A camera panning the crowd at today's football games shows thousands of fans on their smartphones, attention away from the action on the field and on their mobile devices. With a new pilot program designed to bring Wi-Fi service to five football stadiums, fans no longer have to worry about getting 3G or 4G coverage at games, bringing new revenue to the NFL and networking providers. Participating venues include MetLife Stadium (Giants/Jets), Gillette Stadium (Patriots), Bank of America Stadium (Panthers), Lucas Oil Stadium (Colts) and the Superdome (Saints).
Today, the New England Patriots announced a deal with Andover, Mass.-based networking vendor Enterasys to provide wireless networking to all Patriots fans.
"We're looking for a new way to address the tsunami of mobile devices and user expectations of wanting to experience the game in real time in other ways," says Ram Appalaraju, VP of sales and marketing for Enterasys.
The pilot program gives fans wireless networking and includes in-game apps for attending fans. For example, the Patriots have developed GameDay Live, a free app that allows users to see four replays from different camera angles just seconds after a play.
"[The Patriots] have taken advantage of specific aspects of the Enterasys architecture and are maximizing their offerings to the fullest extent," Appalaraju explains.
For NFL fans, the fantasy football implications--and possible revenue--are huge. According to market research firm Ipsos, Americans spend an estimated $800 million per year on fantasy sports products and services, most of which is focused on football. Fantasy football league players are more likely to spend money on their teams, and are more likely to purchase sports merchandise. Free Wi-Fi service at games lets fans keep an eye on other games and adjust their fantasy football teams at the stadium, a big draw for serious players.
"Our whole goal is to make the fan experience, when they come to the game, as excellent as it can be," says Fred Kirsch, publisher and VP for the New England Patriots and the Kraft Group. "The expectation these days is that a smartphone device is part of that experience. With Enterasys, we're laying that foundation so that fans can get the content they're using today in a better way."
But can a wireless network actually handle an entire stadium full of fans?
"There is still quite a bit of speed in tech development, so we remain wary of big expenditure on installed infrastructure until a solution is proven," Eric Grubman, NFL executive VP, told Sports Business Daily.
Enterasys is used to large-scale high density deployments, so Appalaraju says he isn't concerned. A combination wired and wireless architecture is designed to operate indoors and outdoors in extreme conditions, such as New England's temperamental seasons. Despite the layers of steel and concrete used to fortify Gillette Stadium, which seats 68,000 fans, the number of wireless access points (APs) will number in only the hundreds, thanks to Enterasys' business-grade APs. In comparison, Ruckus provided 120 APs to the Democratic National Convention, where the network was designed under the assumption that 28% of the 20,000 attendees would use the Wi-Fi service.
A deployment of this size is nothing new to Enterasys. According to Appalaraju, Enterasys has deployed networks in hospitals with 2,500 to 5,000 APs, and in even larger European stadiums--though not with the same focus that Gillette is giving to the fan experience. The unified Enterasys architecture lends itself to easy scalability.
"The single management console for the wired and wireless site not only gives stability to the network end-to-end, but allows the careful provisioning of the network based on policies and priorities," explains Appalaraju. Despite expenditures in the millions of dollars, the Patriots plan to offer Wi-Fi at no charge to fans, ensuring that every attendee with a smartphone can use the new network.
"I worry about an atmosphere where 60,000 fans are staring at their phones the whole time, but I guess that's the way it is anyway," says Sam Fels, a Chicago-based sports writer for Second City Hockey's The Committed Indian.