Extreme Networks To Help NFL and Teams Analyze Fans’ in-Venue WiFi Usage

Stadiums and arenas continue to work hard on figuring out how to keep fans connected to their mobile devices. But laying out the equivalent of an Internet superhighway when you don’t know exactly where fans want to go and how you will need to manage traffic flow opens the potential for an inefficient deployment.

That is one of the reasons the NFL has struck a deal with Extreme Networks, which is now the official WiFi-analytics provider for the league.

The company is currently working with the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, and the New York Giants and Jets, helping them understand how fans use the network (uploading content? downloading content? e-mail? texting? browsing the Internet?) in real time so that the network can be adjusted to best meet their specific needs.

When it comes to deploying and managing a Wifi network, “there is not a one-size-fits-all for every stadium,” says NFL SVP/CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle. “Every fan base is different, and the personalities [of the teams] are different. You need to make the fan experience unique for each club.”

The decision to deploy Extreme Networks’ WiFi-analytics technology is part of the NFL’s overall plan to improve the stadium experience through league guidelines for WiFi connectivity. The technology enhances management of WiFi systems, allowing teams to spend time and resources better in delivering fans the interactive event they desire.

The league itself will dive into the analytics on Feb. 2 during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.

“With the tools, we can see what type of sites or apps fans are using, how long they are connected, when are they connecting and dropping out, and if certain parts of a stadium are over-saturated with users,” adds McKenna-Doyle. “So analytics help us make sure we have coverage beefed up, which is important as, once a network starts spiraling down, it goes down quick.”

The NFL, like all sports leagues, is facing the challenge of keeping fans coming out to a stadium where the live experience lacks the fully connected experience of staying at home (three recent playoff games that were not sold out until game day are indicative of the problem).

“There’s nothing that can quite replace that immersive experience of being surrounded by fellow fans at an NFL game. But we do know that ‘couch-gating’ is a very popular form of tailgating. So there are some challenges in stadiums to offer fans the type of connectivity they have at home.”

The Philadelphia Eagles have made free WiFi available to all fans, according to SVP of Media and Communications Anne Gordon, who adds that it takes more than just offering a solid connection to keep them satisfied.

“The fans get on the FreeEagles WiFi network and then look at the app to see what cool stuff there is, and that takes about 32 seconds,” she says. “So we had to step back and develop a philosophy of what we want to do with the apps and wireless network to make a better fan experience?”

The Extreme Networks analytics allowed the team to more easily figure out what content works and doesn’t work for fans as well as usage spikes and which sections of the stadium need more network support.

“We share a lot of information with the fans that they never had before, everything from tunnel cams to custom-developed stats packs where we have staff crunching numbers in unique ways.”

Providing out-of-town video highlights during the game also helps, notes Detroit Lions EVP/CFO Luis Perez, adding that the experience begins before fans even enter the stadium: “Tailgating fans want a more social experience, but we also spend time trying to force fans into the stadium earlier so we can monetize them. But tailgating is too important, so we shut down a city street and created a tailgating experience with connectivity so that the assets are at the disposal of fans.”

The move by the NFL also underlies a growing trend across the entire sports industry: the use of data to develop new business opportunities because, eventually, things like paperless tickets, ordering concessions from seats, and more-streamlined services will become the norm.

“The business unit is the best cheerleader for this sort of investment,” says McKenna-Doyle.

For the Seattle Seahawks, the discovery period for the deployment of a WiFi system took nine months as the team looked to meet both business and connectivity needs.

Says Seahawks VP of Technology Chip Suttles, “It’s valuable to see other stadiums and discover whether there is more priority needed on uploading or downloading and what kind of bandwidth is needed.”

McKenna-Doyle advises those investigating a technology partner to beware those bearing gifts.

“If you install a system and don’t pay for it now, there will be a cost, and it comes later when you want to expand it,” she says. “And, if you are in technology, don’t let the marketing person make a deal as there are some savvy folks coming after the individual clubs.”