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Volume 21 No. 1
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Pac-12 venues to get AT&T wireless boost

Editor's note: This story is updated from the print edition.

The Pac-12 is on pace to become the first major college conference to update all of its football stadiums and basketball arenas with full wireless capability.

The conference struck a comprehensive, three-pronged agreement with AT&T earlier this month that will provide carriage for the Pac-12 Networks on U-verse, while also making AT&T an official corporate sponsor across all 12 schools.

But the third leg of the deal could wind up providing the most long-term benefit for the conference. AT&T will become the official technology provider for the Pac-12, and the company will install distributed antenna systems and full Wi-Fi availability throughout the league’s football and basketball facilities, including seating bowls and concourses.

Pac-12 facilities like Washington’s recently renovated Husky Stadium will all be equipped with DAS and Wi-Fi capabilities.
Pac-12 officials hope the enhanced wireless capabilities inside the stadium or arena will help address the industrywide challenge of improving the fan experience.

Each of the Pac-12 schools will have a DAS installed in time for the 2014 football season, according to Commissioner Larry Scott. A timetable for Wi-Fi hasn’t been established yet.

The deal, nine months in the making, puts the Pac-12 on a faster pace to build on wireless capabilities than other conferences. Most conferences leave these types of deals up to individual schools, but the Pac-12 made its agreement with AT&T conferencewide. The Pac-12’s schools agreed two years ago to aggregate their wireless rights so that the conference could sell them in a package.

Scott estimates that roughly two-thirds of the 12 schools have a DAS in their facilities now. A DAS provides enhanced cell service within a stadium. The schools that don’t have a DAS typically bring in cells on wheels to accommodate increased cell usage each time there’s a home football game.

Scott said only one or two schools have Wi-Fi throughout their football and basketball facilities. Washington’s Husky Stadium is one Pac-12 facility that has Wi-Fi after its $250 million renovation.

It costs around $2 million to install Wi-Fi, and more for those schools that need both Wi-Fi and a DAS. In NFL facilities, a DAS alone costs anywhere from $7 million up to $20 million, which is the cost of the system that includes the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans Arena and Champions Square, an outdoor hospitality space between the two venues. The conference hasn’t finalized exactly how much of the costs will be covered by the school or the conference, but sometimes the installation can be exchanged for sponsorship assets. Scott said the final business model has not been established yet.

“This is a next-generation strategic imperative,” Scott said. “I’m not so worried about the next three to five years. I’m trying to think about the next 10 years ahead, with the next generation that’s growing up in a world where they are on multiple devices at the same time.”

With improved connectivity, Scott said the conference will turn its focus to a new menu of in-stadium programming, like replays, a Red Zone-style show and highlights. Its right deals with ESPN and Fox allow the conference to carry live look-ins from other games, and the Pac-12 Networks will supply additional content.

“Having the connectivity is one thing,” Scott said. “But being able to deliver the content without conflicts with the rights holders is a whole different animal. The way we’ve configured Pac-12 Networks and our digital network will allow us to deliver stuff that people haven’t seen in a stadium before.

“We’re going to do everything we can to replicate the experience people have watching the game in their living room.”

The Pac-12’s plans are in line with an industry push to improve the in-game experience. Scott referenced this year’s NCAA tournament when Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware broke his leg, and many fans in the stadium did not know what happened.

“Fans were finding out what happened to Kevin Ware from people at home who were watching on TV,” Scott said. “There’s something wrong with that.”

Bob Jordan, a sports technology consultant at Van Wagner Sports Group, said that only about 35 percent of major league facilities have upgraded their wireless into the seating bowl and concourses to improve the connectivity, but it’s a major push at all levels.

“I know that I walk around at games with at least two wireless devices,” California Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said of her smartphone and tablet. “Some people have more.”

In a best-case scenario inside the stadium, phone calls and text messages travel along a DAS, freeing the Wi-Fi for heavier data usage, such as downloads and sending pictures. Wi-Fi also enables other mobile devices, such as handheld equipment used to scan tickets or take concession orders in premium areas.

“We need to be better than anyone else at the fan experience, given the nature of where we are and who we are,” Scott said. “It is part of the DNA of our schools. We’re so tied into the worlds of media and technology that it’s natural for us to try and pioneer.”

The conference was able to strike such a comprehensive deal with AT&T because of the way Scott realigned the rights to the wireless category two years ago. As he was developing the conference channel, Scott convinced the schools to turn over their wireless rights to the conference. Those rights previously were bundled into each school’s multimedia rights deal.

Being able to offer a comprehensive package of all 12 schools to AT&T made this “a signature deal,” Scott said.
“This represents the future of how colleges can best approach the marketplace and do it in a truly integrated fashion,” he said. “It’s unusual in the college space to be able to offer all 12 schools.”

AT&T’s sponsorship will include signage and radio advertising across all 12 schools and TV spots on the Pac-12 Networks, which gained access to U-verse’s 4.5 million households. U-verse is the nation’s seventh-largest multisystem operator.

AT&T, in a statement to SportsBusiness Journal, described this type of multifaceted deal with the Pac-12 as a “unique deal where we were able to roll in all three components. We believe this is a first. … The scope of the deal involved more challenges, so it was a little more cumbersome. Getting the details just right was key in making this happen.”