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The good news for IT pros in less-glamorous organizations than the New England Patriots is that some problems are universal. The Pats are slated to face the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, aiming for their sixth trip to the Super Bowl in 12 years, but VP of content Fred Kirsch is more worried about building loyalty programs, managing social media, Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance, and wrangling with the powers that be (in this case, the NFL) about shaking loose permission to deliver exclusive content to customers.
The CIO Mobility Innovation Summit, held Jan. 15 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., brought together IT pros from all the major Boston teams to talk about the intersection of technology and sports. Hosted by Enterasys Networks, which beat out unnamed rivals to win a multimillion-dollar contract to light up Gillette with a WLAN capable of servicing 70,000 fans, the summit highlighted the hard reality faced by many of today's franchises.
Jonathan Kraft, president of the New England Patriots and co-chairman of the NFL's Digital Media Committee, put it bluntly: "Live viewing is at risk, unless you make it more engaging, special and unique."
A panel including Kirsch, VP of content for the Pats and a leader of the WLAN effort; Jay Wessel, VP of technology for the Boston Celtics; Lorraine Spadaro, VP of technology and e-business for the Boston Bruins; and Heidi Labritz, director of business applications/IT for the Boston Red Sox, offered perspective on how these franchises plan to improve the fan experience. "The metric is butts in the seats," said Labritz.
[ Baseball's San Francisco Giants are not only World Series champs, they also boast award-winning IT leadership. Take 9 Inspiring Innings With San Francisco Giants CIO Bill Schlough, named the 2012 InformationWeek IT Chief Of The Year. ]
The Patriots have no worries in the near term; the team has sold out every game since 1994 and has almost 60,000 people willing to plunk down $100 each just to be on the waiting list for season tickets. But at an average per-person $112 ticket cost per game plus parking and food, Kraft said the Pats can't afford to be complacent. The question for all sports franchises, he said, is whether people will continue to make the trek to the park as television picture quality and interoperability via smart features improve.
Broadcasters have good reason to try and keep sports fans at home: The Patriots sold the TV rights to their next 256 games for what works out to $6 billion per year, said Kraft. And at CES, Sharp showed off an 80-inch, 8K ultra-high-definition set with 7,680 x 4,320 resolution -- that's about 16 times what current HDTVs offer. Sure, these sets will take a few years to go mainstream, but once you have one of those babies on your wall, are you going to pay upwards of $200, once all's said and done, to go sit in the freezing cold of a Massachusetts winter and munch on stadium food? And that goes double for franchises that aren't as successful as the Pats.
Kraft's not waiting to find out. The answer: Pervasive wireless in the stadium, exclusive content and apps, baby.
photo credit New England Patriots
Since the season opener in September, fans in club seats at Gillette have had access to exclusive real-time camera angles and stats via the Patriots Game Day Live app, which provides a live video feed from the field, instant replays and loops, player stats, and access to the popular NFL RedZone. The app is available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices; the Pats' VP of content Fred Kirsch said 75% of devices accessing the WLAN are iOS.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said the team plans to extend full access to all fans next season while looking at adding more capabilities, including an app to order and pay for food, then be notified when and where to pick up concessions, eliminating waiting in line, and real-time data on restroom availability — always a major consideration. In the offing, pending approval from the NFL, is the ability to listen to coach-to-QB communications. Kraft also mentioned wiring up several players so fans can listen in to the action on the field. Presumably, there will be a tape delay to keep everything family-friendly.
Of course, delivering mobile rich media to 70,000 fans requires some serious plumbing.
Enterasys installed the Gillette Stadium WLAN backbone in 30 days to cover the entire 1.9 million square-foot facility. The system comprises about 360 3610/3660 access points in the stadium and about the same number of antennas; 34 repeaters; 42 C-Series switches, each with a 10-Gbps connection back to one of five Core S-Series routers/switches; six 5110 wireless controllers with 10 Gbps fiber uplinks; and 15 NAC virtual servers. Each radio is spec'd to support HD video on 100 mobile clients.
The plan is that about 40% of fans can run rich media at any given time, with 100% having access for texting and social networking. Patriots VP of content Fred Kirsch said he plans for a 756k per-fan cap, with 350 GB of data per game running through the system. Enterasys' OneFabric is used for management, and the mobile identity and access management system lets the team ensure security. Kirsch said Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance for fans buying concessions or other transactions is "a huge priority."
Patriots' president Jonathan Kraft said the organization vetted other WLAN systems (that shall remain nameless) but found the vendors would not guarantee the fan experience the team was looking for.
Uptake by fans hasn't been without glitches. At one point, the Pats recruited athletes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to roam the stands and help people offload from the strained 3G cellular networks. (And yes, MIT has sports teams.)
Enterasys posted a YouTube video on how the Patriots' network came together.
IT pros from the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins agree with Patriots VP of content Fred Kirsch about the criticality of apps to boost engagement and the need to focus on their best customers: season ticket holders.
Jay Wessel, the Celtics' VP of technology, and Lorraine Spadaro, the Bruins' VP of technology and e-business, said their teams, which share a venue at TD Garden (called simply "the Gahden" by locals), are planning apps that focus on letting fans share experiences by, for example, streaming Twitter posts across the scoreboard and offering specialized content. Spadaro said the team is holding back some premium seats and plans an app to enable season ticket holders to upgrade, much like an airline frequent flyer program.
One thing all the team reps agree on: Apps are not seen as revenue drivers. While the Celtics do sell ticket upgrades via a mobile app, Patriots' president Jonathan Kraft specifically stated that the Patriots don't plan to "nickel and dime" fans. Rather, a good mobile experience will soon be table stakes for major-league venues.
Another consideration: Gathering data on fans once they go through the turnstile. Concessions data will help track what offerings are most popular and make sure stands don't run out of popular items. Wessel also said paper will soon be a thing of the past. "The days of season ticket holders getting a big stack of tickets in the mail at the beginning of the season are about over," he said. While that may not strike some tradition-minded Boston fans as progress, it will lessen counterfeiting and make it easier to transfer unused tickets.
Heidi Labritz, pictured above, director of business applications and IT for the Red Sox, said her killer app is anything that will lure ticketholders into actually attending games. The Sox, while riding an unprecedented ticket sell-out wave, saw actual attendance at Fenway Park drop off sharply last season. The lost revenue is significant; Labritz said the average per-fan spend once they're in the park is $20. She's focusing on social media efforts and looking to trial in-seat payments, while looking to the Washington Nationals as a model. A roadblock is that the 100-plus-year-old Fenway is not exactly known for ubiquitous connectivity.
Finally, Lorraine Spadaro, the Bruins' VP of technology and e-business, pointed out that IT does benefit from a winning season. "When you get into the playoffs, the league sends you a manual of what's required to host a playoff game," she said. One legacy: Miles of fiber, which may be better than a big honking championship ring to a CIO.