The Importance of Wi-Fi Access to the Stadium Experience

Stadium designers need to anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s consumers and consider technology habits and behaviour to ensure the infrastructure of a building remains competitive and to help create new opportunities for revenue streams. With mobile technology on the rise and fans’ needs and expectations evolving, Wi-Fi has become a hot topic.

Consider this, 61 percent of all mobile phone subscribers own a smartphone, according to the Nielsen Co. In early 2008, just 10 percent of subscribers owned a smartphone. And according to Cisco Sports and Entertainment, there are more mobile-connected devices than there are people on the planet. In this article I will discuss the importance of Wi-Fi to the fan experience and how through renovations and new builds, Wi-Fi helps create a connected, and enviable, fan experience. 

We all know the feeling. You’re sitting at an event – an NFL game, a baseball game, a concert– and you’re trying to send a text. Or post a photo. Or check scores. And your phone, try as it might, just can’t get service, let alone internet access. It’s a feeling all too familiar – many stadiums are behind in terms of connectivity. But luckily, this is changing, as leagues and teams realize the importance of creating an in-stadium experience that is worth leaving the house for, which includes connectivity and accessibility. The NFL, in late 2013, was the first to set Wi-Fi / Cell standards, something that we can expect will be mimicked in other leagues shortly.

The NFL is on track. Creating a connected environment – one in which fans can seamlessly access live feeds of information, share their experiences via social media and engage with the team and game through a mobile device – is more important than ever before. The modern fan’s expectations have evolved and as much as they enjoy the game, they are accustomed to having constant connectivity to the outside world. Millennials in particular are more interested in using their phone to share their experiences externally, rather than to obtain information. During the game, Millennials want to send texts to their friends , upload photos to Instagram and tweet real-time updates. The increasing trend of uploading videos is creating an even greater demand for high density Wi-Fi access. Older generations have traditionally been more interested in accessing information during a game – specifically statistics and scores from other games.

Beyond providing access to the outside world, in-stadium, venue or team specific apps can encourage the sharing of information with others and can also provide a marketing opportunity. By creating apps and other exclusive content, as is the case at stadiums like Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., the team can market specifically to their fans, opening up additional revenue streams. It also provides an opportunity to obtain data on a team’s fan base by tracking their behaviour. Teams can gather critical information – from how they use the network to what websites they visit to how likely they are to click on an ad from one of the team’s sponsors. It also allows teams the opportunity to target their marketing to a fan to improve their overall experience.

But the real question is, how do we implement this?

Wi-Fi should be a consideration from the earliest stages of the design of a new stadium or renovation. A team will have to make an investment or negotiate a deal with providers to install the technology needed to support cellular and Wi-Fi networks in the stadium, but from everything we’ve seen, it will be a worthwhile one. In the earliest conversations with stakeholders about design, Wi-Fi and connectivity expectations should be discussed. We often outline what it will take to create a fully connected stadium and the opportunities it provides them to market to fans.

Key elements consist of:

  • A fiber backbone connecting a series of equipment closets distributed at strategic intervals encompassing the stadium.
  • Equipment closets contain switches and network equipment to drive the information highway
  • Radiating out from each closet are antennas for the DAS system or wireless access points for the Wi-Fi system
  • Ensuring you have enough pipe and wire inside network to support necessary demands depending on stadium size and number of users
  • Once the infrastructure is in place, equipment and end-devices can change (antennas, wireless access points) to meet evolving technology 

At stadiums like Sporting Park,  the final design hinged upon accessibility to a high-density Wi-Fi connection. It impacts many design decisions, because what we presented had to be functional on a different level. While it’s a smaller stadium – seating 18,467 fans – it is also considered the most connected in America. A large part of that connectivity comes from the infrastructure of the facility. The stadium is wired with 146 miles of fiber that delivers high speed internet with separate DAS and Wi-Fi systems. As we designed the stadium, we were told that administration and executives wanted to have internet access in every, single area of the stadium – including service areas and loading docks. While we were able to accomplish this very effectively, after the opening, the team has continued to experiment with antenna locations and distribution to determine how the team can provide the best, and fastest, internet access possible. They’ve also found new ways to engage fans – like running their tweets and Instagram posts on the video board during games and sending targeted offers on everything from concessions to merchandise to their fans during games.

This is easier to integrate when you’re starting from scratch, but becomes more complex when you’re renovating a facility and you aren’t able to custom design each and every corner of the building with that level of connectivity in mind. In the case of Ralph Wilson Stadium’s renovation, in New York, we are just beginning to design the DAS and Wi-Fi systems to serve the nearly 40 year old stadium. While the bulk of its distribution network will be integrated with the infrastructure backbone being implemented with the stadium upgrades,  its antennas and branch cabling feeds will likely be surface mounted and more visible than if designed and installed with the original construction.  While there are definite challenges, technology continues to advance rapidly and without Wi-Fi, many fan experiences will fall behind. With more and more third party vendors providing infrastructure to make this possible in existing venues at a minimal upfront cost, it’s an obvious next step for any team planning to renovate.

As Sasha Victorine of Sporting Innovations explains in this article for Digital Trends, “You have to think about getting people into your building. You look across to all leagues now, and everybody’s looking at, if I’m in the building, am I getting content that I can’t get at home? Am I getting things that I can’t get somewhere else? Because if that’s the case, then that’s maybe a benefit for me to come.”

And he’s exactly right. Coming to the stadium has become about something bigger than the game itself, because the game is now accessible anywhere. The stadium has to offer fans an experience they won’t be able to get elsewhere, where they feel they are part of the event and can share their participation with outside friends. And in the connected world we live in, Wi-Fi is critical to accomplishing that.

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