The New England Patriots arguably are the most successful NFL team this century.
The team has been to six Super Bowls and won four of them. The Patriots have been to the last five AFC Championships, have the league's all-time winningest coach-quarterback combination in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, sell out every game and have a season ticket wait list of tens of thousands of people.
And the team is spending millions of dollars on technology to keep people coming to the games, an effort that has helped keep the rate of fans renewing their season tickets—at a cost of thousands of dollars—at about 98 percent.
"For us, [technology is] like having electricity in the stadium," said Jonathan Kraft, the team's president and chairman of the NFL's technology committee. "It's critical."
Kraft was speaking at an event this week at the Patriots' Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., and hosted by Extreme Networks, which supplies the WiFi technology that supports the almost 69,000 fans that come to each game and enables team management to offer a growing range of services to those fans. It also supplies the Patriots with the data the team needs to gain more insights into what the fans at the stadium are doing, which officials say leads to more—and even better—services.
The reason the Patriots are putting so much time and resources into technology is the same reason teams throughout the NFL—as well as in other sports, from baseball to NASCAR—are making the effort: because their biggest competitor—at least in terms of drawing fans—is the home TV room, according to John Brams, director of Extreme's sports and entertainment business.
"The experience at home … is outstanding," Brams told eWEEK.
People can stay at home and watch the game on 50-inch high-definition televisions while sitting on comfortable furniture and in climate-controlled environments, with food close by and the bathroom only steps away. They also have all the WiFi connectivity they need. The goal is to enhance the fan experience at the stadium to the point where people will want to come out to the games, he said.
"Technology in sports venues is a critical piece going forward, particularly when you're competing with the home," he told a group of Extreme customers and partners, as well as journalists and analysts.
What the stadium delivers is the raw energy and feeling of community that comes with sharing an experience with almost 70,000 other people, Kraft said. Now teams want to marry that experience with amenities similar to what they have at home, from the high-speed WiFi connectivity for texting, sending videos and sharing photos to mobile services that can make moving around the stadium easier.
It's also been a boon for Extreme, which counts sports stadiums and arenas as growth areas for the company. Extreme is now the preferred WiFi supplier for the NFL, and its wireless technologies are deployed in 10 NFL stadiums. In addition, its ExtremeAnalytics technology is being used in 18 stadiums around the league. Extreme also is working with teams in other sports: Most recently, the company, along with partner Carousel Industries, this summer installed a WiFi solution at Niagara Center, home of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres hockey team.
"It's turned into a big business for us and raises and elevates the profile of Extreme," company President and CEO Ed Meyercord said during the event.
For the Patriots, the push for more technology in the stadium started seven years ago, according to Kraft.
"In 2009, we knew the era of WiFi was dawning," he said.