Presented by Extreme Networks 

For more than 100 million fans watching around the world, Super Bowl LI will be the game — and event — of the year. For those lucky enough to be inside NRG Stadium, it will be the experience of a lifetime. They’ll witness the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons compete for Lombardi’s trophy and their spot in history. During it all, they’ll be able to capture and share the experience, all while ordering drinks to their seat, watching mobile video and sharing countless #SuperBowl selfies on Instagram.

Just a decade or so ago, NFL teams did not have to worry about things like Wi-Fi and mobile experiences. Then the smartphone came along, and what fans wanted to do inside a stadium on game day began to change. Supporting fans with robust Wi-Fi became a necessity, rather than a luxury.

At first, demands were simple. Fans simply wanted to look at stats in real-time, check how their fantasy team was performing, or share a picture on Facebook. Three years ago, the average number of fans connected to Wi-Fi at an NFL Stadium on game day was about 14,000 and they used only about 1 terabyte (TB) of data per game. Today, its growing….exponentially.

For half of the NFL stadiums that rely on Extreme Networks to supply their networking or Wi-Fi infrastructure and the 23 for their analytics solutions, the average number of fans connected at any time is between 30,000 to 35,000. Together, these fans are consuming more than 4 TB of data per game (for those keeping track at home, that’s a 4x increase in three years, and it’s still increasing). Driving this demand are emerging behaviors that will shape the future of game day experiences, help the NFL understand fans in new ways, and potentially even change the way the game itself is played.

What to expect for Wi-Fi at Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl LI will be played on February 5, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston. In order to host the big game, host cities bid and must win the rights — which includes pitching a clear and compelling Wi-Fi plan to the NFL. This directive, which came right from the commissioner, showcases the explosive growth and demands for new in-stadium experiences.

In a video about planning for Super Bowl LI, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle talks about the challenges of meeting these demands and how Extreme’s analytics solutions have helped the league understand fans as individuals. It’s a common objective in many sports leagues and entirely different industries around the world. By partnering with Extreme during the past three Super Bowls, the NFL has anticipated how they will need to support fans’ use of Wi-Fi at NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI.

For all parties, it’s crucial to ensure there’s appropriate network availability for everything the NFL really wants fans to be able to do during the game. For example, watching video of player interviews or highlights in Super Bowl apps, ordering a beer and a hotdog to your seat, or playing a daily fantasy game, are on-point behaviors to engage fans. On the other hand, it makes sense to manage in-stadium Wi-Fi access for off-point activities such as updating unrelated apps, or creating a personal hotspot that interferes with connections for other fans.

To create the best possible fan experience, NRG Stadium’s Wi-Fi has been purpose-built for the facility and the day. There will be networking with the agility of Barry Sanders. There will even be 20 on-site Wi-Fi Coaches in the stands to help fans get the most from their experiences and assist with technical issues. It will be, without question, the most robust in-stadium Wi-Fi experience ever for a Super Bowl. And that means it’s game-on for teams and brands who want to engage fans.

How the NFL and teams will use the data

During the Super Bowl, everything is amplified. If you can deliver there, you can do it anywhere — like the Ice Bowl. If you can deliver that experience consistently, every game day, there are rewards that spill out of the stands and onto the field of play. That’s why 23 of the NFL’s 31 stadiums (the Jets and Giants share a site) use Extreme’s solutions to measure and respond to fan’s demands on the network. That information is then collected and aggregated on behalf of the league, with three primary use cases.

First, individual teams and stadiums use the data to optimize how they design and deliver Wi-Fi services on the network, ensuring that better speeds and appropriate bandwidth are allocated to on-point behaviors. Second, the league uses the data to derive business intelligence it needs to make sure clubs meet a consistent standard of fulfilling fan’s demands for in-stadium experiences, which is just good for the game.

Third, the analytics help marketers better understand fans so they can align new business and partner opportunities with demand. A good example is the league’s decision to begin broadcasting some games in combination with Twitter via Periscope. This important step in merging fan experience with broadcast coverage portends an evolution in the game day experience that could be a huge score for everyone.

Kicking off soon

For the last two seasons, every NFL player has had an RFID chip in their shoulder pads to track various types of data. If you watch Thursday Night Football, which the league owns broadcast rights to, you’ve seen how this technology is being transposed to add to the broadcast experience by visualizing the player’s speed or distance travelled. However, the original use case for the technology, was not as a broadcast instrument, but a means to track and improve athletic performance such as informing training or healing regiments.

An interesting evolution fans can look forward to is how this performance data will be integrated in broadcast and in-stadium experiences powered by augmented reality (AR). Imagine a powerful AR experience in which any screen in the stadium — smart phones, TVs, clubhouse windows — becomes a transmitter where fans can see and interact with information about each pass route, broken tackle, and big hit. You’ll be able to go in, analyze what’s happening, maybe even recreate a given play to see how things would have turned out, if only. Teams will figure out a way to use the same data. Perhaps #88 is slower out of his cuts than usual on pass routes — the offense could look at that and say, ‘He needs different cleats.’ The defense might look at that and say, ‘We don’t need to double him after all.’ Special teams might look at that and say, ‘Warm up our #2 punt return man.’

As AR takes fans deeper into the game, pulling and pushing experiences and data at the same time, this will create an interesting dynamic. Is the real football game becoming more like a video game, or the other way around? How will teams use data in real time to tweak in-game strategy, and how will third-party experiences that thrive on the game’s micro-moments, such as FanDuel, create and monetize on AR experiences? These are not ‘blue sky’ concepts. These AR experiences are being built now and you’ll see more of them on your TV, or phone, and soon to be, in-stadium.

Bigger than the game

Other industries with large facilities and thousands of people sharing a common experience (hospitals, hotels, retailers, airports, and campuses) are also learning how to employ Wi-Fi more effectively in those environments. Those pan-industry learnings are feeding each other and driving even more demand. In short, the pipe has been opened, we are already getting to network capacity, and it’s still early in the game.

Mobile providers have had the foresight to see that they can’t build enough network to meet every need. In specialized environments with big clusters of people, such as those who will attend Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium, the requirement is to offload capacity requirements to Wi-Fi. There is simply no other way to ensure support for the continued evolution of devices, content, and fan experience.

The NFL is out in front on delivering great in-stadium Wi-Fi and college venues are expected to follow (Extreme Networks is partnered with IMG to address this market). It’s a certainty that fan and consumer demand for new and better experiences in-stadium and elsewhere will continue to accelerate — like a WR, streaking down the sideline, 4th and a mile to go, with the clock running out on history.

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