NFL Encouraging Its Football Teams to Tackle Fan Experience Upgrades

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2014-01-16

NFL Encouraging Its Football Teams to Tackle Fan Experience Upgrades

NEW YORK—Providing a better in-stadium experience to the fans of the 32 teams in the National Football League is becoming a mantra within the league as it works to find ways to keep fans filling stadium seats rather than staying home to watch the game on big-screen televisions.

To help make the in-stadium experience richer for fans, that could mean providing upgraded wireless capabilities so they can share their comments, photos or videos of live game highlights and lowlights with their friends and family on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks. It could even someday mean providing upgraded services, including new custom apps that provide detailed information about in-stadium concession stand locations such as where lines are shorter or apps that can direct a fan to an empty parking spot as the fan's vehicle enters the stadium lot.

Those are the kinds of enhanced fan services that could be possible in the future, several NFL leaders said at a press conference here on Jan. 15 at the NFL's modern Park Avenue headquarters building, where the league unveiled a new partnership to encourage the process. To help teams decipher what options might work best in their individual urban markets, the NFL announced that it has teamed up with high-performance WiFi vendor Extreme Networks to offer teams optional services that would allow them to gather real-time, anonymous analytics about the WiFi use of fans while they are in stadiums watching the games.

"They're why we are here, they're why we put a game on the field," said NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle of the fans who loudly cheer and jeer the 32 professional football teams across the nation. "There's an unlimited appetite for great NFL content, and we want to make sure it's there for them to consume it."

To best do that, that's where the real-time analytics data from Extreme Networks can be used to find out which online services fans are using during games, as well as present usage numbers that describe service problems, bottlenecks or outright service failures, said McKenna-Doyle. "Real-time analytics will help us adjust on the fly" as teams look to better serve their fans inside their venues.

So far, the WiFi analytics applications from Extreme Networks have been deployed in league stadiums by the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England Patriots, the Detroit Lions, and the New York Giants and Jets, where they can collect this real-time information and evaluate and use it to make improvements aimed at better serving the fans at each game.

"There is no better place to watch an NFL game than in an NFL stadium, sitting side-by-side with 70,000 of your friends," said McKenna-Doyle. "It's an immersive experience to be with those fans."

At the same time, "the in-home experience [of watching games on television] has also gotten better and better," she said. "You can stay connected on multiple devices. 'Couch-gating' has become a very popular place for tailgating" at home.

That improved and evolving in-home game experience means that the NFL has fallen a bit behind in keeping the fans who are at the games as up-to-speed about on-field events as fans at home, who have better access to instant replays and other game details, said McKenna-Doyle. "We realize that we have some challenges in our stadiums to reach our fans and help them stay connected."

By teams collecting and using WiFi data in their facilities, they'll be better able to pinpoint the needs of fans and find ways to improve their user experiences, she said. "Fans file into our stadiums, and they have an expectation that they will have similar connectivity as they have at home."

So far, two NFL teams, the Eagles and the Patriots, have already deployed massively improved stadium WiFi systems from Extreme Networks (formerly Enterasys) that permit tens of thousands of fans to connect to their favorite social media services and Websites simultaneously during games. The league hopes that more team organizations will conduct similar projects as they work to head down the path of improved engagement with their fans.

"We find ourselves in the NFL playing a little catch-up," said McKenna-Doyle. "Some have done it. Some are planning it. It's a high priority for the NFL, and recently we have reached some minimum standards for all our teams to meet for WiFi and connectivity. That's why the NFL sought a partner and went with Extreme Networks. If you have real data, you can perform better."

NFL Encouraging Its Football Teams to Tackle Fan Experience Upgrades

Extreme's WiFi analytics tools will also be used at the upcoming Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, which will be played at Giants Stadium. "This will be the first Super Bowl that we will have the ability to gauge and monitor at a high level," said McKenna-Doyle. "We will use that data for future NFL events."

The NFL brought in Extreme only as a recommended partner for WiFi analytics services, which are optional and not mandated by the league.

Crawford Del Prete, an IDC analyst who also spoke at the NFL event, said that the league's move to continue to empower mobile device-equipped fans at their games is a key step because the number of mobile devices in use continues to soar.

"Where it used to be about IT agility it's now about business agility," said Del Prete. "Information becomes the place to innovate, and to think about new services and the way people can react to new information" is huge.

Anne Gordon, senior vice president of media and communications for the Philadelphia Eagles, said that her team thinks about the fan experience in everything from WiFi throughout the stadium to giving fans a digital and social experience everywhere inside and outside the team's venue. The idea, she said, is to "greet and welcome and inform the fans wherever we meet them."

That means that the team began to look at every kind of content, from documenting the installation of new field grass on video to placing Webcams inside the player tunnels so that fans can share in the big and small events surrounding their beloved team, said Gordon.

"We raised the bar and began to share more than that our fans had not seen before," she said. "We have been able to have extremely high fan engagement because of that."

Luis R. Perez, the chief financial officer of the Detroit Lions, said his team is also looking to make similar kinds of improvements for its fans.

"The fan experience is our core product, the in-stadium experience that we provide," he said. "It's an opportunity whether we like it or not. We're going to make an impression on those people that day. If you don't value that right out of the gate, then you're not going to be able to evaluate it. We're getting much more active managing that outside of our team on the field."

So far, the WiFi analytics data from Extreme is showing the Lions some interesting trends, including that the fans are excited at games and want to share their live experiences, said Perez. "A majority of fans so far aren't consuming content we produce, but are uploading [their game photos, comments, videos and more], which we see as a very good sign," he said.


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