Opinion: Why the Connected Stadium is Coming Our Way

Today I’m delighted to feature an opinion piece from Simon Hills, Commercial Director at Sports Revolution. Simon and his colleagues have been working in the field of stadium connectivity and engagement for a long time.

One of his company’s services, StadiumLive caught my attention recently and I asked Simon to tell us more about that along with the underlying concepts. You only need to glance into the crowd at any stadium to see that almost everyone has their phone in their hand, especially in the run up to and during the real moments of truth. Actually engaging 50,000+ fans, simultaneously and in a meaningful, relevant manner requires quite a lot of thought just to get them all connected, let alone doing anything.

So I’ve asked Simon to give us an overview of what they’ve been doing in the space.

Over to you Simon…

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Simon HillsIn today’s connected world, people expect to be able to get online anywhere. Connectivity has become an essential and expected part of daily life – like running water or electricity. This includes when we are out and about – on a train, in a hotel, on the underground or on the road.

So why is it that football  stadia are still a mobile no-man’s land? Despite football and social media being a match made in heaven – fans love nothing more than sharing their gripes and glories online – the one place they can’t do it is when it matters most: at a match.

Too many bodies packed into a small space, combined with a high density of concrete and steel, quickly overwhelms the local mobile networks. As a result, merely sending a text can be next to impossible, let alone getting online.

Stadium wi-fi

This year, we have started to see a solution to the problem. Stadium owners are getting more clued up about the possibilities of connectivity. A new generation of ‘connected stadia’ is beginning to emerge, using high-density wi-fi to provide high-density bandwidth to tens of thousands of data-hungry fans.

At Sports Revolution, we have been involved in the UK’s first fully connected football ground – Celtic FC’s Celtic Park. We equipped the 61,000-seater ground with a high-capacity wi-fi network that is fully capable of serving the entire crowd, with no black spots. We then developed a dedicated fan app – CelticLIVE – that fans can download to their phone. This is designed to enhance the match-day experience, with compelling, relevant and timely content, such as possession stats, replays, man of the match voting and team news.

It’s been a big hit with the fans, with the app downloaded over 40,000 times since its launch at the Celtic v Ajax Champions League game last October. The industry has also applauded it, with a win at the recent Sports Technology Awards for ‘Best Support Technology for Fans’.

The connected World Cup

Many more clubs, especially in the Premier League, are now looking at stadium wi-fi and the benefits it offers. With all 16 stadia in the FIFA World Cup offering wi-fi this summer, it seems like the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and very soon it will become an expected part of the match-day experience.

In many ways, British sports stadia have no choice but to offer the technology. The changing demographic  of sports fan – younger, tech-savvy and plugged into social media – is a critical factor. This generation expects connectivity as a given wherever they go. It is essential to how they share the experience. A study in 2011 by Cisco among US college students revealed one in three regard the internet as being as essential to their lives as food and water.

And, for this generation, the rich experience of watching a game at home – with multi-screen connectivity and interactivity all around – is often regarded as a better, and cheaper, option. Cisco’s research also revealed that 57% of young fans would rather watch sport at home than enter the ‘black hole’ of connectivity that they experience in a stadium.

Competing with the home experience

Screenshot 2014-05-15 18.20.16

As such, football clubs have to work harder to tempt their audience off the sofa, offering a live experience that goes beyond the action on the pitch to justify the ticket price.

With this in mind, sponsors and commercial partners increasingly expect connectivity as standard issue from the clubs who want their money. Brands and sponsors want to be able to leverage their investment by engaging with fans at the ground. Slapping their logo on a shirt or stadium frontage isn’t enough.

Indeed, the commercial opportunities of stadium connectivity are mouth-watering. For example, food and drink sponsors can use it to offer refreshment orders direct to the seat – saving on those dreaded half-time queues – or financial brand partners could explore the possibilities of a mobile wallet. Apparel  partners  can boost merchandise sales, not to mention the huge opportunity for in-play betting.

The match-day demand is huge. At each Celtic game, we see an average of around 14,000 requests to access betting sites through our CelticLIVE app. At the Ajax Champions League launch game; there were a staggering 38,000 requests – over half the entire crowd.

Data-driven  value

With sky-high player salaries making the finances of many clubs increasingly precarious, this potential for mobile apps to enhance match-day revenues is highly attractive. And it’s not just a question of beer and burgers on match days. Many are beginning to realise that the revenue potential of in-stadium wi-fi services could be as much indirect as direct, especially as regards the use of customer data captured through the use of wi-fi services. Personalised marketing and the purchasing actions that follow make insightful data extremely valuable.

As is often the case with the adoption of new technology, we only have to look to the US to see which way the wind is blowing. There, the NFL, NBA and NHL are all investing heavily in equipping their stadia, with the NFL recently asking its stadia to provide wi-fi access to all fans by 2016. In the NBA, the Barclays Center is currently considered the ‘gold standard’ in stadium connectivity, with over a third of the 17,500-seat arena’s fans accessing the wi-fi on game nights. This July, it will be overtaken in the NFL by the soon-to-open 69,000-seater Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California – home to the San Francisco 49ers. It will be fully wi-fi enabled, with a host of features for fans, including being able to order food and drink to their seat, and even searching for the closest toilet with the shortest queue.

With this momentum, it won’t be long before we see the same revolution in the UK. Yes, it’s true that  clubs, sponsors, technology providers and marketing agencies all need to work out how they can make it pay, deciding the models that deliver the best opportunities for return . But the critical factor must remain focused  on enhancing the experience for the fan. It mustn’t distract them, take advantage of them, or interfere with their enjoyment. It must add value, for everyone involved.

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Agreed, Simon.

It’s great to hear about your experiences — and I am looking forward to hearing what’s next for you and your clients. I’m rather frustrated by some of the utterly rubbish connectivity experiences offered by some of the football and rugby clubs in the UK. On one level there’s no excuse not to be providing the basics but on another level, the opportunities for revenue generation along with fan satisfaction should be explored, tested and innovated.

Sitting at the cricket a few months ago I was annoyed a) not to have any decent mobile signal, b) not to have any usable WiFi and c) not to be able to order anything (a hat, some suntan lotion, yet another hot dog, a beer) directly from my seat. It’s ridiculous. I would have spent a LOT of money that day. Instead, I didn’t bother. Instead, my friend and I got a few beers and a burger. We’d have spent probably triple the amount or more if it was point-and-click simple. And we’d probably have had a few wagers too.

But it was difficult enough being able to Whatsapp my wife with an update.

So I’m with you Simon. Come on venues: Sort it out!

And please do keep us updated with the latest updates Simon. I’ll need to try and get along to a Celtic game to experience the environment.

Although my Grandfather (a staunch Rangers supporter) would not be impressed…

Have you had a good (connectivity related?) experience in a stadium recently? Let us know!

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