NFL Encouraging Its Football Teams to Tackle Fan Experience Upgrades

To do that, the National Football League is encouraging its 32 teams to use WiFi analytics data to better serve the technology needs of their fans at games.

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."