This week I was invited to go to the NFL offices in New York to hear about a partnership announcement between the NFL and Extreme Networks. I’ll get to the announcement in a minute. But, first how cool is it to have a press conference in the same room – actually the same table -- that all 32 teams and Rodger Goodell sit at to discuss the future of the NFL. Plus the 47 Super Bowl rings on display in the lobby was definitely a photo-op moment. Now back to how this relates to technology…
Extreme Networks is the NFL’s preferred vendor for Wi-Fi network analytics. You may say to yourself, what exactly does that mean. To the NFL it means a vastly improved customer experience in the stadium on game day. Consider for a moment an NFL stadium on game day – did you envision a huge stadium packed with 60 or 70 thousand screaming fans. Sounds about right -- okay, now consider the fact that virtually all the fans have some form of smartphone or wireless device that they will use to stay connected while at the game. As one of the speakers at the press conference pointed out, that is like enabling Wi-Fi for a small city a dozen or more (if lucky) times per year. Only it is in an area a fraction of the size of most cities – and packed with the two things that impact Wi-Fi signals the most – concrete and water (humans are roughly 60-65% water- a human brain 85% water-(I looked it up). This is typically reffered to as high-density WiFi. If it so difficult, why do they do this?
It’s all about the fan experience. More importantly It is about providing the fans attending the game a differentiated experience. Wi-Fi is the enabler that allows NFL teams to provide its fans value-added differentiators in the stadium, unique camera angles, streaming video for NFL RedZone, replays, the ability to order food from your seat, even figuring out which bathroom has the shortest line (trust me it’s the family one – bring your little kids to the game). If you have ever been to a New England Patriots game at Gillette stadium you know what I am talking about. They are one of the more advanced locations and have built their own apps to run on an Extreme Networks high-denisty Wi-Fi infrastructure with Wi-Fi analytics. The Philadelphia Eagles have also rolled out a high-density WiFi network based on Extreme Networks technology with Wi-Fi analytics. Fan experience is more than just downloading information or video though, the Detriot Lions are using Extreme Networks Wi-Fi analytics to find out how fans are using their Wi-Fi. As it turns out, their fans needed more upload capability – so they could share their experience with friends and family by uploading pictures to Facebook, Instagram, etc.. Having real time analytics helped them adjust their network on the fly to accomodate for those needs.
At the press conference, panelists from the NFL, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, and Philiadelphia Eagles pointed to the ability to access real time analytics as critical to delivering a sound experience in these high-density Wi-Fi environments. It was pointed out that challenges are amplified in these high-density environments and things can go bad quickly. Access to actionable information to correct a problem before fans complain about is important to the overall experience. Understanding the impact that kick-off, half-time, a big play, or a call under review have on the network are all important. (They tend to spike, by the way) For the Eagles, these analytics have allowed them to geo-fence attendees, so if someone tweets that there is a fight going on in front of them, staff will know where to send security. (They really needed that at the old Veterans Stadium!) It was also made clear that to provide that level of content distribution and uploading, even the best LTE networks need to offload to Wi-Fi. It should be noted however for those security conscious fans, that the NFL claims to collect all this data anonymously, and has no plans to go all NSA on its fans.
Organizations that have deployed high density WiFi infrastructure and analytics believe the model has worked well and has improved the fan experience. It was pointed out, however, that building out these high-density Wi-Fi environments requires a considerable amount of support – something that Extreme Networks provided to both the Patriots and Eagles – and not just in the form of pre-deployment support but also to help accelerate post deployment adoption by fans. This include supplying Wi-Fi coaches to help fans get and stay connected throughout the game.
Now, how does the MLB, MLS, NBA, and NHL plan to leverage high density Wi-Fi and analytics to improve the fan experience?