The More Fun League: NFL aims for better fan experience
In 2017, PepsiCo and MetLife Stadium renewed their contract with a twist: Part of Pepsi’s fee would go into a capital expenditure fund, giving the company input over the strategy of concessions sales.
Today, Pepsi and stadium concessionaire Delaware North are deep in thought, asking themselves what fan frustrations they can solve by rebuilding food-and-drink stands from a modern perspective. Nothing’s quite settled, but talks have centered around speeding up lines, mobile ordering and miniature convenience stores, said Justin Toman, PepsiCo’s head of sports marketing.
“No matter how good or new a stadium is, there’s always an opportunity with fans in the food or beverage area, and that’s where our products play,” Toman said. “If more people are eating and drinking, and quicker and faster, more efficiently, that increases volume as well, so that’s good for us and the concessionaire.”
With another NFL season two weeks away, that mindset is pervasive around NFL facilities. Club officials and partners are looking everywhere for ways to make the stadium experience more fun with less hassle.
The clubs work from a position of strength: The vast majority of NFL tickets are sold, and many teams nearly fill their stadiums on season tickets alone. But average attendance across the league declined 0.5% in 2018 to an eight-year low. Club officials continue to be worried about losing the battle for fan dollars with comfortable couches and high-definition televisions. Even if attendance isn’t a problem now, teams know customer standards are getting higher.
“As the fan base continues to age, it’s an investment in that future fan,” said Ryan Huzjak, Steelers vice president of sales and marketing. This year, the Steelers have added augmented reality features into their mobile app that work with the oversized replica Lombardi Trophies in the stadium’s FedEx Great Hall to entertain fans with historical footage and content. They’ve placed more game-day logistical information in the app for fans, too, Huzjak said.
Mobile apps are the central tool for some of these efforts. With digital tickets now required, team app usage will become widespread, experts predict, and those apps are an ideal way of enhancing the physical experience with digital information. For instance, the Jets are looking at a way of using the app to steer fans to under-used entrances if long lines develop, President Neil Glat said.
Some other examples of fan-oriented upgrades around the league include:
While Delaware North and Pepsi consider changes at MetLife Stadium that would be seen for both Jets and Giants games, the Jets are moving ahead on limited trials at the stadium for mobile ordering/pick up, and two “grab-and-go” food stands.
At the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, the club plans to designate a specific supporters section with about 60 seats on the lower level. They’ll upgrade selected fans from various affinity groups who are already attending the game, and play the regular pregame Fog Horn rallying cry ceremony from there. “We always want to keep plussing up the fan experience so that people want to come,” said spokesman Roger Hacker.
We always want to keep plussing up the fan experience so that people want to come.
At Hard Rock Stadium outside of Miami, taxpayers and the Dolphins are funding the construction of pedestrian bridges and tunnels around the stadium. The goal is to allow cars to leave the parking lot without waiting for pedestrians, which team President Tom Garfinkel said could speed up the trip home substantially.
In Houston, the Texans will complete a three-year renovation project this year. Along with remodeling all of the suites, the project installed umbrellas for shade and more seating at Bud Light Plaza, the venue’s main entrance where crowds often gather.
The Patriots are expanding an experiment from last year that gives fans free parking if they wait at least 75 minutes before leaving, with the goal of decreasing exit congestion.
More programming before and after games could be a big part of the puzzle, Glat theorized. “If they’re going to look at it as just a three-hour window where they’re watching the game … then they may say, you know, maybe I will watch this game [on TV] rather than coming out in terms of the time and effort,” he said.
The next stage of upgrades to the live experience, experts say, may be supercharged by 5G connectivity. That could enable augmented reality on mobile apps to give fans at the stadium the same live graphical information broadcasts offer. League sponsor Verizon is installing 5G technology in some venues this year, but widespread use of compatible devices is a few years away.
First Look podcast, with NFL discussion at the 14:50 mark:
Staff writer Karn Dhingra contributed to this report.