Inside the IT challenges of sports and entertainment

Technology allows for better tracking of sports game attendees while venues owners aim to keep pace with the wireless demands of fans

BOSTON -- At the same time sports and entertainment organizations are being inundated with data, they're trying to figure out how to boost connectivity within their venues, but also how to monetize the treasure trove of attendee information.

Arizona State University is a good example what many organizations are going through. Associate athletic director Steve Hank says it's been a "walking disaster" attempting to coordinate communications to the various attendees of ASU events. Different departments within the massive, 70,000-plus person university system each independently handle undergraduate, graduate, alumni and donor communications. "We were literally all over the place in attempting to communicate with these people," at least until recently, he said this week at SEAT2012, a conference of sports IT professionals.

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A newly integrated CRM tool designed by SSB Consulting within the last half-year, Hank says, has allowed a correlated communications platform to emerge. Now, Hank in the athletics department can track the football season-ticket holder, who also happens to be a W.P. Carey Business School graduate and a major alumni donor to tailor in-game experiences specifically for him, such as having the business school dean just so happen to stop by his section during the game. "To give them relevant communications that are going to mean something to them, you need to know who they are," he says.

On the other end of the spectrum is John Anderson, vice president of technology for the Minnesota Twins, who in the last two years built the brand new Target Field baseball stadium. When constructing the facility, Anderson says the directive from management was a simple one: "The only things that have to work are the cell phones in the stadium," he recalls being told, only half-jokingly. Anderson and the Twins contracted with a third-party to install a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) that allows connectivity with all the major cell phone network providers. "When you come to the game, we better be able to connect you on your phone, because if we don't do that you might think twice about coming to a game the next time," he says.

Whether it's handling the vast amount of data gathered from ticket sales, merchandise purchasing or concession stand transactions, or allowing fans to have full bars of service so they can update their Facebook friends on the latest [Twin's catcher] Joe Mauer home run, technology demands are increasing exponentially for sports and entertainment CIOs and CTOs, says Chris Dill, one of the coordinators of SEAT2012, being held in Boston this week. And it's one of the reasons the Sports and Entertainment Alliance in Technology (SEAT) group was founded six years ago: To bring together team, league and venue owners, operators and partners to discuss strategy and future planning.

Managing the fans

CRM tools are fairly standard throughout Major League Baseball, says Ben Roller, director of the San Diego Padres' CRM system. But, it's one thing to have a CRM system and it's another thing for it to be used to its fullest potential, he says. The Padres implemented the CRM software a few years ago, but the first six months of having it, he says, was not much more than having a "glorified phonebook." After training the sales staff to use it and integrating in legacy data into the system, it has now become integral to the Padres' operations, he says.

Major League Soccer is attempting to setup a similar CRM system for all of its franchised teams, says Charlie Sung Shin, marketing manager for the league. A first step though, he says, is to organize the massive amount of data each of the teams have. "CRM systems has to be built on top of a data source," he says. "Without the data they're useless." To that end, MLS is developing a centralized customer data warehouse to store fan data for all teams. Once the data is collected, there are tools to manage it, such as or Microsoft SharePoint.

Getting user adoption of these CRM systems can be a challenge, says Mark DiMaurizio, vice president of technical solutions for Comcast-Spectator, which handles the CRM for Philadelphia-area professional sports teams, including the 76ers and Flyers. "Salespeople are motivated by one thing," he says. "If you can prove to them these CRM tools can lead to a higher turnover of leads into sales, that should be enough motivation for them."

Maximizing the fan experience

Motivating fans to pay ever-increasing prices on tickets, merchandise, food and beverages to actually come to the games is a whole other issue. Part of the push by stadium owners is to equip their venues with DAS and WiFi networks to improve the fan experience, which involve installing a series of antennas around the stadium to provide cell phone coverage in a defined area. While DAS networks are becoming more common, increasingly fans will be looking for WiFi connectivity at the games and, as of now, the two require separate systems because WiFi requires a denser antenna placements, says Deb Bialecki, corporate account manager for Cellular Specialties Inc., which installs DAS, WiFi and public safety systems. The DAS systems are typically paid for either by the cell phone carriers themselves, by the venue owner, or by a third-party, such as CSI, which then leases the network to the carriers.

A WiFi network comes with a whole other set of issues though, most notably cost. David Payne, who runs IT for the athletics department at the University of Oklahoma, predicts it could cost between $2 million and $4 million to install a WiFi network on top of the DAS system already installed in his football and basketball stadiums. 

Katee Panter, vice president infrastructure technology at Madison Square Garden, is overseeing a three-year project to install 435 access points throughout the home arena of both the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, which will support 8,000 concurrent users per game, all while events are still going on in the arena. "It's like building a runway while trying to land a plane," she says. Even as venue operators install such upgrades, soon they will not see them as a perk, but instead they will just expect they can stream video over a WiFi network on their tablet while watching the game live at the stadium.

This is why Dill, the SEAT organizer, says venue owners have to keep pushing the envelope with regards to embracing technology. There is increased competition from their own teams as advancements continue to be made in the television broadcasts of games, where fans have the ability to watch multiple games at once, pause, record and not have to pay $10 for a single beer. RFID (radio frequency identification) ticketing, for example, can ease stadium entry and expedite concession stand purchases. Individual-fan specific statistics can be displayed directly to the seats of season-ticket holders, and apps that allow fans attending the game to hear the play calls between the coach and the quarterback are all amenities Dill and his SEAT members are excited to explore.

Some sports purists scoff at these efforts, believing that the more technology that's in the stadium, the more it takes away from the actual game. Gregory Nasto of Mousetrap Mobile, which builds mobile applications for organizations to reach users through, sympathizes with the notion, but says venue operators don't have a choice in today's world. "You have to feed them the technology they want to keep the turnstiles spinning," he says.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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