How Football Stadiums Are Implementing Tech to Lure Fans off Their Couches

If you build it and provide an incomparable experience, they will come

Stadiums and teams are pulling out the stops to entice fans to buy tickets and actually attend games. Photo Illustration, Amber McAden; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

There was a time when bone-crushing hits, acrobatic touchdowns and being the 12th man for the home team were enough to spur ticket sales, but the bar is much higher for sports fans today.

That’s in part because consumer electronics are so much better—you can sometimes even see blades of grass on high-definition TVs—but also because watching a game from home reduces cost, eliminates traffic, provides easy access to stats for fantasy football, and on-screen features like the first-down line and instant replays help fans follow the action. In fact, in 2014, 35 percent of consumers had attended a sporting event in the last six months—by 2017, that number stood at just 27 percent, according to a Gartner study—and that number is expected to drop further.

“Millennials are becoming new homebuyers, and the money they put in for DIY is for the purpose of entertaining and bringing friends and family together in a space that is comfortable and their own and they can get the ROI back … that is greater than what they would get from single game or season tickets,” said Gartner senior executive adviser Traci Croft.

And so stadiums and teams alike are pulling out the stops to entice fans to spend their hard-earned cash on tickets. One of the stadiums leading the charge is Super Bowl LIII host Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The $1.5-billion venue opened in 2017 and is appealing to fans with innovations like 1,800 wireless access points and 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cable to ensure 75,000 mobile-phone-wielding fans can update their Facebook statuses, tweet their opinions and Instagram their Closed-on-Sunday Chicken Sandwiches and Dirty Bird Fries. And all those terabytes are needed: U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis handled 16 TB of data during last year’s Super Bowl.

“All stadiums work to upgrade, but when you get a Super Bowl, you are held to a higher standard,” said NFL CIO Michelle McKenna. “Atlanta is brand new, but they’re working hard to fine-tune all of their infrastructure to be ready to host us.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium also has what it calls Fan-First Pricing—or food and beverages with price tags comparable to local restaurants and convenience stores—and these prices do not rise for any event, the Super Bowl included.

An event like the Super Bowl is certainly an exception to the attendance rule, but the NFL is nevertheless working on ways to improve that fan experience as well.

That includes 7 percent of attendees testing mobile ticketing for the first time. It also includes the Fan Mobile Pass, which will return to the Super Bowl for the third consecutive year. It’s sponsored by in-game advertiser Hyundai and includes a virtual assistant named Vince, an interactive feature from Intel that allows fans to see the game from multiple points of view; personalized recommendations; and information about transportation and security.

This emphasis on connectivity is a playbook pioneered by Levi’s Stadium, which opened in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2014.

When it was under construction, San Francisco 49ers president Al Guido said connectivity was a problem around the NFL.

“Wi-Fi was not great and the premise was it was not going to be long before fans stop going to the stadium if they are disconnected from the world for six hours,” he said. “They sit in the venue for four hours—the real live action in any given NFL game is only about 28 minutes—how do you fulfill the other downtime?”

That’s in part why the 49ers hired an alum from nearby Facebook to build “a software-driven stadium rather than a hardware-driven stadium.” As a result, its underlying infrastructure includes internet access points for every 100 seats.

“What’s changed from 2014 to now is a lot of users were downloading content—looking up replays, checking out content—now they’re uploading content,” Guido said.

But it isn’t enough to keep John and Jane Q. Fan online. Even for a team’s most die-hard supporters, there are a lot of pain points—waiting in traffic to enter, for food and the bathroom, among them.

This season, the Seattle Seahawks partnered with biometrics company Clear to enable fans to validate their ages and buy concessions with their fingerprints.

In addition to more bathrooms, Mercedes-Benz Stadium has taken steps to minimize lines, like mobile payments via Apple Pay, as well as a partnership with navigation system Waze to help fans park, and walk-through magnetometers and new turnstiles, which give its entrances 40 percent more capacity than its predecessor, the Georgia Dome.

“There are some elements you can’t change—we can’t take away traffic, that’s simply mathematical,” Guido added. “70,000 people are trying to arrive and leave a venue at the same time, but if we can make the stadium product and experience so outstanding while you are there, then nothing can ever replicate live sports and being in a venue.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.