Now Batting: Stadium Wi-Fi

Opinion: Major league baseball and other professional sports venues, including NASCAR, are going wireless to win the hearts and minds of fans. Is it working? You bet.

For a moment, it felt like I was back on the sports beat at The Cincinnati Post, the journalistic enterprise where I cut my teeth as a reporter more years ago than I care to remember. But the tales, if not the years, are worth remembering.

Those were the days of the Big Red Machine, when Sparky Anderson wowed major league baseball as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Pete Rose was still the golden boy of baseball. I was pinch-hitting for the sports reporters who dared to take a week off in summer.

So, what is a one-time scribe-turned-wireless tech writer doing back on the sports desk? A lot, as it turns out.

My flashback started with an e-mail from a colleague to find a link to a Cisco Systems news release about a wireless deployment at the Houston Astros Minute Maid Park. Cisco was understandably proud.

The service provider, Time Warner, and the integrator that did the job, Wide Area Management Services Inc. (WAMS), set up 100 hot spots around the park in only two weeks.

WAMS deployed Ciscos Aironet 1200 Series IEEE 802.11b/g Access Points and the CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solution Engine to manage the Wi-Fi infrastructure.

Ciscos announcement was the second sports-and-wireless story that had come my way within a week. Id just sent a story to edit about NASCAR and Major League Baseballs use of mobile messaging.

Do we detect a trend? We sure do—and its not just in the area of networking.

What WAMS did with the Aironet deployment at Minute Maid Park was much more than a wireless extension of a wired network. It was an extension of branding, marketing and services designed to engage and extend the Astros community of fans.

Wireless sports deployments are "definitely something where weve seen a ramping up," Ann Sun, senior manager of wireless and mobility at Cisco, told me. The demand for wireless services is being fed by the publics use of Wi-Fi hot spots and by "the idea that you can use wireless on the road and in public venues," she says.

/zimages/1/28571.gifLooking for a Wi-Fi hot spot? Find one using our guide to hot-spot directories.

At Minute Maid Park, WAMS met public demand for connectivity with a service that delivered for recreational and business needs alike. The company, a Cisco partner, set up 100 wireless hot spots inside the park to serve fans, management, the media and even vendors.

The hot spots, managed and operated by Time Warner Cable of Houston, allow fans who are subscribers—and those willing to pay $3.95 for four hours of service in the stands—to surf the Web collecting sports stats.

Reporters can log on to relay photos, and even video footage, of the games back to their newsrooms. And vendors can use handheld devices to order up more hot dogs, beer and popcorn when the supplies theyre toting get low.

WAMS did the design, installation, network integration and RF consulting for the project. No Starbucks-style deployment with single-access-point service for a room full of customers. The park required about 90 APs to cover its 29 acres and more than 40,000 seats, including in restaurants, at entrances and exits, and in other common areas.

No small task, for sure. But in the competitive world of sports, feeding fans needs and loyalties is as key to success as winning the game. At least in the economic sense.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about how NASCAR and other major sports organizations are using Wi-Fi.

And connectivity is a need. As Sun points out, we no longer just want it, we expect it—even as we pursue other amusements.

I witnessed it at Shea Stadium this summer, as I and other fans in the stands lamented a New York Mets loss to the Cincinnati Reds (I confess, I switched loyalties when Sparky left).

A dad next to us sat with his eyes glued not to the field but to his BlackBerry, while next to him his 10-year-old son missed one of the Mets few home runs that night. The boy was sending messages on his SMS device.

Sports arent all that Carol Ellison has her eye on. Check out her other recent columns.

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