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More than 70,000 people packed Levi’s Stadium to watch the San Francisco 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams 28-0 on Sept. 12, 2016.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Embedded inside Silicon Valley, appropriately, is a high-tech sports cathedral. It is wired with 12,000 physical network ports, 400 miles of fiber optic cable, 1,300 WiFi access points, 2,000 IPTV-connected televisions, ten 4K video cameras, and an accompanying smartphone app to help fans order food from their seat and track the length of bathroom lines.

Welcome to Levi’s Stadium.

GeekWire recently took a behind-the-scenes tour of the privately-financed $1.2 billion stadium, which has set a new bar for professional teams seeking to transform the in-person sports experience.
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Levi’s Stadium opened in 2014 and is now in its third year hosting the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and big-time events like the Pac-12 championship game, Beyoncé concerts, and more. It hosted Super Bowl 50 in February.

New technology is everywhere at the stadium, from the WiFi access points (fans are never more than 10 feet from a signal) to the way engineers monitor energy use at a Gold LEED-certified facility that covers 1.85 million square feet. There is even a museum in the stadium, presented by Sony, that features augmented reality and motion-sensing games. Yahoo, Intel, and SAP are all founding sponsorship partners.

Fans are never more than 10 feet from a WiFi access point.
Fans are never more than 10 feet from a WiFi access point.
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You can pay for concession items with Apple Pay.
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Inside the 49ers’ internal video production room.
Solar panels line "green roof" on the ninth-floor of the Levi's Stadium.
Solar panels line the 27,000 square-foot “green roof” on the ninth floor of the Levi’s Stadium. The wood panels feature reclaimed wood from a local airplane hanger.
The 49ers museum, presented by Sony, features a players in augmented reality.
The 49ers museum, presented by Sony, features current and former 49ers players in augmented reality.
Uber and Intel had big branding at the stadium.
Uber and Intel had big branding at the stadium.

When it opened, Levi’s Stadium, located 40 miles south of San Francisco, was the most “connected” stadium in sports. That’s perhaps still true — the amount of cabling, WiFi access points, beacons, and distributed antenna systems surpasses most, if not all, stadiums worldwide.

“This building has fiber out of the wazoo,” Aron Kennedy, director of gameday operations, said before the 49ers’ opening game against Los Angeles earlier this month. “It’s ridiculous.”

That infrastructure supports a variety of applications, whether it be processing video for the two giant 9,600 square-foot LED video screens or speeding up concession transactions.

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Perhaps the most visible result of the robust network is the team’s mobile app that provides fans with a way to order food, drink, and merchandise from their seat, or watch instant replays of the game action from four different angles. It can also be used as a mobile ticket, or to guide fans to their seat.

“Being able to provide fans with a network that supports the things they want to do is paramount,” said Jim Mercurio, vice president of stadium operations.

VenueNext CEO John Paul, whose company built the app, showed me some of the back-end data that franchise executives can access thanks to the app.

For example, on Sept. 12, when the 49ers hosted the Rams for Monday Night Football, 26 percent of fans used the app at least once. About a quarter of those people used the app to pay for parking fees; the iPhone to Android ratio was about 4-to-1; and a majority of fans used a Visa card when making food purchases via the app.

That information can be used to analyze exactly who is coming, what they’re doing while there, and how often they come back to another game. Ultimately the idea is to learn more about individual fans and figure out how to improve their specific experience at the stadium. Perhaps the team can offer a seat upgrades at the gate based on the fan’s past history, or provide a mobile coupon for use at the team shop.

“The 49ers used to just know a lot about their season ticket holders,” said Paul, who is working with other teams like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. “Now, after two years, they know about the 315,000 people that came and used the app.”

Via VenueNext.
Via VenueNext.

But just as technology is being used as a way to improve the fan experience at the game, it’s also part of the reason more fans are deciding to stay home instead. Convincing someone to pay for a ticket and fight through traffic is becoming more difficult as the living room becomes a cheaper, more convenient, and more comfortable place to watch a game with HDTVs, social media apps like Twitter, and a bathroom with no line.

The 49ers, like other professional sports franchises, are countering that trend by investing heavily in technology that enhances the in-person fan experience.

“Now that fans have smartphones, how can we help coming to the venue be less obnoxious?” Paul said.

Mercurio, the VP of stadium operations, who has worked with the 49ers for more than two decades, said “there is nothing more important” than improving the fan experience. It’s part of the reason the team built such a powerful network to help appease fans who are increasingly using their smartphones at the game and expect connectivity.

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Of course, new technology doesn’t always work properly, nor is it easy for many folks to figure out how to make use of it. For example, there was some bug that prevented me from successfully ordering a hot dog and M&Ms to my seat at the Monday Night Football game.

On the video boards, there were in-game trivia contests and pump-up song selections that fans could vote for via the app. But the functionality, being tested for the first time, seemed a bit wonky when I tried to participate during the game. It’s difficult to not only deploy new technology and making sure it works on a wide scale, but also demonstrating its usefulness to fans.

I asked a handful of 49ers fans if they had used the app. Most said yes, but many also said they only tried some of the features like ordering food and beer once or twice, noting a limited selection or that it took too long to deliver.

“I had low battery when I arrived and needed to conserve,” one fan told me. (Side note: there are several Verizon-branded charging stations around Levi’s Stadium.)

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Sometimes, technology has nothing to do with why people go to a game. For example, when the in-app trivia game appeared on the big screen and prompted fans to use the app, the people in my section — and thousands of others — seemed oblivious to the app instructions and instead were chanting “Beat L.A.” together, which seemed a helluva lot more fun than using the app.

“You can’t get two T-38 fighter jets doing a flyover at home,” said Kennedy, the gameday operations director. “You don’t have 5,000 people in your section rooting against the Rams and screaming ‘Beat L.A.’ You don’t get that camaraderie.”

Using new technology is a balancing act. For example, many season ticket holders became frustrated after the 49ers moved from paper tickets to digital tickets via the smartphone app. Also, most fans aren’t coming to the game just because they want to buy food from their seat, or because they can watch an instant replay on their phone from four different angles. And in some cases, people are no longer coming to games because of parking/traffic, long bathroom lines, and higher ticket prices — it’s just not worth it.

Technology can be used to help alleviate some of those pain-points, and also provide “nice-to-have” tools for fans. For example, teams are starting to collect real-time data on parking lot capacity. That information can be used to direct fans to an available spot, and perhaps at a discounted rate. In addition, fans want to post their photos and increasingly videos from the game to social media, and faster WiFi can help.

There also seems to be a ton of untapped potential. For example, as the game ended, someone was trying to sell hot chocolate to fans walking out of the stadium. What if an in-app push notification popped up, allowing people to pay for the drink from their phone? Maybe you could then scan a QR code with the vendor to snag a warm drink on your way home. Or even better, what if a rewards program allowed fans to exchange “points” for a hot cocoa?

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It was $5 for a hot cocoa on the way home.

Teams will continue to bolster their in-stadium networks, adding bandwidth and connectivity. They’ll continue to apply predictive analytics and machine learning to improve the efficiency of stadium operations. The types of technology they roll out will improve as it becomes less of a novelty and more of an actual benefit.

“In 2014, it was, ‘let’s do anything and everything that’s new,'” Mercurio said. “Now, we’re vetting technologies not for tech’s sake, but more to strategically identify which types of technology will help our business.”

Franchises like the Minnesota Vikings, Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Falcons, and others are opening state-of-the-art stadiums that may one-up the innovation at Levi’s Stadium. It remains to be seen what new technologies become available to fans that still want the at-the-game experience, but the future is exciting.

“I would love to send you a beer via drone,” said Paul, the VenueNext CEO. “It’s very possible.”

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