SBJ/Dec. 16-22, 2013/Facilities

MLBAM, Dolphins see tech as beacon for fans

Three months after briefly testing Apple’s new iBeacon mobile technology at Citi Field, MLB is moving ahead with its aggressive plan for a system that would enable teams leaguewide to send targeted messages to fans’ mobile devices at key points inside and outside stadiums.

For example, fans can receive coupons for concession and merchandise stands at the moment they approach those locations. MLB Advanced Media also intends to incorporate fan loyalty programs, exclusive mobile video and other amenities, though it will ultimately be up to the teams to customize the technology to fit their needs, said Bob Bowman, CEO of MLBAM.

The technology runs through MLB’s At the Ballpark mobile application, which fans have to download and open on their devices to receive the messages.

The Bluetooth low energy technology on which iBeacon is based is being offered free of charge to every ballpark starting next season, Bowman said. The cost to MLBAM will depend on its tech partner, and to date, none has been selected, he said.

 
The iBeacon test at Citi Field pushed out targeted offers for food; the Dolphins last weekend planned to help fans avoid lines.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins were slated to have run a limited test of the technology at their home game Sunday, with an eye toward expanding its use next season.

The beacons are essentially small radios programmed with location-based technology to pick up signals from mobile devices and send back customized messages for informational and commercial purposes, providing a tool for teams to collect more data on fans’ interests and tastes and make highly targeted suggestions.

BLE technology operates on a piece of wireless spectrum separate from either Wi-Fi or cellular signals, which remain highly challenged at many sports facilities.

“The prospect of being able to send very specific push notifications within the ballpark is very exciting to us, and the industry at large,” said Brooks Boyer, Chicago White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. The White Sox do not yet have a planned installation date for beacons at U.S. Cellular Field, but intend to schedule one soon. “You’re engaging with fans on their mobile devices when they’re already in the ballpark and want to be engaged. That opens up huge opportunities.”

In South Florida, about 150 to 200 Dolphins season-ticket holders holding iPhones and iPads were to test Qualcomm’s beacon technology through the team’s mobile application as they moved around Sun Life Stadium’s plazas and concourses. Qualcomm’s Gimbal platform is similar to but separate from Apple’s iBeacon system.

The Dolphins first tested it internally for two games before scheduling the introduction to fans Sunday, said Tery Howard, the team’s senior vice president and chief technology officer.

The Dolphins, in tandem with Qualcomm and eMbience, the team’s application developer, installed about 50 beacons inside the stadium walls for the test. The beacons, about the size of a deck of cards, are powered by four AA batteries and cost $10 to $20 a unit, said Brian Dunphy, Qualcomm’s senior director of business development. Because no wiring is required, the investment to install 1,000 beacons is about $10,000 to $20,000, far less expensive than Wi-Fi and cellular upgrades, which can reach seven figures. The beacon costs do not cover minimal subscriber fees Qualcomm charges for users of the team’s mobile application, Dunphy said.

Qualcomm’s beacons can reach up to 200 feet depending on the height of the installation and number of people in a particular space. There is a button to push to turn off the alerts for those who value their privacy and don’t want to be bothered with periodic messages, Dunphy said.

In addition, the intelligence tied to beacons will not repeat a message if a fan walks by an area more than once, Howard said.

As they walked the stadium Sunday, test participants were to receive full-screen, team-branded messages specific to the space they entered.

On the upper levels, they could receive a message about discount merchandise as they approached the retail store near Section 442. On the club level, test patrons were to receive “line busting” alerts with the words “Waiting in Line?” and “You’ll find shorter wait times at the concessions near Section 228,” redirecting them from high-traffic concession stands to shorter lines elsewhere offering the same food and drink on the stadium’s east and west sides.

The beacons have the intelligence to detect whether fans are walking, standing or running on the concourses, a factor for determining congestion in the area, Howard said.

The Dolphins’ test was also to cover geo-targeting, a separate technology for outside the stadium. It connects with fans’ mobile devices and feeds them information on traffic alerts and the most convenient path for entering the parking lots off Florida’s Turnpike, Howard said.

The retail industry is also testing beacon technology at the same time as sports facilities. Apple just recently activated iBeacons at its 254 U.S. stores to improve customer flow and offer upgrades.

Both the Dolphins and MLBAM officials see the technology as a tool to improve the fan experience rather than just to drive more revenue. Over time, it could develop into the best way for fans to display their ticket at the gates and point out the most direct path to their seats, Bowman said.

“We’re trying to make things easier for them instead of saying, ‘By the way, you can spend your money over here,’” Bowman said. “The intent is not to use it as a commercial enterprise. We are rewarding behavior instead of getting more money.”

In South Florida, the Dolphins will use the feedback they get from their season-ticket holders test of the beacons to improve the system and expand it to the entire building for next season.

“It all goes back to we’re all tasked and challenged in understanding our fans and what they want,” she said. “This will help us open a new door in how we’re relevant to them, to make sure we’re attentive to their needs. Mobility is going to be at the heart of everything we do.”

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