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Tech: Learn & Earn from NFL Stadium Wi-Fi Networks

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Stats without analysis and context don't tell you much. It's interesting that the amount of data moved over the Super Bowl host stadium's Wi-Fi network nearly doubled from 3.2 terabytes in 2014 to 6.23 terabytes at SB 49 this past February. But why the huge rise in traffic?

There are the "captain obvious" megatrends such as increasingly powerful mobile devices, social media use is growing and fans are accessing more apps and online information resources. No real shockers there.

But add application analytics and the ability to track them over time (historical perspective), and stadium owners can see what fan uses make up the network traffic (See infographic). This help them optimize their Wi-Fi to handle traffic and to monetize a network often thought of as "plumbing."

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"Teams want a share of the experience that comes with photo uploads and video sharing, along with opportunities for game day apps, video services and fantasy football usage," said John Brams, Director of Sports and Entertainment for Extreme Networks.  "But stadiums are not static environments. Clubs are looking at renovations and are constantly changing and evolving their venues."

Using Wi-Fi to enhance and expand the fan experience and capabilities also boost engagement, drives marketing efforts and generates new revenue. So knowing that the percent of fans using stadium Wi-Fi networks has increased 10% to 12% annually, according to John Burke, Director and Venue Architect for  Extreme Networks,  is important. The fact that the amount of bandwidth used has soared 50% annually tells you a little bit more - but much more is needed.

Enter Analytics

Extreme's Purview analytics system takes a fairly unique approach to providing intelligence on application use over stadium Wi-Fi networks. It pulls traffic information from chipsets in its hardware devices. This doesn't impact traffic flow but it does TRANSLATE the data into an application-specific view that adds big value to network management systems. This helps stadium owners, and other non-sports customers, put a value on their network that in many cases has been seen as necessary but rarely beyond plumbing by those outside IT.

Specifically, Purview uses a tried-and-true approach called deep packet inspection (DPI) to, as the name implies look inside packets of user traffic to identify the application generating the payload whether it's enterprise apps such as SAP, Microsoft Exchange and Salesforce as well as those likely used by fans (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, P2P and others). With this specific info on apps and websites, IT and others parts of a NFL business get the sorely needed visibility needed to understand how their network are being used.

The use of analytics here extends to security. They can be used to spot use of buggy browser revs and access to websites that pose threats. The system can restrict use of the former and block access to the latter.

Extreme already has deals with eight NFL clubs for Wi-Fi networks dating back as far as four years, which is a long time when it comes to technology, let alone and football. Recent wins include the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills; both will be using Purview analytics. The New England Patriots were the vendor's first NFL win.

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Schools and Education

Extreme's Wi-Fi work with non-sports corporations and higher education pre-dates most of its NFL stadium wins. The company learned much from its experiences from the latter, knowledge it took forward to help with the needs of football clubs.

"With higher education, you have thousands of students bringing in wireless devices and connecting to Wi-Fi networks in a short period of time," explained Burke. "Basically every event in an NFL stadium is back to school for us." This helped drive Extreme to build products specifically for sports venues.

Much of the goal with analytics, Burke and Bram agree, is to get folks beyond IT units to view network infrastructure as much more than just necessary "plumbing" that others don't always see as enabling revenue generation or delivering a return on the cost of installing and advancing a Wi-Fi network.

Extreme's Purview advances that effort by showing users the number of applications, bandwidth consumption, the number of clients in use and the total number of flows.

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Back to the Game

By helping NFL teams improve the fan-in-the-stand experience, analytics platforms help NFL teams expand their brand and build business. How you ask? It's pretty simple, social media as in Facebook and Instagram posts build buzz and marketing efforts. It's little surprise that half of all Wi-Fi use at the Super Bowl this past February was social media according to Extreme Networks which performed analytics for the gigantic event. (See infographic).

Stadium Wi-Fi networks can also enable NFL clubs to launch new apps and services for fans – such as game day apps – which improve the fan experience by providing info such as weather forecasts, driving directions, parking updates, seat location, shortest bathroom and concession lines and so on.

And it's no secret that these new offerings, carrying sponsors, generate revenue for the team at the same time, upping the return on your network.

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Moving Forward

So what challenges does Extreme's Purview help stadium owners with throughout the year?

-Fan Device Use. Beyond social media, what are fans in the stands up to? Many are running multiple apps at once and they aren't all football related. Case in point; one finding is that during pennant races (where they exist), fans are also using their wireless devices to stream content for Major League Baseball sources such as MLB.com.

Fans accessing data and video frequently for their fantasy football team performance is a given that extend far beyond the end of the MLB season in the early days of next month.

- Not Just Football. Analytics show that the number two use of stadium Wi-Fi networks (behind social media) is smartphones and other devices running operating system/software updates.

- Not a One-and-Done. The days of fans bringing a single wireless device to NFL game are gone. Some already bring multiple smartphones, or a smartphone and a tablet, for example, to games. This phenomenon can accelerate the need to upgrade and/or expand current stadium networks.

- Catch-22. Game day apps and new video services generate additional revenue and help enhance the fan experience. They also, however, require more Wi-Fi network capacity (especially video). Managing this situation is more than a challenge and fuels the move to higher-density systems.

- Expansion Plans.  As business is booming, many teams are looking to expand their stadium footprint or have been breaking ground/cutting the ribbon on new venues altogether (San Francisco 49ers).  Just adding a few luxury suites or a fan lounge means expanded/enhanced Wi-Fi reach.

Historical data from an analytics platform is a core element of the solution. So too are annual (if not more regular) meetings between teams and their Wi-Fi system provider, venue mapping provider such as Yinzcam, and integrators to collectively forge plans to support these efforts.

-Weather or Not.Fans are less likely to use wireless devices in the rain, snow and cold (in outdoor facilities) typically as the season progresses in northern climes. They may choose however to use them from inside suites, clubs and even from concourses.

-Nice Neighbors? As the NFL moves to provide more capabilities to more Wi-Fi users, this group competes for capacity with football operations. All use the same radio frequency spectrum which means you can expect interference from sharing. Big TV production of game casts also requires capacity. This reality is a key driver for growing the Wi-Fi pie so to speak.

The Bottom Line

You can compete with networks, but you can win with analytics on their use. Wired and/or wireless networks have long been viewed by too many of those outside IT as little more necessary plumbing that needs to work. Application analytics change that by letting those with stadium Wi-Fi networks next-level the fan experience (see game day apps), better engage these game goers and generate revenue.

Not bad for plumbing.

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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