Feature Story

Take Me Out to the (Digitally Transformed) Ball Game

In any sport, peanuts, popcorn, and Crackerjacks only go so far. For fans to feel like champs, a winning stadium experience must be mobile, connected, and convenient.

Australian cricket and American football are two very different sports on two very distant continents. But for both, today’s mobile, connected fans demand a new kind of stadium experience.

An experience that only digital transformation can provide.

“If you’d said to me ten years ago, when I started working here, what I thought the fan experience was going to be like,” said Jane Coles, general manager and board director of the Sydney Cricket Club, “I could never have predicted where we are today.”

Apple, Uber, Amazon, and others have a set a high customer-experience bar. On game day, sports fans expect a similar level of mobile engagement and seamless convenience.

Smart teams know that providing that superior experience is critical to their business.

“Fan experience is at the core of most teams’ business objectives,” said Tod Caflisch, the chief technology officer of the Minnesota Vikings, “because you can’t always count on your team winning week-to-week, or being in the playoffs, even, or winning championships, especially. Bringing people back, week-after-week, especially if you’re struggling a little bit, is essential to maintaining business productivity and solvency, at the bottom line.”

A Cisco survey in 2015 found that fans’ demand for in-game digital experiences had doubled in three years. And that trend shows no signs of slowing.

But the right technology investments pay off for fans and teams. At one annual sporting event, Sydney Cricket Club saw a 47 percent increase in food revenue after adding an express mobile app.

“Our fans really are looking to have a much better live experience when they come to our games,” Coles said. “We’re trying to offer something where it’s easy for our fans to go from their couch into their car, or by public transport, make their way to the venue, and really have that fabulous experience inside the venue and then back out again to their home.”

Having the right technology foundation and infrastructure is critical. The Minnesota Vikings just launched U.S. Bank Stadium, Caflisch explains. So they had a great opportunity to build that digital foundation from the ground the up.

“We’re very lucky at the Vikings,” he said. “We just opened the new stadium back in August, absolutely embedded with every bit of the latest technology, from beacons for wayfinding, to app integration, high density DAS, and Wi-Fi systems, for connectivity for our fans. The ability to order food from your mobile device. Just a variety of things like that. We’re still just scratching the surface.”

The great stadium experience enjoyed by Australian cricket fans also depends on the network, as Coles expressed.

“It is absolutely all about the core platform,” she said. “For us, the investment there was integral to the success of this solution. Now, as our business evolves even further through this transformation, we are now converging other networks onto that core platform, so that ultimately, we will have that fully converged network and the ability to make full use and take advantage of the benefits of that initial investment.”

Of course, digital transformation presents more than just technical challenges. As Caflisch reminds us, it has to be managed from a financial, organizational, and cultural perspective as well.

“Being a good technologist,” he stressed, “includes not just understanding the technology and how things integrate, and all the wires connecting, but it’s also understanding the business need, and addressing business need, as well as generating a legitimate return on investment that makes that effort worth it in the long run, because you can spend a lot of time on a lot of crazy stuff that seems like a great idea, but … some of it’s not as foundationally secure as others.”

Coles sees digital technologies themselves helping to alleviate some of those cultural challenges—breaking down organizational silos and creating a better, more collaborative workforce experience, along with the improved fan experience.

“Previously, as a business, we may have operated in silos,” she said. “The marketing team doing one thing, events and operations another, etc. Now, with this core infrastructure and convergence, the IT team is basically enabling with every single department within the organization, providing them with the technical tools to be able to better perform their jobs and to integrate with each other.”

Three Tips for Creating a Winning Fan Experience

Jane Coles, general manager of the Sydney Cricket Club gives her advice on how sports and entertainment organizations can deliver the best experience for fans.

  1. Treat the Customer Like a Champ. The customer is the key. Make sure that every decision made is considering the needs of the customer and what they want and what they need. That is the number one priority that we run our business by.
  2. Build a Winning Platform. Have the core technology in place and make good decisions with regards to what’s right for the business. Something that is scalable into the future and is going to open the door for whatever might come.
  3. Drive the Business. The business has changed. We’ve had to evolve as a result of the market, what’s happening in Sydney, etc. But we work very, very hard to ensure that our destination is premium and that the experience that fans have when they come here is unrivaled. If we continue to work towards that as a destination, we will always be driving business.
The Minnesota Vikings’ Wi-Fi network averaged 2.89 terabytes during games this season, with a peak single-game data total of 4.32 terabytes.

Caflisch expects even more during the upcoming season, especially since U.S. Bank Stadium is hosting the 2018 Superbowl.

But Caflisch plans to be ready for that demand, as well as other pressures that will evolve—as fan expectations evolve.

“We’re already looking at certain upgrades,” he said, “with the DAS and Wi-Fi systems in the building to accommodate the capacity that we’re expecting there. Certainly, I’m sure that the way that trends have been, it’ll be another record, as far as data usage. We have to be prepared for that.”

Coles has one eye on the horizon as well, looking out for the technology trends that will continue to change the definition of a great fan experience.

“I think it’s really exciting to consider what that evolution will be in three to five years’ time,” she concluded. “As a huge advocate for the customer experience and ensuring that the customer’s at the center of everything that we do here, we look forward to seeing where that journey will take us.”

Stefanie McCann, Editor-in-Chief, Connected Futures contributed to this piece.