Using technology in the NFL to improve fan experience
Benjamin Robbins, co-founder at Palador mobile consultancy
The NFL’s digital transformation is ensuring supporters stay connected and encouraging a more active engagement with teams.
When you bring 70,000 sport fans together in one place you have some serious logistical considerations: traffic, parking, security and safety to name but a few. There are many potential frustrations from attending a major sporting event. But the frustration of physical mobility has been superseded by another kind of mobile frustration; the failure of the stadium’s wireless network from the sheer magnitude of connected devices that fans take to the big game.
Like it or not, mobile has forever changed the face of attending sporting events. They are no longer a passive spectator endeavour. Fans expect to connect, share and engage as part of the game. When it works they are content, when it fails they are furious.
Attending the recent Seattle Seahawks CIO summit, I caught up with George Scott, director of digital for the National Football League (NFL). Scott stated: “The fan experience is fundamentally changing.” Fans are engaged with the game, other spectators, services and friends “from the moment they leave their house, throughout the game, and until they get back home”. Connectivity is an essential part of game day.
Scott went on to say: “If there is one thing fans want to do at a game it’s brag.” But with everyone posting their requisite selfie, vines and other updates to Facebook, Twitter and the raft of other social networks, all at the same time, there is potential for a serious infrastructure meltdown.
In-stadium apps also add to the crushing burden on the wireless network. These in-stadium apps offer functionality from ordering a beer and a hot dog that can be delivered to your seat, to watching exclusive in stadium replays. There is a serious load on the wireless network at any given time.
Luckily for spectators, the NFL has its eye on the ball (save for the ones the New England Patriots play with). Most stadiums were built well before our current notion of mobile was even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye. Many sport venues are woefully inadequate when it comes to being able to provide the most basic of wireless connectivity at the required capacity.
The NFL, however is defining what it means to provide for the mobile game day experience. Extreme Networks, the official wireless and analytics provider of the NFL, will have served more than a million connected devices on its networks by the end of this NFL season.
Vala Afshar, CMO at Extreme Networks, gave me an insight into what game day volume looks like. An average of 15,000 sustained concurrent devices and more than a terabyte of data is transferred. Mobile is a pillar of the game day experience and, when done right, the fan experience takes on new dimensions.
With the rise of high-definition televisions, the NFL recognises that it needs to entice fans to come to the stadium. Afshar notes: “The catalyst behind the digital transformation of the NFL is to improve the fan experience.” All these devices, uploads and replays need to happen in a seamless fashion or the fan experience will be severely degraded. Extreme’s analytics give the NFL the ability to measure response times, optimise wireless signals, and predict fan behaviour. “The NFL uses data to improve fan experience.” This, in return, improves the fan.
Last week, both the NFL conference championship games were held in Extreme Network-powered stadiums. And the company will also be the wireless and analytics provider for the biggest occasion in US sports, the Super Bowl.
Afshar continues: “This is why you see NFL teams focused on fan experience investing in infrastructure. The NFL views their network infrastructure as a business asset; it’s not just plumbing, it can’t be. The fans demand more and the NFL is responding.” Bandwidth is growing exponentially and stadiums in the NFL are trying to get ahead of that curve. As Scott says: “trying to future proof it”.
Afshar went on to say: “The level of digital thought leadership that exists in the NFL is pretty incredible.” This digital thought leadership is having a big impact on the evolving nature of what a digital experience means as an integral part of the game, on how one can be a better fan.
“The best game experience is personal,” Scott said, “It’s different for every person.” He noted that in the past the NFL delivered a linear experience for all the fans; one app experience across the board, but now “choosing your own consumption is what it needs to be”. This is where the NFL is going to push the digital curve.
Is the NFL creating better fans? Does all this connectivity actually have an impact? It does seem quite coincidental that both teams appearing in the Super Bowl this year, the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, have a reputation for delivering first in class mobile experiences to their demanding fans.
The Seattle Seahawks’ fans, also known as the 12s, are regarded as some of the most connected and raucous fans in sport today. Their effect on the opposing team, as well as the measured seismic activity, is a phenomenon recognised around the league. The fan impact on the game is regularly taken into account for game day preparations by the opposing team.
Afshar told me that Seahawks’ fans have also achieved the most used bandwidth of any team. The best teams seem to have the best connected fans, and the NFL is making strides towards ensuring fans’ digital needs are provided for, keeping them active and engaged.