You’d think people who pay hundreds of dollars for a Seahawks ticket wouldn’t spend much of the game messing with their phones.
But bragging about their team and sharing highlights and selfies with friends have become a big part of the experience, according to executives in the business who gathered at CenturyLink Field Tuesday night.
The event was hosted by Extreme Networks, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that recently upgraded the Seahawks stadium with a Wi-Fi network with more than 800 access points around the building.
Seahawks fans put it to the test during the Carolina Panthers game and set a new record — among Extreme customers –during Kam Chancellor’s interception and return for a touchdown.
All the sharing and phone usage at that moment pushed the network to a peak load of 1.4 gigabytes per second, beating Extreme’s previous record of 1.1 Gbps set in Philadelphia. Here’s a screenshot of the Extreme console showing network activity during the game:
Extreme, headed by former Apple and Nuance executive Charles Berger, moved beyond traditional enterprise customers and began wiring up NFL and college sports venues three years ago. So far it has done eight NFL stadiums.
“You’ve got 70,000-plus people, you have a lot of steel, a lot of concrete, the fluid in our body –those are the three hardest things for an RF signal to go through,” Berger said. “So we can demonstrate strong success here.”
Pro sports teams, meanwhile, are building new apps and services to connect with people via phone before, during and after games.
Chip Suttles, the Seahawks vice president of technology, said this is just the start. In the future, the network and apps could also be extended to wearable computing devices.
“I think people would like to reduce the inefficiency of having to pull your phone out of your pocket a hundred plus times a day,” he said in an email interview.
At the stadium, team apps are partly intended to “enhance the experience” and partly to get fans to buy more food, beverages and gear, Berger said.
During an interview, Berger shared his thoughts the direction we’re heading with wired — and wireless — stadiums. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: How much does it cost to add this sort of fast Wi-Fi to a stadium?
A: Our stadium deals for the first wave of connectivity are usually between $2 million and $3 million, for the installation, and then there’s an ongoing service charge.
Q: Will stadiums start charging for access or do people expect it to be free, on top of their $200 ticket?
A: The access will definitely be free. The NFL and the venues have two incentives –one is to enhance the fan experience. It’s almost become table stakes where you go that you can connect your device to the Internet. The next thing is direct you to wherever you can spend money.
Q: Buy beer, eat food?
A: Right. So you know — ‘Wow, touchdown Seahawks! You can get a jersey for 20 percent off at the logo wear store!’ And oh, by the way, we know where you are because we can triangulate the Wi-Fi data so the closest logo wear store is here or at halftime the shortest beer line is wherever.
Q: How many seasons does it take a team to get a return on their $2 million investment in the network?
A: We don’t get to see the customers’ calculation of that but I don’t think it’s very many — one or two at most. We’ve had experience where food and beverage [sales] has gone up by between 20 and 40 percent. In one game that’s way more than what we charge to have Wi-Fi put in here.
A: The potential is really incredible.
Q: Nintendo experimented with apps on DS handhelds at Safeco Field that let people order food and drinks. Is that something you build as well or do you leave the device experience the teams?
A: The teams usually do that on their own. That’s a place where in the future we might get more active.
Q: Would you buy a company to do that?
A: Most likely. That’s not a core competency that we have.
Q: You used to work for Apple?
A: I was at Apple for most of the 1980s. I was treasurer for half the time and VP of marketing for half the time. It was the first Steve Jobs wave.
Q: It was a small world back then. Do you know Paul Allen?
A: I’ve met Paul several times, back in the Apple times.
Q: Was that a factor in your getting this contract?
A: No, in fact, Paul was a tough negotiator on this one.
Q: So stadiums are getting wired up and have this bandwidth, where will this take us in five years?
A: I think there’s going to be a lot more content pushed to the fans. There will be a stronger location awareness to help you find the services you want when you’re at a game. That won’t be limited to sports venues.
Q: I wonder if we’ll be able to get really fluid, scrollable video replays in these venues?
A: With 802.11ac and 802.11ac wave two — especially wave two — that takes it up to 2.5 gigabits bandwidth. That’s going to enable a whole lot more video, a lot more streaming, more live chat, and all that will come in the next two to three years.
Q: Is this stadium built to be upgradeable to those standard?
A: Absolutely, yes.
Q: Any other interesting technology coming to the stadium?
A: That and Bluetooth beacons that people are putting everywhere now to hook up to your phone and get more precise location awareness.
Q: How about bathroom lines? Will they be monitored so you can time it right?
A: I think it’s going to be one of the most important things in the game.