June 25, 2017

Ballmer’s energy, enthusiasm will push fan-viewing technology for Clippers, NBA

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer (L) talks with John Ourand at the Sports Media & Technology conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer (L) talks with John Ourand at the Sports Media & Technology conference. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

As a longtime tech reporter it was a bit of a flashback to see former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer holding center stage at a conference, even if this one was centered around sports and not anything to do with PCs or Windows.

There was no dancing through the spotlights, but even in a sit-down setting you couldn’t hide Ballmer’s enthusiasm for technology, now focused on improving the fan experience for watching NBA basketball games, specifically those involving the Los Angeles Clippers, the team Ballmer now owns.

“I am excited for the future of technology and how it could make it REALLY more fun to watch sports,” Baller said to interviewer John Ourand, a writer with Sports Business Journal, the hosts of the 2016 NeuLion Sports Media & Technology conference held at the Manhattan Beach Marriott. If you’ve ever heard Ballmer speak live you know the voice pitch that escalated on that “REALLY” part, a volume increase guaranteed to ensure you’re paying attention.

Now one of the most visible NBA owner-fans, Ballmer told event attendees Wednesday how his team’s new rights deal with Fox’s regional sports network would help the Clippers experiment with more innovative viewing options, including over-the-top streaming game broadcasts.

Watching the game through a player’s view

But put aside for a moment the concerns about old-school broadcast rights — according to Ballmer what he really wanted out of the most-recent deal was breathing room to try new things, like having game views with statistics and other information overlaid or available in pop-out windows; or different camera views, including a VR-like view of the game from a player’s eyes.

Screenshot of fan-info TV 'overlays' that might enhance NBA broadcasts.

Screenshot of fan-info TV ‘overlays’ that might enhance NBA broadcasts.

“We needed a relationship that would allow us to innovate,” said Ballmer of the recent media deal, one where he dismissed the final dollar figure [worth $50 million to $55 millon per season] as “money is just an arm-wrestle.” Instead of crowing about getting piles of dough for TV rights, Ballmer was clearly more excited about ideas like being able to have player fantasy stats super-imposed over that player’s jersey while live action went on, among other plans.

“I want to watch a game as [Clippers point guard] Chris Paul, to see what he sees,” Ballmer said. “That would be a cool view of a game.”

Meet the new boss, different than the old boss

While such ideas are not completely new — others in and around sports have been thinking up such ideas and even trying them out — what’s different with the Clippers and the NBA is Ballmer’s energy, and the ability to not have to care about making money right away given his uber-billionaire wealth. I never worked for Microsoft or Ballmer but from the outside looking in it was pretty easy to see that Ballmer has never been a sit-around-and-wait kind of guy. When talking about the excitement of working with innovative sports-tech firms like Second Spectrum and NeuLion on his player’s-eye cam idea, Ballmer didn’t hesitate to put a timeline on the project.

“I’m going to be highly, highly, HIGHLY disappointed” if the Chris-Paul view isn’t available in 3-4 years, Ballmer said, laughing that it’s always best to put public pressure on engineers to get them to deliver more quickly. And while he’s frustrated by the delays caused by long-term rights deals, the opportunity to rework the Clippers’ local rights gave him a door to push open. And like always, Ballmer didn’t come in quietly.

“I didn’t want to wait to get started,” Ballmer said. “I’ve got a passion for the technology and we were at the end of the contract so… BOOM! Let’s go ahead and move forward.”

Ballmer also talked about the idea of building a new Clippers arena somewhere down the road, and about using technology to let fans at games have a better experience, like being able to upgrade your seat during the event. Dreaming about a new venue specifically built for basketball, Ballmer thought out loud about the benefits of having fans closer to the action, with an increased list of tech-aided amenities.

“The technology of arena design is advancing, too,” Ballmer said, pointing to such new structures as Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. “You have to figure out how to serve the modern fan.” Will Ballmer in charge, it’s a safe bet that Clippers fans may be among the first to be so served.

AT&T: Dems top Republicans for convention wireless data use

There’s an early winner in this year’s election race, at least when it comes to wireless data use: According to AT&T, the Democrats used a total of 5.4 terabytes of data on AT&T networks inside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia during their convention, compared to 2.8 TB used by the Republicans during their convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Do the traffic totals mean anything for governing our country? Most likely not. But the stats are interesting to look at for stadium technology professionals, especially since an event like a political convention is almost guaranteed to dwarf sporting events given the number of people inside the arenas and the length of action each day.

Remember that these statistics only represent AT&T cellular traffic in each arena, meaning that the actual total of wireless data was probably much higher; that’s because both of the stadiums have in-arena Wi-Fi and internal connectivity for other carriers; but we never got confirmation from either arena whether Wi-Fi was turned on or not, and we did not receive any numbers from other carriers. But — even just the AT&T numbers were impressive to study. Consider:

Average traffic: According to AT&T, traffic during Democratic convention days in late July was 387 percent higher than the average game totals during the Philadelphia Flyers’ playoff series with the Washington Capitals in April. The GOP beat sports too, accoring to AT&T, with an average per-day traffic total 250 percent higher than the total reached during Game 6 of the NBA Finals this year.

Total data use: On July 28, the Wells Fargo Center saw 1.5 TB of traffic on the AT&T cellular network — a pretty big total for a building that isn’t a huge football stadium.

Surrounding area data use: Chew on this stat for a bit from AT&T’s press release: “Across the major venues supporting the DNC – including the arena, Philadelphia Convention Center, along the Ben Franklin Parkway and surrounding areas – we saw approximately 64 TB cross our mobile network during the DNC. During the Pope’s visit last September, we saw 12.6 TB cross our network in Philly.”

Again, the Dems crushed the Republicans on this front — according to AT&T, GOP visitors used 9.4 TB of wireless data at surrounding venues during the event, still an interesting mark but far off the Dems’ totals. What this has us wondering here at stadium-stats central is if we should now separate and include related-area numbers… weigh in with your thoughts, please!

Pepsi Center partners with ParkHub for digital parking experience

Denver's Pepsi Center in hockey configuration. Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Denver’s Pepsi Center in hockey configuration. Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Fans coming to Denver’s Pepsi Center this fall will be able to prepurchase parking tickets and get mobile-device directions to their reserved spot, as part of a wide-ranging digital parking system from stadium parking technology startup ParkHub.

In a release today, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (KSE) — owners of the Pepsi Center as well as the main tenants, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche — said it will use “all of ParkHub’s parking solutions” to help power a list of features that include pre-purchasing capabilities, the ability to take cash and credit card payment options for parking at the gate, real-time views of parking spot availability, and turn by turn directions to the lot locations. Fans will be able to access the parking options via a responsive website optimized for mobile scheduled to debut this fall, according to ParkHub.

(Now that MSR is local to the area we’re looking forward to seeing the app in action, if only because the curved streets in the vicinity of the Pepsi Center have always made parking downtown an adventure for us!)

According to the Dallas-based ParkHub, which is adding rapidly to its list of current customers, the KSE deal is the first time ParkHub will “white label” its entire suite of products, which will be offered from the Pepsi Center and not directly from ParkHub.

Dashboard view of ParkHub's admin program. Credit: ParkHub

Dashboard view of ParkHub’s admin program. Credit: ParkHub

Included on the back end of ParkHub’s system is the ability to administer, approve and analyze all parking activities from a dashboard view. According to ParkHub, parking information is available in real time, allowing venues to fine-tune things like lot availability and direction of traffic as cars arrive at the stadium.

“When I think about the success of an event, the primary goal is to expedite a better experience of getting people parked and in their seats in the least frustrating way as possible,” said Scott Beekhuizen, senior director of events operations for KSE, in a prepared statement. “Not only did we add a reliable pre-purchasing platform, but now all of our fans can use credit cards to pay at the gate. I know they are going to love that.”

Fans at Pepsi Center events this fall will also be able to connect to the Internet via high-speed Wi-Fi from Avaya that was recently installed at the venue.

Wi-Fi Analytics: Taking the first steps

Wi-Fi antennas at Joe Louis Arena. Credit: Detroit Red Wings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Wi-Fi antennas at Joe Louis Arena. Credit: Detroit Red Wings (click on any photo for a larger image)

Even though the physical construction and deployment of a fan-facing Wi-Fi network seems like the biggest challenge facing a stadium’s information technology team, in reality everyone involved knows it’s just step one.

While turning on a live network is certainly a great accomplishment, once the data starts flowing the inevitable questions follow: Now that we have Wi-Fi, what do we do with it? And how do we find out who’s using it, why they are using it, and how can we use that information it to find out better ways to improve the fan experience while also improving our business?

Those “step two” questions can only be answered by analytics, the gathering of information about Wi-Fi network performance and user activity. And while almost every live network operator almost instantly uses performance numbers to help tune the system, plans to harvest and digest the more personalized information like end-user identification, application use and fan engagement are just getting started, even at the most technically advanced stadiums with Wi-Fi networks in place.

What follows here are some conversations with stadium tech professionals who are already running fan-facing Wi-Fi networks, exploring how they use Wi-Fi metrics and analytics to both enhance the game-day experience for fans while also building a base of information that can be used by both technical staffs and marketing organizations inside the team, school and venue organizations.

Even this small sample seems to suggest that while Wi-Fi networks may be somewhat pervasive in the larger stadiums across the country, the harvesting and processing of data generated by digital fan engagement is just getting started, with plenty of unanswered questions and experiments that have yet to bear significant fruit. Yet everyone we spoke with also had an unshakable confidence that getting metrics and analytics right was the key to wireless success over the long haul, and all are fully engaged in pursuing that goal. It may take longer than physical deployment, but the “step two” of learning from the networks is well underway.

Detroit Red Wings: Pushing past the initial learning curve

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

Now that the Wi-Fi network at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit is coming up on its second birthday, Tod Caflisch said network administrators can relax a bit on game nights. Early on, however, he remembers “babysitting” the network during games, watching live performance stats to make sure everything was working correctly.

Watching the live network performance statistics, Caflisch said, “I could tell if there were issues. If throughput looked a little flat, we might have to reboot a switch. It was important, because there was so much at stake.”

As former director of information technology for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings (he recently left Detroit and is now with the Minnesota Vikings), Caflisch helped drive the deployment of an Extreme Networks Wi-Fi network at the “Joe.” Though Joe Louis Arena is only going to host games a little while longer — a new downtown arena is just around the corner — Caflisch said the team in Detroit is already heading down the learning curve of interpreting analytics, with big goals on the horizon.

Right now, some of the most interesting network statistics have to do with fan Wi-Fi usage, including total tonnage, which Caflisch said hit 14 terabytes of data for the Red Wings’ home games this past season. That number is one and a half times bigger per game than the first year the network was in place, he said.

Big spikes for a score

One of the more interesting results came when Caflisch mapped network data to game action, an exercise that showed that hockey games may have bigger data spikes and troughs than other sports.

“We saw that traffic spikes corresponded with scores, and we also had huge spikes during intermissions,” Caflisch said. “And there were huge craters during the periods of regular action.”

While Caflisch said “it was kind of cool” to watch the network action mapped to the game action, in the future he sees the ability for the Red Wings use such actionable moments to better engage fans.

“There’s got to be some kind of marketing potential” to connect with fans during a network-activity spike, Caflisch said. What that is, is still unknown. But using networks to more closely engage fans is a big part of the Red Wings’ road map, especially as Detroit builds out a “venue environment” around the new arena.

According to Caflisch, the team in Detroit is planning to build out a network surrounding the arena, in parking lots and public spaces, including lots of beacons for proximity engagement. Though DAS and Wi-Fi numbers can show where foot traffic goes in and around stadiums, the next level of analytics Caflisch sees as important is on fan spending behavior, on items like parking, concessions and in restaurants and bars near the arena. Future projects in Detroit, he said, might include beacon-generated discounts, like a free coffee at a nearby Tim Horton’s or a free beer at a nearby bar.

“The kinds of things you want to find out are what kind of money are fans spending, and how often do they buy,” Caflisch said. “Do they stick around after the game? Do they rush in at the start? That’s the kind of stuff you’re looking for.”

Of course to get some of that data Caflisch knows the team needs to convince fans to engage digitally, by downloading a team app and providing some information for identification. So far some efforts in that direction have been helpful in identifying fans not in the team’s ticketing database, especially fans coming across the border from Canada.

In Detroit, Caflisch said, the Wings are “now marketing to those people, trying to get them to more games for the same or less money.”

Baylor University: Enlisting fans to help pinpoint problems

When Baylor University built its new football mecca, McLane Stadium, the stadium technology department was often as nervous as a football team before a big game. Would the new fan-facing Wi-Fi work as planned? Would they be able to solve problems before they became big problems?

Baylor's McLane Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Baylor’s McLane Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“At the beginning, the questions we asked were along the lines of, ‘can we get through the day,’ ” said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and Dean of University Libraries and the public face of the McLane Stadium network. Now that the network team is a couple years into running stadium Wi-Fi, Orr can laugh a bit about the initial fears. But from the beginning, she said, analytics “were a big factor” in making sure the network was running right.

An Extreme Networks deployment, Baylor uses Extreme’s Purview analytics system, which Orr lauds for being “easy to use” and a “great console for real-time information during a game.”

Solving for 2.4 GHz and using fan input

Mostly that means watching the dashboards to see if any APs are causing any errors, something the network stats package can usually show clearly. One of the things the network crew learned quickly during the first season with Wi-Fi was that Baylor fans were using a lot more 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi devices than anyone had thought, meaning that there were more older phones in use that didn’t have the newer 5 GHz Wi-Fi chips.

“The first season we were about 50-50 between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and that surprised us,” said Bob Hartland, director of IT servers and networking services at Baylor. “We had to prioritize for more 2.4 GHz.” This past season, Hartland said, the fan devices skewed closer to 60 percent using 5 GHz bands.

A Baylor "Wi-Fi Coach" helps a fan negotiate the network. Credit: Baylor University

A Baylor “Wi-Fi Coach” helps a fan negotiate the network. Credit: Baylor University

Baylor also added Wi-Fi to its basketball arena this past season, presenting a whole new set of problems, like devices trying to connect to APs across the smaller stadium. Though network analytics were a start, Baylor’s team found out that fan input could also help isolate where problems might be from a physical standpoint. Having a team of “network coaches” on hand also helped pinpoint the problems in a way that might be impossible just working from the network side of things.

This past year, Orr said Baylor added a feature to its stadium app to let fans “send a message to the Wi-Fi coach” with their row number and seat number if they were having a network problem. The coaches (part of most Extreme Wi-Fi deployments) also followed social media like Twitter to see if fans were reporting network problems.

“It’s fantastic to have the live [performance] data from your fans,” Orr said. With fan and network data and area knowledge in hand, the coaches and the network team could more quickly determine if it was a network or device problem, and respond more quickly to the issue. So more data = better solutions, faster.

“If you don’t have good access to analytics you can’t deal with fan [problems] in real time,” Orr said.

VenueNext and the Niners: Finding out who’s in the building

As one of the newer and more technologically advanced venues, Levi’s Stadium often gets noticed for its wireless networks, which set single-day records of 26 terabytes of data for combined DAS and Wi-Fi usage at Super Bowl 50.

A VenueNext beacon enclosure at Levi's Stadium. Credit: VenueNext

A VenueNext beacon enclosure at Levi’s Stadium. Credit: VenueNext

Though wireless performance is important to teams and fans, the information being gathered by the Levi’s Stadium app — built by VenueNext, the company created by the Niners specifically to construct stadium apps — may end up being among the most valuable digital assets, since it helps teams discover exactly who is coming in the building and how they are spending time, attention and dollars.

“We generate data for analytics,” said VenueNext CEO John Paul, talking about the role VenueNext plays as a stadium app partner. One of the more stunning facts revealed after the Niners’ first year at Levi’s Stadium was that via the stadium app, the team was able to increase its marketing database of fan names from 17,000 to 315,000, with even more impressive success in the details.

“We were able to find out things like how many games fans attended, and who they got the tickets from,” said Paul. Such data, he said, helps teams solve the classic problem of “having no idea who’s in the building on any given day.”

Knowing how many hot dogs can be delivered

While VenueNext’s value proposition may be centered on its ability to help teams gather such valuable marketing data, VenueNext itself relies on internal analytics to ensure the services its apps support — like express food ordering and in-seat food delivery — keep working smoothly during games.

After the first season at Levi’s Stadium, Paul said VenueNext learned that it needed to expose some of its data in real-time to fans — “to improve service during the event,” Paul said. One example is that now, if there are too many orders in a certain section, the app can send a message to fans that wait times might be longer than normal. Conversely, if a certain area of the stadium has idle kitchen capacity and runners, a team might send an in-app notification asking if fans want to order something, to create demand.

Over time, Paul said the VenueNext analytics might help teams find out where walk-up concession stands get overloaded by foot traffic, and maybe reconfigure stadium kitchen placements to assist with food delivery options. In the end, he said, it should be seamless to the fans, so that in-seat delivery becomes a regular part of a game-day experience.

“The fans should have no idea where the food comes from,” Paul said.

Golden State Warriors’ Wi-Fi network lease part of planned SignalShare assets auction

Screen shot of nGage Fan Feed. Credit: SignalShare

Screen shot of nGage Fan Feed. Credit: SignalShare

The contract covering the operation of the Wi-Fi network at the Golden State Warriors’ Oracle Arena is up for auction, as part of the fallout from a lawsuit involving alleged fraudulent business practices by Wi-Fi deployment concern SignalShare.

UPDATE, 7/7/16: According to the auctioneers, the auction is currently postponed, due to their claims of a bankruptcy filing by SignalShare. More details as we learn more.

SignalShare, which has installed and operated Wi-Fi networks in a number of large sports venues, including arenas used by the Detroit Red Wings, the Houston Rockets, the Sacramento Kings, the University of Maryland and others, is being sued for $7.8 million by NFS Leasing, an equipment leasing company, over a dispute involving allegedly fraudulent leases by SignalShare and SignalShare’s default on an agreement to pay back money obtained through those leases. As part of the ongoing legal proceedings, NFS has apparently scheduled an auction of SignalShare assets it claims, including leases, software code and hardware, for July 14 through Paul E. Saperstein Co., Inc.

So far, Mobile Sports Report has not been able to get any comments on the lawsuit or the auction from SignalShare, NFS, or any of the venues where SignalShare had installed networks. According to the auction site, NFS will make available for auction the contracts between SignalShare and the following list of teams and venues: The Golden State Warriors and Oracle Arena; the Carolina Hurricanes and PNC Arena; the Houston Rockets and Toyota Center Arena; the Detroit Red Wings and Joe Louis Arena; the Jacksonville Jaguars and Everbank Field; the Milwaukee Bucks and Brady Harris Arena; and the Las Vegas Sands Convention Center.

According to sources familiar with some of the SignalShare deals, some of the networks were run under a lease agreement, where the team or venue owners paid SignalShare a monthly fee for operation of the Wi-Fi network, with SignalShare retaining ownership of the actual equipment. According to legal documents filed in the case, NFS provided the financing for many of the existing SignalShare deals, as well as millions more in financing for deals NFS claims never actually existed. So far, there has been no public accounting for where the millions provided by NFS for the allegedly fraudulent leases ended up.

Live-Fi code also up for auction

While the leases are potentially interesting to many possible parties — firms who could take over the network operations, or who might be interested in purchasing the leased equipment — the asset with perhaps the most tangible worth is SignalShare’s “Live-Fi” software, a kind of customer portal program meant to help teams and venues engage more closely with fans and to also facilitate advertising sales. According to legal documents filed in the case, SignalShare owners apparently attempted to transfer the ownership of the Live-Fi code to a subsidiary firm to apparently keep it out of any claim proceedings, a move that was recently blocked when the courts granted an injunction requested by NFS.

Aside from whatever happens in the ongoing legal case and at the auction, for the venues involved the bigger question is more likely what happens to their existing or planned networks. In several of the mentioned deals, including the Jaguars, the University of Maryland and the Detroit Red Wings, SignalShare publicly partnered with Wi-Fi gear provider Extreme Networks; Extreme representatives declined to comment on any specifics of the SignalShare lawsuit.

One common trait shared by several of the SignalShare deals was that they involved Wi-Fi networks at arenas that were scheduled to be replaced or abandoned by the teams in the near future — the Warriors, Kings and Red Wings are all already building or planning to build new stadiums. The SignalShare “leasing” model may have seemed more attractive than spending the potentially millions in upfront costs for a network that may only have been used for a few years. The only thing for sure now is that the future of Wi-Fi at the venues mentioned seems to be on hold until the legal questions around SignalShare’s operations are answered.

Cavs, Budweiser and YinzCam bring virtual reality experiment to Cleveland fans

Fan testing the virtual-reality headset at Quicken Loans Arena. All photos: Cleveland Cavaliers

Fan testing the virtual-reality headset at Quicken Loans Arena. All photos: Cleveland Cavaliers

Approximately 750 fans were able to use the Cleveland Cavaliers’ stadium app and some cardboard headsets to get a virtual-reality experience while at Quicken Loans Arena for Wednesday’s playoff game between the Cavs and the Atlanta Hawks, according to the team.

Since we weren’t at the Q we couldn’t see the videos but according to the Cavs there was some VR content available Wednesday night via the YinzCam-developed team app, which if you were lucky to get one of the 750 promotional headsets that were given away, you could insert your phone and have a true, turn-the-head feel to the VR content, according to the team. Other fans could simply view the VR content on their phones, even without the headsets, the Cavs said.

Though there was no live VR content available, the canned-video experiment is just another leading-edge innovation for the Cavs at Quicken Loans Arena, one of the most technology-forward sports arenas around. According to the team it plans to repeat the VR experiment at some future playoff games, with another 1,500 Budweiser-branded headsets to give away.

Screenshot of Cavs app showing VR content tab

Screenshot of Cavs app showing VR content tab

Cleverly, the headset “easily transforms into a handy Budweiser beer holder,” according to a press release.

“We’re always looking for new ways to connect with our fans by leveraging emerging technologies that deliver unique experiences. VR was a logical next step and an area we’re excited to explore,” said Mike Conley, Cavs VP of Digital, in a prepared statement. “The technology has endless opportunity and thanks to our partnership with Budweiser and Yinzcam, we’ve been able to get a head start in the emerging VR space with the new video content available on the Cavs App.”

No word yet on how well the headsets worked (as viewing devices or beer holders) or how many fans viewed the VR content, but it is at the very least a sign that VR may be closer to mainstream than you think, and that for savvy teams it can be an easy way to add a very visible sponsorship. Oh and by the way the Cavs also destroyed the Hawks 123-98, going up 2-0 in their series.

vrc3

Here’s what the VR content looked like (kinda) in a 2D version