THE MORE FUN LEAGUE
Updated: Feb 5
This article was originally published on January 15th, 2020.
The original stadium that everyone thinks of as the beginning of sport is the Colosseum, in ancient Rome.
Since the times that 80,000 spectators packed into the Flavian Amphitheatre almost 2,000 years ago, the fan experience has changed very little. Now the NFL and their facilities are looking everywhere for ways to make the stadium experience more fun with less hassle.
The experience that a fan receives at a stadium is unique. You just can't get it anywhere else.
It is a sensory experience like no other, and creating an effective fan experience can alter a fan's entire sense of reality, making the fan wanting to come back for more.
The NFL has been a sports organization that has often rested on the basic fan experience. “When there are gaps (in action), if you think back 10 or 15 years ago, the tradition was to put relatively simple things on a relatively simple JumboTron,” said former NFL executive Eric Grubman.
However, if teams are able to be innovative and provide a sensory experience through the latest technology and ideas fans will come back for more.
Once senses are engaged, the fan experience becomes more memorable. Fans can create an experience unique to themselves. The five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, are all engaged the minute a fan steps foot into the stadium.
The underlying task for the NFL is to create a stadium atmosphere that cannot be replicated at home.
So far NFL teams are coming from a position of strength, the majority of teams can fill their stadiums, on the sale of season tickets alone. Despite these attendances across the league have been declining. The 2018 season saw a 0.5% decrease from the previous season, putting league attendances at an eight-year low.
Team executives 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.
Increasingly, fans require better reasons to leave the comfort and convenience of their homes, and teams are looking for more sophisticated ways to encourage them to do so. It can start by putting the fan at the center.
When Pepsi renewed its partnership with MetLife Stadium, in 2017, it was announced that part of their fee would go into a capital expenditure fund. This fund opens up the opportunity for Pepsi to offer creative input over the stadium's strategy for concession sales.
The drinks giant took this opportunity to ask the question 'What frustrates fans?,' from this point Pepsi began to rebuild food and drink stands from a modern perspective, focusing on speeding up queues, mobile ordering, and miniature convenience stores,
“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,” said Justin Toman, PepsiCo’s head of sports marketing. “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.”
As these changes would impact both the Jets and the Giants, who both play at MetLife Stadium, the Jets have decided to innovate on their own moving ahead on limited trials at the stadium for mobile ordering/pick up, and two “grab-and-go” food stands.
“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.
To better connect with the league's younger demographic the NFL has turned much of its focus towards digital offerings. Therefore, almost all NFL stadiums have become Wi-Fi enabled, so they can get their fans online.
Some teams have even gone as far as developing certified Wi-Fi Coaches, who are there on game day to educate fans on the existence and availability of the complimentary Wi-Fi networks.
Introducing effective WiFi networks within the stadiums has allowed teams to make mobile apps central to the NFL and their team's fan engagement efforts. Great use of a mobile app can be seen at English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, whose app includes features to help fans plan their day around a visit to the stadium complex, taking advantage of the dining, retail, and other entertainment, that is available.
Team app usage has become widespread, and those apps have become an ideal way of enhancing the physical gameday experience, with digital information and will even be able to deliver incentives tailored to fans’ individual interests and histories.
With in-arena WiFi stadiums might consider the practice of some theme parks and cruise ships of providing guests with connected bracelets that manage hotel access, park admissions, purchases, and other digital touchpoints without requiring guests to access their smartphones, much less their actual wallets. Such wearables can reduce the friction for access and make it easy for guests to make purchases, earn rewards, and unlock tiered VIP experiences while capturing customer data that can be used to better anticipate and incentivize their behaviors. Sports ticket holders might even wish to show off their status with a team-branded band they could wear year-round.
However, the next stage of digital upgrades to the live experience is set to be 5G connectivity. At some point in the not-too-distant future, when you make your way into a state-of-the-art NFL stadium the experience received will be turned on its head.
Once you have loaded up on pricey snacks and drinks, found your uncomfortable seats, and shortly before the National Anthem, you'll put on a pair of glasses that will stream stats, replays, audio commentary, and, inevitably, ads in a language of your choice.
All of this will be made possible through 5G technology, which league sponsor Verizon is installing 5G technology in some venues this year.
The augmented reality aspect is just one way that NFL team owners and their technology partners hope to utilize 5G's super-fast data delivery.
Another scenario that could be created through 5G is revolutionary broadcasting. This could either be through utilizing fans' phones in the stadium and with the help of A.I, tens of thousands of angles to capture the game in an infinite number of ways for viewers at home or the idea of global chief architect of IBM Sports Ben Brillat's (@BenBrillat), "Imagine the players all have a camera in their helmets--or eight cameras in their helmets."
“Amazing innovation,” said Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson), when testing helmet cameras. “It is going to forever change the game for players today and for players tomorrow. It was a no-brainer to be the first.”
Brillat can even imagine 5G being a gateway to watching a live match in your home stadium even when your team is away.
A good example of what 5G can do right now was seen in Korea, when SK Wyverns, a Korean baseball team beamed an AR dragon to breathe fire above their game.
Another way teams are looking to improve the fan experience is by extending the game-day experience.
By offering postgame experiences teams are hoping that there will be a knock-on effect inside the parking lots, reducing traffic jams outside the stadiums.
“It is a top priority of our organization to be able to provide a comprehensive fan experience from the time our guests leave their house to join us at a Lions game all the way back home,” said Kelly Kozole (@KelLions), senior vice president of business development for the Detroit Lions.
The Lions are one of the more aggressive teams with postgame activities.
Fans at Detroit’s Ford Field can watch television coverage of other games and monitor traffic reports. The team and concessionaire Levy offer discounted food and beverages such as $2 sodas and hot dogs and $3 beers and cocktails in a stadium area kept open after games. Those prices mirror lower-cost concessions offered inside the stadium an hour before kickoff. Two premium-area bars and a grab-and-go space also remain open an hour after the game and have $2 pizza slices.
The Lions also offer kids, between the ages of 5 to 14, the opportunity to run on Ford Field after games and receive a souvenir football. “We’ve had as many as 1,500 kids,” Kozole said of the experience, which is sponsored by Kroger and the United Dairy Industry of Michigan.
Furthermore, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars have similar in arena postgame offerings, with both seeing over 1,000 fans per game taking advantage of the extended entertainment.
Other NFL teams have chosen to provide postgame events outside of their stadium, this is providing brands with a chance to extend their sponsorships during gameday. The Dallas Cowboys keep branded Miller Lite areas outside AT&T Stadium open two hours after games serviced by food trucks, a merchandise trailer and beverage stands. There is also postgame music. As many as 1,000 fans will hang out after games, according to estimates from the Cowboys. Similar external postgame events have been hosted by the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans.
The Patriots decided to go even further by expanding an experiment, that gives fans free parking if they wait at least 75 minutes before leaving the stadium.
The fundamental challenge for the NFL lies in delivering a truly exceptional stadium experience that is beyond anything possible elsewhere.
As stadiums become more computational, connected, sensing and data-driven, the fans need to be entertained, to share, and to express themselves will likely be met by novel technologies that surprise and fascinate.
And yet the age-old excitement of physical competition continues to thrive and express itself in both old and new ways. With the help of sensing, data analytics, and next-generation digital experiences, sports teams have tremendous opportunities to support their fans’ passion and loyalty.
Rewarding loyalty, in the way that the 49ers plan to do with their plans to designate a specific supporters section to regular fans. The section will see selected fans from various affinity groups who are already attending the game upgraded, and placed in the new fan section where they will be able to participate in the pregame Fog Horn rallying cry ceremony.
“We always want to keep plussing up the fan experience so that people want to come,” said spokesman Roger Hacker (@RogueHacker). The opportunity for a regular fan to access a VIP experience makes them feel special.