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.
NE Patriots Use WiFi Technology to Enhance In-Stadium Fan Experience
The team at the time wanted to bring wireless connectivity to those in the premium seats—about 6,000 people—and began looking for a vendor to partner with. Cisco Systems was considered but couldn’t make certain guarantees, Kraft said. After speaking with other companies, the team settled on Enterasys Networks, which Extreme bought in 2013 for $180 million. Enterasys committed to metrics the Patriots were looking for, he said.
Over the years, the Patriots—which were the first team to bring customer-facing WiFi to a stadium and the first to put up a website—have expanded what they offer. Most recently, Extreme is about 80 percent done expanding the WiFi capabilities in the stadium, increasing the number of wireless access points (APs) from 362 to more than 1,120, including putting some under seats. Kraft said the result is a 10-fold improvement in network performance.
In addition, the team has created a mobile app that offers fans a wide array of services. For example, a user can plug in his or her seat location, and the app can reply with the waiting times at the nearest bathrooms. In addition, the app indexes every play, enabling fans to go back to see a particular play from a number of camera angles, and fans can take selfies, post them to the stadium’s video board and, with one click, post them to their social networks.
For the Patriots, the app gives the team visibility into what the fans are doing—for example, when they’re on the internet or where they go in the stadium.
“We want to see what they’re doing … while in the stadium,” Kraft said. “It just lets us know all about our guests so we can better serve them.”
The team also is investigating what other services they can offer, he said. Augmented reality (AR) will play a role. For example, fans watching the game on TV at home get a lot of value out of seeing the yellow line on the screen that marks the first-down line, Kraft said. A new mobile service will enable fans at the stadium to hold their smartphones to the field and see the yellow line. Another idea is enabling fans to hold their phones to the field and not only see the players but also information on the screen about the players.
The Patriots also have beta tested ways to make it easier and faster for fans to get food, including being able to order and pay for food through the mobile app and have the app alert the fan when the food is ready and where it can be picked up. However, Kraft said they still haven’t figured out a way to enable that type of service to scale to the point where it can serve almost 70,000 fans.
“You’ll see us do a lot of experimenting,” he said. “That will help us and help the fan get to watch [the game] how they want.”