SBJ/Oct. 21-27, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL sets stadium Wi-Fi/cell standards

The NFL is requiring all league stadiums to meet newly crafted minimum Wi-Fi and cellular standards by the end of the 2014 season, the latest move by America’s top sport to improve the in-game experience.

Owners were informed of the new requirements at their meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The standards will push stadiums to ensure minimum capacity levels for concurrent downloads, uploads or browsing, while setting similar thresholds for phone calls and texting.

A league official declined to divulge any specifics on the new standards — such as, for example, how many fans would be able to simultaneously upload a comment to Twitter or download videos.

“We put minimum standards and metrics in place so not only do clubs know how our Wi-Fi is performing and to hold [cellular] carriers accountable, but also [it gives] us analytics for what our fans are doing, which leads us to more marketing,” said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer.

Shoddy to nonexistent Wi-Fi along with sporadic phone coverage plagues NFL stadiums and other sporting venues. These challenges become even greater as fans’ capabilities with technology continue to increase. The task for the leagues is to offer to fans in-stadium the same technological connectivity they enjoy at home.

Among other leagues, MLB Advanced Media hired Qualcomm more than a year ago to survey the technological capacities of its teams’ stadiums and help develop a plan to increase wireless connectivity across the sport. Six ballparks have been upgraded to date, with the other 24 to be finished by the end of the 2014 season.

“The interesting thing is that as this effort has developed, the traffic patterns among our fans has been less about our pushing data in to them — highlights and so forth — and increasingly about their pushing data out in terms of photo sharing, tweeting and activities like that,” said Bob Bowman, MLBAM president and chief executive. “The usage patterns have continued to evolve, and as they have, the goal is to be ready not for now but for five years from now.”

NBA teams do not have standards similar to what the NFL is putting into effect, but Michael Gliedman, NBA senior vice president and chief information officer, said elements of technology are regularly discussed. “As a standard practice,” he said, “we regularly consult with all NBA teams and venues on their Wi-Fi and DAS [distributed antenna system] arrangements, including review of agreements, interfacing with vendors and carriers, and sharing best practices across the league.”

The NFL, because of its larger crowds compared with other leagues, faces an especially high hurdle. Large numbers of people often overload Wi-Fi systems, and the fix is expensive, usually a mid-seven-figure sum for an NFL venue. Some teams have invested in the upgrade, but many have not. Often the stadiums are municipally owned and there are other prime tenants, so the investing is challenging.

The NFL expects that by implementing the standards, teams in municipally owned stadiums will be able to use those benchmarks as leverage in talks over upgrading Wi-Fi, McKenna-Doyle said. For example, she said, the Houston Texans are engaged in lease talks with Reliant Stadium owner Harris County, and Wi-Fi capability is an issue.

“The standards just came out and our team is just starting to review them,” said Texans President Jamey Rootes via email, responding to a query of whether he would discuss how the new standards fit into the lease talks.

At least 20 of the league’s 31 stadiums (the New York Jets and Giants share a venue) have Wi-Fi in their bowls, up from six in 2011, McKenna-Doyle said. Not all of those stadiums, however, would meet the new minimum standards, and that also means 11 stadiums are not remotely close.

The NFL is planning conference calls soon with each team to go over what is expected, McKenna-Doyle said.

The Wi-Fi and cellular requirements carry no penalties for noncompliance. Several teams have put off upgrades because of the poor condition of their stadiums and hopes for replacement venues; others are moving into new buildings over the next few years. Others are locked in long-term deals with Wi-Fi providers that now may need renegotiating.

Asked about teams that did not meet the new standards in the 15-month time frame, McKenna-Doyle replied, “If they don’t do this, there will be poor-performing ticket sales. They will suffer enough consequences not doing it.”

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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