Football teams are racing to install stadium Wi-Fi to attract rabid fans

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When the Philadelphia Eagles unveiled an enhanced, high-density Wi-Fi network inside Lincoln Financial Field this past September, the team was reacting to increased demands from fans for a richer, more interactive experience while they were watching their favorite team take on the opposition.

In past years, the 70,000 fans inside the stadium overwhelmed an old Wi-Fi system when they tried to post updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media networks, according to the team, so a new system that now allows some 40,000 simultaneous users at once took its place. The idea, according to Eagles president Don Smolenski, was to create a network that allow the team's incredibly passionate football fans to use their mobile devices to share their excitement at being at the game with friends and family back home.

The project has been so successful that the Eagles showed it off at a small Mobility Summit at the stadium on Nov. 13, where representatives from other sports teams, including the National Football League's Cincinnati Bengals and the University of Alabama, came to see what was accomplished and to learn how they might do similar projects in their own stadiums.

Pat Nieser, senior corporate sales manager for the Bengals, and Milton Overton, senior associate director of athletics at Alabama, were impressed.

"The NFL is putting a large focus on this," Nieser told CITEworld. "We have Wi-Fi in certain parts of our facility, Paul Brown Stadium," but it's older equipment and it doesn't provide adequate service to fans in all parts of the stadium, he said. "Our focus is on making the fan experience better than they have at home."

Nieser came to the Summit, which was sponsored by the Eagles and Extreme Networks, to learn how it worked here and to take back good ideas for Cincinnati's deployment. The Bengals are hoping to have a massively improved Wi-Fi system ready for its fans by the 2015 season, he said.

"It's a league initiative," he said. "The in-stadium experience is the focus and that's to make sure that we have a full stadium every Sunday."

What's also important, he said, is to attract younger fans by providing great connectivity for their mobile devices wherever they go in the stadium. "We want to make sure that young fans, who are getting out of college now, will be season ticket holders when they have future discretionary income," Nieser said. To do that, those fans, who are heavy users of technology, social media and mobile devices, have to be served by teams to provide the connectivity that they demand, he said. "It's relatively simple to consume content on the couch, but there's something at a live game that's hard to duplicate at home."

One of the most amazing things the Bengals have seen so far as the team expands its use of social media during its games is that fans go crazy and view all the content that the team can churn out, said Nieser. "It's pretty incredible," he said. "You put something up, a picture or a message, and you can have hundreds of 'likes' and comments in seconds. Our fans are consuming the team's information so much more than just from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. That's why they are so important to us."

That's the experience that teams like the Eagles and other are working to capture more completely.  A similar Wi-Fi project was installed earlier at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, the home of the New England Patriots. That project was one of the successes that motivated the Eagles to install their own system with the same vendor, Enterasys, which recently merged and became Extreme Networks.

College teams are also taking a good luck at this phenomenon, said Overton, of the University of Alabama.

"We've got a directive from our athletic director to enhance the fan experience," he told CITEworld. Bryant Denny Stadium, the home of the NCAA national champion Alabama Crimson Tide football team, doesn't have a Wi-Fi network, but is served by several cellular phone carriers which installed system enhancements in the summer of 2012. That's good, but the college is looking at taking the next step in better connectivity by researching Wi-Fi for fans, said Overton. "We have made the decision to make significant investments in that," he said. A fiber infrastructure will be installed by the spring of 2014, and the college is also investing in IP television to better serve fans. The school hopes to have its connectivity upgrades in place by 2015.

The Wi-Fi project deployed by the Eagles caught Overton's attention. "It works really well here," he said. "And it works with [the Eagles'] app that gives fans all kinds of camera angles with NFL Red Zone. We'd love to see this as well."

And as much as bolstering the experience of fans is critical, another big benefit to improving in-stadium connectivity is that the college can use it as new revenue source for sponsorships and advertising, said Overton.  "It's new income. It's a new digital piece of sales inventory that doesn't exist right now."

Linda Thomas, the director of digital and social media for the Eagles, told CITEworld that the multi-million dollar investment in the enhanced Wi-Fi system at Lincoln Financial Field is helping the team become "digital pioneers" in sports.

"From the inside out, my goal is that for anything that has to do with the Philadelphia Eagles, that [fans] have to come to us to get it," said Thomas. "We want to be the first place for them to get it."

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