SBJ/November 1 - 7, 2004/SBJ In Depth
Keeping fans connected
Published November 1, 2004
The man heading the development of the next new NBA arena monitors advances in technology the way a farmer watches for storm clouds, wary that the same rain that feeds his crop might wash it away.
Barry Silberman, executive vice president of arena development for the Charlotte Bobcats, says the expansion franchise wants the building that the team will open in 2005 to be a “technological wow.” He wants to “blow people away with bells and whistles.”
But when you ask Silberman exactly what tune those bells and whistles might intone, he hesitates to answer. Technology is evolving so quickly, he doesn’t want to make predictions. He worries that the day after the franchise commits to an application that promises the “wow” that he wants, a wowier wow will roll off the assembly line.
The NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats have promised that their new arena, to open in 2005, will feature wireless coverage throughout all areas, from every concourse, seat and suite.
“We were trying to build an infrastructure that would meet our needs for the next 40 years,” said Bill Schlough, the Giants’ chief technology officer. “We were wired. And then the world went wireless.”
Last season, the Giants followed, cutting the cords and providing free wireless Internet access to fans throughout the ballpark.
In Charlotte, Silberman says he is focusing on the one thing he is sure of: Whatever gadget comes along to enhance the experience of spectators will be delivered over-the-air, either by cellular transmission or through emerging radio signal technology known as wi-fi.
He says the Bobcats will build an arena able to handle any wireless application, whether that means replays beamed to a BlackBerry, a wireless connection to the team’s Web site, interactive games played on a cell phone, or a combination of entertaining and useful functions that work equally well on each fan’s preferred device.
“We’re like the catcher that has the big knuckleball glove,” Silberman said. “We have the thing that can catch whatever it is that they’re throwing in the wireless world. Hopefully, there will be a lot of good pitches out there, and we’ll catch them. But, like with the knuckleball pitcher, there also are going to be a lot of wild pitches. And passed balls, too.”
Silberman says the Bobcats will promise wireless coverage throughout the arena, from every concourse, seat and suite. Cellular providers will be able to tap into a network of transmitters that will give all of them equally high-quality service throughout the building. In many arenas and stadiums, only the cellular provider that signs a sponsorship deal with the team is able to boost its signal in the facility.
The arena’s wireless network also will offer a wi-fi signal throughout, overlapping the signal to eliminate the dead zones that exist in most large buildings.
“We’re not going to have 80 hot spots or 111 hot spots,” said Silberman. “We’re having one. It’s called the whole arena.”
As for the manner in which people will use that ubiquitous wireless access, Silberman swears he isn’t sure. He has met with about a dozen companies that promised to wow his audience with whiz-bang uses for their wireless devices. Few have caught his eye.
“To be honest, I’m disappointed in what I see out there,” Silberman said. “We’re going to have this great environment, and I’m not sure where the killer application is for this environment. I see a lot of things that could be a distraction to the enjoyment of an event rather than an enhancement. So far, there’s not much out there that I can see us going with.
“I’d love to hear from somebody who thinks they have something.”
Scoring with PDAs
The home of Purdue University’s football team is part of a project designed to see how fans can access extra game info using PDAs.
Want to see that run again? You can download it within 90 seconds. Want to check stats? They’re updated in real time. Want to know which concession stand carries grilled pork tenderloin? A couple of clicks on the food locator give you three choices: the grill stands in sections 108, 114 and 119.
As part of an e-stadium project devised by the school’s wireless studies center and funded through a $1.2 million grant from San Jose-based Cisco Systems, the PDAs are programmed to allow fans access to a wireless Web site that delivers in-game replays and other video highlights, live stats and stadium information. Future generations could include message boards and a dedicated analyst who provides commentary.
Purdue is in its second season of the program, which it eventually hopes to expand for use by fans who would pay to lease the PDAs as part of their season-ticket plan.
“We have what amounts to a handheld JumboTron,” said Jay Cooperider, a Purdue assistant athletic director who serves on the project team. “At this point, they’re testers. But we think there’s a subscription model here that will work.”
The choice to lease the PDAs, rather than allowing fans to use their own, gets at several concerns facing teams trying to deliver in-game content through wireless devices.
Leasing allows Purdue to limit the number of devices in the stadium, ensuring that the school will have enough access points to deliver the bandwidth needed to stream video without freeze-ups. It also makes sure that all fans will be using the same Internet browser, making delivery of a clean product simpler.
“Having it more sheltered is an advantage because you can troubleshoot it,” Cooperider said. “Even after you move beyond the test phase, there’s a benefit to handing the things out every game and then collecting them at the end.”
Leasing also has been the preferred method of deployment for similar units that are catching on in auto racing.
Montreal-based Kangaroo Capital Inc. last year began distribution of a handheld
Kangaroo offers a handheld device at the track that can deliver live race telecasts.
Kangaroo debuted the units on the Champ Car series last year and lined up a seven-race test program in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series for this season.
“This is a test and nothing more than a test,” said Jeffrey Pollack, managing director of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR’s digital entertainment division. “The first sport to have a meaningful wireless device at the event has been NASCAR. Audio scanners have been part of the fan experience for a long time. We think that will only expand and grow.”
Like many in the sports business, Pollack worries that too many bells and whistles might drown out his core product.
“The key to success for products like this is enhancing the event, not competing with it,” Pollack said. “It’s critical that these devices are bringing fans closer to the competition, not detracting from the live action.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is another who has turned thumbs down to the interactive opportunities available with wireless.
American Airlines Center has been equipped for wireless capabilities since it opened in 2001, using it to provide in-seat food and beverage service in the suites and club seats and at courtside, and in its point-of-sales system to sell merchandise. This season, the arena added pre-paid parking passes that can be added to the bar-code on tickets, read at the gate by wireless scanners.
Still, the Mavs have shied away from using that expanding wireless technology to entertain fans.
“Mark’s concern is that if you’ve got them doing things with the PDAs, then they’re not paying attention to the sponsors and the game presentation,” said Brad Mayne, CEO of Center Operating Co., the outfit that manages the arena. “We need them to be cheering for the Mavs. That’s why he hasn’t supported it.”
Reaching more fans
Those who have stretched to be on the front end of wireless expansion with video for fans’ PDAs and wireless Web for their laptops figure that they’re reaching 100 or 300 or 500 early adopters in a typical game.
The Giants figure that they top out at about 300 fans a game who will take a laptop to surf the wireless Web in between Barry Bonds’ at bats. The Carolina Hurricanes, who were way ahead of the curve when they started pushing coupons to cell phones in 1999 and broke ground again two years ago with the first wireless team site, reach 50 to 100 fans a game with their cellular fantasy games.
Both are thrilled with those numbers. They say they are building products and learning about delivery systems that will serve them well when more fans catch up to the technology.
Some teams say simpler is better. It certainly produces results in larger numbers, at least for now.
Net Informer offers a trivia contest in which fans can text-message their votes.
Teams show a trivia question or a poll item early in the game, then invite fans to vote by using their cell phones. After they vote, they receive a thank you message from the contest sponsor — typically a cell provider — along with the opportunity to opt in to receive discounts from the team and its sponsors. When fans opt in, the team can market directly to them through the season.
The Oakland A’s, who were the first team to use the service, report participation of about 1,000 fans a game and a response rate of about 30 percent on the direct marketing offers, said Greg Pinter, CEO of Net Informer.
“You look around any stadium or arena and everybody has a cell phone,” Pinter said. “There’s big potential there. You have upwards of 50,000 people in the stadium some nights. This is a way to reach most of them.”
Unlike most in-venue games and polls, which are tied to the cellular provider that sponsors the team, Net Informer’s service works with most major cellular providers.
Four MLB teams — the A’s, San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels and Colorado Rockies — used the application last season. The company is in discussions with 22 teams across the major sports leagues, Pinter said.
His pitch is that while a PDA may offer whiz-bang video and Internet-enabled phones can access team sites, the ubiquitous text message is the application that will connect with the most consumers.
“Wi-fi is great, but my feeling is that it’s not a good fit for a sporting event,” Pinter said.
|Turnkey Sports Poll|
|Other wireless applications|
In digitally savvy markets like San Francisco and Raleigh-Durham, team techies disagree.
Schlough, the Giants’ chief technical officer, realizes that his stereotypically geeky laptop brigade isn’t likely to grow beyond 1,000. But he isn’t ready to concede that today’s cell phone has much of a shelf life.
“As we look toward the future and the cell phone and computer become one in the same, that’s the device that you’ll be bringing to games,” Schlough said. “It won’t be a laptop, but it won’t be a cell phone, either. It will be more like the [PDA].”
The man who created the “home of wireless hockey” in Raleigh also has his eye on wi-fi — or its next-generation cousin, wi-max, a radio-based signal that travels farther, faster and more directly than standard wireless.
Howard Sadel, the Hurricanes’ director of marketing and creative services, said he is in negotiations with a food retail partner that would create Hurricanes hot spots in its North Carolina locations, 150 of which are within a 90-mile loop of the arena. The team could then push wireless coupons that drive traffic to the stores and the stores could do the same for the team.
Whatever the hot handheld device turns out to be, Sadel figures his building is a great place to display it. That’s the lesson he took away from the Hurricanes’ cell phone game in the last two years. About 85 percent of users said it was their first experience with the wireless Web. Sadel said many who played the game were carrying Web-enabled phones, but didn’t know it until they went to a kiosk to find out how to play.
“People were trying to figure out what the heck their phones could do,” Sadel said. “When you look at how phones have changed and penetration for the Web has increased and more kids are carrying phones, and you add to that the PDAs that people are carrying into the building — the potential for us in sports is fantastic.”
Even the companies at the center of the wireless revolution aren’t certain of the direction the technology will head or the ways consumers will use it.
Nextel, which is wrapping up the first year of a 10-year, $750 million deal with NASCAR, is testing broadband applications that would bring its product closer to the convergence of computer and phone. That would enable the company to deliver subscription products that include video to fans at the track.
The evolution is moving so rapidly that Nextel’s sports marketers have been careful not to invest too heavily in products that might be rendered obsolete when the next generation of cell devices comes along.
“What’s available out there in two years, never mind five or 10, is going to be awesome,” said Michael Robichaud, senior director of sports and entertainment marketing for Nextel. “A sporting event is a place where people are engaged and looking to be entertained. It’s the perfect environment for wireless.”
Staff writer Don Muret contributed to this report.