely, others like the Kansas City Chiefs are implementing spacing protocols in the parking lots, with every other space blocked off so that fans can’t park side by side.

Concessions: Lessons learned from retail, fast food

If there was one place in many stadiums that needed an overhaul even before the pandemic, it was concessions. According to Moon Javaid, chief strategy officer for the San Francisco 49ers, customer experience surveys have consistently shown concessions to be “the lowest-rated aspect” across all sports.

Anothy Perez, CEO of stadium app developer VenueNext, explained why that experience has been poor at so many venues for so long.

New kiosks from Appetize will be used in the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field when it allows fans back in. Credit: Appetize

“Deviating from the normal is a risk,” Perez said. “If you stick to the old wisdom and something goes wrong, it’s not your fault.”

But the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Perez said, “gives you cover to try something new. It’s a paradigm shift.”

With her Venuetize hat on, Zaremba said that many venues might not have moved forward faster with innovative concessions strategies in part to avoid alienating older customers.

“All that is now out the window,” Zaremba said. New methods of contact-free or lower-contact transactions, she said, are “going to be demanded” by fans who have gotten used to such interactions in the daily life of the pandemic, where most restaurant meals are now primarily consumed by to-go pickup or via delivery, with payments made electronically or via phone by credit card.

According to our interviews, many venues are quickly moving to change as much of their concessions operations as they can to more contact-free or even contactless transactions, where fans don’t have to talk face to face with concessions staff. Last year, the Denver Broncos had several new options along these lines at Empower Field at Mile High, including grab-and-go beverage stores that were basically rows of coolers where fans could take whatever canned or bottled beverages they wanted, and pay for them using an optical scanner (manufactured by Mashgin).

Other options in Denver included kiosk ordering for a chicken stand and several grab-and-go formats where prepackaged food was available to fans to take and pay for, again at a Mashgin scanner.

Fans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in 2019 use Appetize-powered kiosks to order and pay for food. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Kevin Anderson, chief strategy officer for stadium point-of-sale systems developer Appetize, said venues are realizing that if they didn’t have contact-free concessions systems in place, they need to rapidly do so, “because it’s the future.” Appetize, which powered the systems at the Broncos’ stadium, is currently in the process of bringing more than 50 self-service kiosks to the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, which hopes to be able to host fans sometime later this season.

Though kiosks do involve the process of touching a screen, Anderson said most people have confidence that a finger touch is a low-risk possibility of virus transmittal.

“The highest likelihood of transmittal is person to person,” Anderson said, voting for kiosks as a safer alternative. To help keep the process even safer, Anderson said Appetize’s new screens have a “hospital grade” screen protector that resists contamination. The kiosks, he said, will also have hand sanitizer bottles attached for fans to use.

The Niners’ Javaid said the team had already made a decision to bring in more kiosk stations for some of its regular concessions areas, because it not only reduces lines, but it also reduces the staffing requirements of a regular concession stand.

“Staffing is expensive, and for us [in Silicon Valley] it’s hard to get people,” said Javaid of the part-time work that maybe involves 10 events a year. For regular concession stands, Javaid said, the Niners would use four cashiers and four food expediters. But with a kiosk system, he said, one person can handle the same number of orders, allowing the team to repurpose the staff to other positions.

“And with kiosks, people can stand wherever [to wait for their orders],” Javaid noted. “You don’t have to stand in line.”

Team and stadium apps get a new life with concessions

Appetize, like other POS developers, also supports mobile ordering and payment for their concessions customers, another area where many venues are stepping up current order-by-phone operations or adding them if they didn’t previously support them. At LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium fans have been able to use several methods to order concessions digitally, including via the team’s Venuetize-built app, or by using Apple Business Chat, or by simply scanning a QR code on a sign near a stand, which brings up a web page with menus, ordering and payment instructions, making such transactions available on the fly.

When VenueNext was born as the provider of the stadium app for the Niners’ Levi’s Stadium in 2014, the company was an all-or-nothing proposition for doing everything inside the app, including the venue’s since-discontinued feature of having in-seat delivery available to every seat in the house. Perez, who took over the CEO spot in 2018, has shifted the company’s strategy to embrace other mobile-ordering options like web-based QR-code menus, and added a POS back-end system to support more mobile-ordering options. VenueNext debuted its new mobile systems last season at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka “The Swamp.”

VenueNext powers a new app at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where it also debuted new products like a POS system and a web-based app in 2019. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Venues going all-mobile or mostly mobile for concessions may allow teams and venues to rethink their concourse real estate and possibly innovate by adding space for fan engagement or sponsor activation, Perez said.

“What really gets interesting is how you can open up spaces” in the venue by streamlining concessions operations, Perez said. “The beauty of mobile is that you can completely decouple shopping, ordering, paying and fulfillment.”

LAFC’s Lau noted that there is still an operational component to the contact-free experience, namely designing systems that have necessary nuances, like scheduling pickup times so that fans aren’t all in the same area at the same time.

“You don’t want the pickup lines to back up,” Lau said. “You need to eliminate lines, eliminate the friction of lines.”

One more concessions trend that some stadiums (like Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium) had experimented with, having completely cashless transactions, will now likely be the norm going forward given the safety concerns associated with exchanging paper money.

“Venues were dipping their toes in the water before, on cashless, but now they’re leapfrogging ahead,” said Zaremba, whose former company Venuetize is exploring options that include biometrics that would allow fans to “order with their face.” At Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the venue has partnered with security provider Clear for a few concession stands that let fans pay for concessions with a fingerprint reader, after first signing up to the Clear system.

If there is one other cutting-edge idea emerging, it’s the Niners’ plan to make concessions all-inclusive for season ticket holders, a plan that was developed before the pandemic as part of the team’s overall overhaul of its concessions operations.

When the Niners have fans present to roll out their all-inclusive concessions operations – where all season-ticket holders will have a menu of the most popular food and non-alcoholic beverages available as part of their ticket prices – they will use technology to assist the deployment, including using the Cisco Vision display management system to provide menu and directional information via TV screens, and to also incorporate the camera-based fan movement technology system developed by WaitTime to gather information on how fans move about in the concourse and concession areas.

WaitTime, which originally developed a mobile app to help fans find out where concession and restroom lines were shortest – and then added a version teams could broadcast on digital displays – is now pivoting to add more granular data from its camera-based systems for Covid safety and contact-free concession deployments.

Zachary Klima, WaitTime CEO, said that teams are going to need better information on where fans are moving inside venues to build reliable, safe procedures for the new normal.

“Tape on the floor can only go so far,” Klima said. “It’s better for teams to know where people are, and where they aren’t.”

The Niners’ Javaid agreed with the data-driven approach.

“How are people queueing? I need to understand that,” Javaid said. “We’ve never done this before, so I need data.”

VenueNext debuts new strategy, products at University of Florida

VenueNext powers a new app at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where it also debuted new products like a POS system and a web-based app. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any picture for a larger image)

Created in 2014 to provide stadium apps for sports teams, VenueNext has pivoted toward focusing on mobile commerce services, a strategy that includes building web-based apps for teams, schools and other large public venues as well as for big events.

Though the company hasn’t completely given up on building team and stadium apps, executives at VenueNext pointed toward the company’s partnership with the University of Florida as a good example of its new strategic focus. In addition to providing the school with a stadium app that launched this fall, VenueNext also debuted its back-house point-of-sale transaction system at Florida, as well as a web-based app for stadium services and purchases. According to VenueNext executives, the new offerings are part of a new focus on mobile transactions, one that de-emphasizes the company’s former goal of providing full-service, custom-built apps with a wide range of features, including concessions ordering, instant replay video, venue wayfinding and loyalty programs.

Cailen Wachob, VenueNext’s executive vice president for sales, retention, marketing and operations, said “we’ve been pretty quiet about it” in regards to the company’s new offerings and strategies. Originally launched as the provider of the team and stadium app for the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium, VenueNext raised $24 million in venture funding to fuel a push into what looked like a burgeoning market for team and stadium apps as venues became increasingly connected.

After an initial flurry of professional team customer wins, including other NFL teams like the Minnesota Vikings, NBA teams including the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Utah Jazz, and the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, VenueNext did not have any big-name announcements in the past year. In mid-2018, VenueNext founding CEO John Paul was replaced by Anthony Perez, former chief marketing officer for the Orlando Magic, a point at which the company “took a step back to look at what we wanted to do, moving forward,” Wachob said.

An express pickup window for concession orders made on the Florida app.

What that turned into was a new focus more on helping teams, venues and events with mobile commerce activities, rather than a strict direction of just providing a do-everything app with bells and whistles like instant replay video. That combination proved alluring for Florida, which is VenueNext’s first big-college customer.

“We wanted to pick a lane and focus on that, rather than be a custom developer shop,” Wachob said. That means that while VenueNext will still build team apps, it may use third-party functionality as needed.

“We’re more focused on the venue commerce utility,” Wachob said. “We’re not going to be focused on building out things like replay and video.”

Tough market, lots of competition

Since VenueNext’s launch, the stadium and team app has gotten extremely competitive, with multiple players joining the game. Early market leader YinzCam remains the player with the most customers, but it has been joined by a list of providers that includes Venuetize, Hopscotch, Built.io and Rover.io as well as older apps from operations like CBS Interactive and Sidearm Sports. The problem all app providers face, however, is the lukewarm adoption of stadium apps by fans in general. While teams and venues all tout the idea of a stadium app as a way for fans to have a so-called “remote control” for their game-day visits, the reality is that most fans don’t download or use the apps widely, except when forced to for things like digital ticketing.

Screenshot of the web-app ordering system at Florida.

While teams and venues (and the app providers) may claim that fans use stadium apps, the reality is that actual statistics for fan app use are rarely ever provided. In the few instances where teams or venues do provide statistics for things like app usage at games, team and stadium apps fall far behind general-purpose mobile apps like social media apps, email and application updates.

In-venue transactions, however, do offer a way for teams and venues to lure fans to an app or web platform, either by requiring it (in the case of digital ticketing) or by making it an attractive feature, by supporting things like in-seat delivery, raffles and games, order-ahead concessions or in-venue “experience” purchases like seat upgrades or things like on-field tours, or meet-the-players gatherings.

VenueNext famously had an ambitious goal of providing in-seat concessions delivery services for all seating areas at Levi’s Stadium, but that program was shelved in 2017 after limited use and challenges in providing the service to 70,000-plus potential customers.

What has emerged in the market as a more manageable solution are less-ambitious programs like offering delivery to limited seating areas (usually premium club areas) or mobile order-ahead services with express window pickup. The app for Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium offers the latter, with several areas around the venue having pick-up windows set aside for the mobile orders.

POS, kiosk ordering and web-based apps

Wachob said that Florida was also the first live customer for VenueNext’s new POS software system, a product that puts VenueNext into competition with players like Oracle’s Micros and Appetize. The system supports 180 different stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which Wachob said had previously used a cash-drawer system. VenueNext’s website also now includes promotion of kiosk-based self-serve concession systems, a rapidly growing service in sports venues.

VenueNext also rolled out its first live web-based app for Florida, where fans can interact with venue services without having to download an app. Once an unthinkable move for a company devoted to apps, the new service even has its own name and website, ordernext.com, linked to the main VenueNext site. The ordernext platform at Florida provided a way for fans to simply click on a link that said “Water Me” to get cold water delivered to seats in the stadium’s sunny section. Wachob said the site also allowed fans to purchase in-venue experiences, like an on-field pass or a visit with the Gator mascots.

“The new app and POS technology makes concessions better for everyone, it’s faster for those who order ahead of time, and the lines are shorter,” said Scott Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director.

The ordernext platform puts VenueNext into direct competition with providers like Rover.io, which tout the fast performance and greater flexibility of a web approach as opposed to a standalone app. Notably, Rover lists the Vikings and the Hornets as customers, even though those teams also have a VenueNext app. Stadium tech integrator AmpThink helped launch a similar program a year ago at Texas A&M, where the 12thmanlive.com site provided quick links to contests, discounts and other game-day activities.

To VenueNext’s Wachob, not being religious about whether services are offered in an app or on the web is part of the company’s new focus on mobile commerce first.

“Sometimes fans at the venue might not want to download the app,” Wachob said. “The ability to just go to a site [for a transaction] is really powerful. That’s the power of mobile — allowing the fan to determine what’s important to them.”

Philadelphia Flyers pick Venuetize for new stadium app

Screen shot of Venuetize’s new app for the Philadelphia Flyers and Wells Fargo Center.

The NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers have tapped app builder Venuetize for the team’s new stadium app for Wells Fargo Center, an app that includes digital ticketing support for now with other features planned for a later arrival.

According to a press release from the Flyers and Venuetize, the new app will allow fans to completely manage, transfer and scan tickets for all events at Wells Fargo Center, eliminating the need to print paper tickets at home. While the release did not specify which additional features would be available soon, screen shots of the app showed support for digital parking tickets and the ability to order concessions through the device.

The win with the Flyers is the second NHL deal for Venuetize this year, following being picked to develop the Tampa Bay Lightning’s new app earlier this year. Venuetize also counts the Detroit Red Wings and the Buffalo Sabres among its team-app clients.

LAFC scores technology hat trick at Banc of California Stadium

Banc of California Stadium, the new home of the Los Angeles Football Club. Credit all photos: Terry Sweeney, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

There’s an elegance to the advancing striker – the foot work, feints, arc of the kick – as they target the opponent’s goal. For the Los Angeles Football Club, that elegance gets reflected back in its newly christened home field, Banc of California Stadium, with its graceful lines and minimalist design, plus visibility and a connection to the field rivaling venues half its size.

LAFC, one of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion teams, had a particular sort of experience in mind for fans inside the venue, with its capacity of 22,000. The steeply pitched stands create an intimate sporting and entertainment space. Multiple clubs, suites and concession areas are there to satisfy food and beverage desires. Team owners were equally adamant about having top-notch technology, according to Christian Lau, vice president of information technology for LAFC, especially where wireless networking was concerned. The requirement was for “unprecedented coverage,” he added. “We wanted to avoid doing any retrofitting for at least five years.”

Opened in April, LAFC’s gleaming new stadium sits adjacent to the Los Angeles Coliseum (home to USC football, and to the NFL’s Rams, at least for now), replacing what used to be the Los Angeles Sports Arena. That structure was demolished in early 2016 and LAFC’s lengthy list of owners (Peter Guber, Magic Johnson, Will Ferrell and Mia Hamm, to name just a few of the sports and entertainment luminaries with a stake in the team) set the timer for April 29, 2018, LAFC’s first home game for its inaugural season.

Construction crews worked relentlessly to meet the deadline; the venue was ready one month early, thanks to good planning and construction crews putting in 16-hour days to be ready for BofC Stadium’s debut. On April 29, the gates opened and a new era had begun with the ‘hat trick’ of a fiber backbone, solid wireless coverage and an advanced app strategy.

The optics of LAFC networking

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No doubt where you are at. Welcome to LA… FC.

The foundation for LAFC’s networking is a gigabit passive optical network (GPON) backbone with two chassis, plus fiber links from two service providers, AT&T and Crown Castle. The stadium backbone is 10-Gbps fiber with 100-Gbps dark fiber in place, Lau explained. LAFC is one of just a few sporting venues using GPON, along with Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in College Station. Perhaps not coincidentally, the technology contractor for all three projects was IBM.

Wi-Fi was an obvious requirement for BofC Stadium; back-of-the-house networks support ticketing processes at the gates, along with POS applications and LAFC administrative needs. Fan-facing Wi-Fi (“LAFC Guest”) blankets the venue with 487 access points; Lau’s leaving open the door to add more APs as requirements dictate. About 60 percent of the existing APs are installed under seats in the stands. Ruckus Networks is the Wi-Fi AP vendor and helped with system engineering and tuning.

While engineered for 70,000 users, the venue’s Wi-Fi has been averaging about 8,700 simultaneous users, according to Lau. The LAFC Guest network has no landing page since at some venues, loading times for landing pages can be long, leading to frustrated users abandoning the Wi-Fi. Users have also come to consider Wi-Fi a de facto amenity, so LAFC wanted to ensure its guest Wi-Fi network was easily and quickly accessible, Lau said.

The DAS details

On the cellular side, LAFC called on wireless services and engineering firm Mobilitie to pull together the distributed antenna system (DAS) for BofC Stadium. The venue’s DAS network consists of 25 zones powered by Ericsson gear; there are 160 antennas and over 7 miles of cabling to handle nearly 1.5 million square feet of DAS coverage.

Wireless gear covers the concessions areas

All four of the major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – have signed up for BofC’s DAS network. Verizon was on air for the first game; Sprint was scheduled to fully integrate into the DAS network by the end of June, according to Stephanie Gray, senior director, wireless coverage solutions for Mobilitie.

LAFC was looking something transformative in its use of technology that would set BofC stadium apart from other stadiums, Gray told Mobile Sports Report. LAFC wanted seamless wireless especially in transition zones, part of strict requirements for the DAS network.

“They wanted a high percentage of coverage throughout the venue, particularly where people are using SeatGeek and wireless/paperless ticketing at the gates,” she explained. “We needed optimum coverage that could handle the stadium under load.”

Mobilitie brought engineering know-how to deal with the inevitable onsite quirks unique to every venue. In the case of BofC Stadium, the overall design aesthetic is modern and slick. The ceiling materials in many parts of the stadium – clubs, suites and some concession areas — are sheathed in metal, which presents an RF propagation challenge for RF, reducing signal strength.

On-field DAS coverage was also challenging, according to Jamie Witherspoon, director, technical solutions, for Mobilitie. Antennas had to be mounted on stadium trusses before the trusses were craned into place, an unusual technical cart-before-the-horse process. The reason? Cherry-picker equipment couldn’t be on the field or its freshly laid sod to adjust DAS antennas. In addition, Witherspoon reported lots of negotiations with the architecture firm, Gensler, to ensure the DAS antennas were as unobtrusive as possible and to preserve the stadium’s design aesthetic.

“With DAS, we’re more accustomed to building out a pre-existing venue, coming in after the fact,” Witherspoon explained. “This was brand new construction, so we had to work around multiple construction teams.”

Bandwidth snapshots

Mobile Sports Report put the fan-facing Wi-Fi and DAS to the test at BofC Stadium’s opening day, a match between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders. We sampled upload and download speeds around the stadium using the Speedtest app to measure performance. All our tests are only from Verizon’s services inside the venue.

Underseat mounts for Wi-Fi

In general, the BofC wireless services appear well engineered and cover the stadium’s common areas effectively. As to be expected, bandwidth performance was higher in the areas around the suites and clubs, where Wi-Fi downloads clocked in anywhere from 12.38 Mbps in the Sunset Loge on the west side of the stadium to 15.26 Mbps in the Founder’s Club. Wi-Fi upload speeds came in at 63.92 Mbps and 71.94 Mbps, respectively, the highest speeds measured in our tests at BofC Stadium.

Verizon’s DAS wasn’t as fast as the guest Wi-Fi. Highest DAS download speed at the south concessions was 37.67 Mbps; Section 123 on the southern side of the bowl came in at 35.43 Mbps. Highest upload speed for DAS service was 21.42 Mbps in the southeast concession area, followed by 20.92 Mbps around the southwest concessions.

A couple areas were less robust from a wireless bandwidth perspective. The DAS performance in the concession area outside the Figueroa Club on the east side of the stadium measured 9.4 Mbps download/10.97 Mbps upload; guest Wi-Fi in the west concessions area came in at 8.58 Mbps/1.93 Mbps, while Wi-Fi in the south concession wasn’t much better at 8.27 Mbps/1.98 Mbps. But generally, the guest Wi-Fi outperformed Verizon’s DAS and most Wi-Fi download/upload speeds were in the double-digits of megabits per second.

Prepping the LAFC app

LAFC worked with mobile integrator Venuetize to build out the team’s app, using the MLS team app template as its foundation. As a new team and one that started its season with a succession of away games, there was no reason to have stadium-based features in the app’s first iteration, said Lou Fontana, vice president of project management for Venuetize. The earliest iteration of the LAFC app concentrated more on content pieces, followed by the BofC Stadium-specific features.

LAFC’s app features both mobile ticketing and a sophisticated digital wallet for making onsite purchases for food or team merchandise. LAFC’s Lau volunteered that the organization is looking to have totally digital ticketing by 2019 – no paper, no PDFs to print out. Venuetize did some backend integration with payment processing partner Vantive; the ticketing part of the app works with ticket marketplace and aggregator SeatGeek.

Wi-Fi APs point down from the rafters

The LAFC app also uses and artificial intelligence-powered chatbot named Otto to help with stadium info, developed by Satis.fy. A future iteration of Otto will take it out of the Web’s view and make it a native view, incorporating elastic search. “That will enable fans to ask about players and the team schedule, and will replace search function in the app,” Fontana said, adding the upgrade could come sometime this summer.

The current version of the app has video, served up from MLS’s site. Immediate replay is something Venuetize will work on with LAFC. “When is the video content source available? That’s an issue,” Fontana said, adding that scoring plays make it out of the MLS server within about 25 minutes. While Venuetize could take that content and make it native, it’s not a top priority for the team at the moment.

BofC Stadium has installed Bluetooth beacon technology. “We haven’t gone through process of dialing in beacons, but wayfinding and navigation are on the list” for the LAFC app, Fontana said.

The integrator is also looking at GameChanger MVP, an augmented reality game developer, for a scoreboard game to fold in. “AR gaming will be the next interesting thing” for sports apps generally, according to Fontana.

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.