49ers kick off dazzling high-tech stadium

Levi's Stadium in Silicon Valley offers a peek at how technology can change the fan experience

san francisco stadium

I have seen the future of technology in spectator sports, and it’s coming on line in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 Levi’s Stadium, the brand spanking new home of the San Francisco 49ers, isn’t actually in San Francisco. It’s located 50 miles south of the city, in Santa Clara, the heart of Silicon Valley. I had the opportunity to attend the very first (preseason) football game at the technology-drenched new venue on Sunday, and all the new services, screens, and gadgets really do change the experience of attending a sporting event. But not always in the ways you’d expect.

The new, new thing in stadium tech Before I go into detail on what I saw and how it worked, it’s important to remember that this was the debut of a brand new facility, so some hiccups are to be expected. And it was a preseason game, where many of the 68,000 fans—including me—came to check out the stadium as much as to watch the action on the field. So many of us were obsessing over the technology in a way that we might not have if the game actually counted.

First off, a long litany of famous Silicon Valley companies have plastered the venue with their signage. There’s an Intel Gate and a Yahoo Sports Zone (and interactive Fantasy Football centers). Brocade is a sponsor, as is Sony (which “presents" the 49ers Museum) and advertises PS4 game systems just about everywhere. SAP—the “Official Cloud Business Solutions Partner” whatever that means--had branded interactive touch-screen trivia games on the concourse. Heck, even Silicon Valley lawyers were advertising on the stadium’s giant scoreboards.

While I’m not usually a fan of that much banding, the plethora of tech mainstays actually gave the stadium a nice sense of Silicon Valley identity. It was especially noticeable as the one brand that seemed under-represented was the 49ers themselves. Sure, there was signage on the field and plenty of images of players in red and gold, but they were largely overshadowed by the corporate logos. Levi’s Stadium seems more about the Valley than the team.

Best screens ever

While the sightlines to the field are great from almost anywhere in the stadium, the end zones are capped by two of biggest, brightest, clearest video screens I’ve ever seen. On a sunny, cloudless afternoon, watching replays on the screen was just like looking at them on my big-screen HDTV at home. Very impressive, even when it was advertising a promotion based on Twitter Vines (fortyviners? Really?). If only the over-amped sound system had been that clear.

Wi-Fi everywhere

Levi Stadium food menu app

Of course, there was cell service and Wi-Fi everywhere. I got speeds of 10-15 Mbps (uploads and downloads) in testing in various locations, but Paul Kapustka, editor in chief of the Mobile Sports Report (who also attended the game), said he tested connections as fast as 57 Mbps. (For reference, my testing at AT&T Park in downtown San Francisco the previous week revealed speeds in the 30 – 35 Mbps range on an AT&T device.) Still, “coming out of the gate with a network that powerful on both Wi-Fi and cellular (DAS) is pretty impressive,” Kapustka said. “They didn't skimp, from what I could tell. It worked well everywhere, which is a huge engineering challenge.”

 Unique in-stadium mobile app

 Taking advantage of that network, Levi’s Stadium also debuted a unique in-stadium app at Sunday’s game. The app can hold your parking passes and tickets, lets you find and order food and beverages (for delivery or “express pickup,” helps you explore the stadium, and promises to let you watch live game action and replays. It even gives you access to the team’s faithful49.com fan site.

 I liked the app’s ability to let you watch the action while waiting in line for food, and I heard at least one sports-radio caller praise the app lavishly, but some aspects were still being perfected. The replay function was not always available, it wasn’t always possible to order from every concession, and even concessions it identified as having “short” lines still required a half-hour wait.

 Kapustka also noted that some of the automated ticket readers apparently had trouble deciphering smartphone screens in bright sunlight. Eventually, ticket takers jury-rigged shade out of 49ers caps and visors, but some fans had their entry to the game delayed.

 All in all, not bad for the first time out of the gate. I loved, loved, loved the big screens over the field. And the ability to use the mobile app to find the shortest concession line is a brilliant concept (borrowed from theme parks, cruise ships and airports)—and maybe the actual lines will get shorter once the servers get some practice using their own technology.

 “Overall, Levi’s Stadium is an impressive package,” concluded Kapustka, “especially the wireless and the big screens and TV screens everywhere.” If the app delivers on its potential, he concluded, Levi’s Stadium “will be the standard others will chase.”

 But combination of fancy new facility and blowout game made it obvious to me that no matter how much technology they pack in to a stadium, the product on the field needs just as much attention. The Niners lost the game 34-0.

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