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Last year, 2021, will infamously go down as the year the network saved the Super Bowl. It may sound dramatic, but without technology in place to support efforts like touchless payments and digital ticketing, it’s unlikely that one of the world’s biggest sporting events would have taken place given the need for social distancing and safety and health protocols because of COVID-19.
Professional sports leagues have been pressured to lean into technology for years, whether on the sidelines or to improve the overall fan experience. In 2021, the NFL saw a massive decrease in fan Super Bowl attendance, with only 24,835 fans attending the big game. Normally, attendance averages 70,000 (excluding the anomalous 2020 season). MLB attendance was also sharply down in 2021, but has since bounced back.
Across the board, it’s proving to be increasingly difficult to lure casual fans to stadiums when the options for experiencing games are so broad. As a result, sporting leagues are embracing technology to speed up the game, make it safer for players and create unique experiences for fans while they are in the stadium. Convenience, entertainment and transcendent experiences are no longer a fan’s dream, they are the expectation.
The evolution of in-stadium technology has played a significant role in keeping fans coming back to live games. Organizations such as the MLB, NASCAR, NFL and NHL are recognizing this. Even across the pond, Manchester United, a professional soccer team in England, has announced it will outfit its 103-year-old stadium with the latest wireless network tech. (DISCLAIMER: The organizations mentioned above are currently working with the author of this article’s company, Extreme Networks, to deploy networking solutions, giving the company a unique view into what is driving this interest.)
For fans, the benefit to these league investments is clear. Fans are generally on their phones throughout the game; in 2021 during Super Bowl LV, nearly 14TB of data was transferred over the fan-facing Wi-Fi network and that was in a half-filled stadium. The most popularly accessed apps were iTunes, Facebook and the ESPN app. Fans are constantly listening to music, looking for updates on statistics and sharing experiences with friends — and they want to do it without lag. They also hope to make it easier to get into the stadium with a mobile ticket or order food to their seat right from their phone.
Just having Wi-Fi isn’t enough to save a fan who is frustrated with stadium basics like easy navigation, accessibility and the ability to make a quick exit after the game.
New frontiers in sports technology
If the first frontier of stadium technology was basic connectivity enabling inter-team communications and the second was modernizing regulation and rules committees, the third is optimizing the entire flow felt by players, staff and fans within the stadium.
By analyzing patterns like how many devices are stuck in one area, which concession stands are the most popular, or what points in the game fans are most using their devices, leagues can not only improve basic stadium experiences but can introduce more interactive digital experiences that can make fans more excited to go to a game in-person.
As leagues continue to evolve, technology will eventually permeate every aspect of live games. The MLB is exploring automated umpire calls for balls and strikes will make the game go faster, which the league hopes will attract more fans. They and other major leagues are leaning into player analytics on the field to improve gameplay, while at the same time leaning on more network analytics to improve and personalize decisions for fan experiences and operations. The technology is invisible, but its impact is significant.
Leagues are also realizing the potential of using analytics off the field. They can see into how fan behaviors change based on the timing of the game, the portion of the season or the weather. In one instance, a stadium using network analytics noticed that a significant percentage of fans were using a specific dating app during breaks in the game and turned the opportunity into a sponsorship. The potential for identifying fan preferences and using them to enhance in-stadium experiences is limitless.
Another area getting stadiums and leagues excited is the potential for sports betting. Betting is taking off. According to the American Gaming Association, $7.61 billion was expected to be wagered during Super Bowl LVI. With the legalization of sports betting across the country, there will be plenty of opportunity to better understand the profile and behaviors of mobile bettors and customize in-stadium experiences for that demographic.
For younger fans and players, this evolution isn’t revolutionary. It’s an expectation. To keep the novelty of the live sports experience fresh and continue their legacies, leagues and clubs worldwide need to recognize the value of the technology that many of them already have within their stadiums – or risk losing relevance (and money) altogether. The leagues that will make the biggest impact on fans are the ones that recognize the goldmine that awaits behind the plumbing of network infrastructure.
Norman Rice is the chief operating officer of Extreme Networks.