WiFi: Coming to a stadium near you

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When the Steelers need a big defensive stand, the Heinz Field stadium crew will often blast "Renegade" by Styx and play game highlights on the video screen. It's a crowd favorite that always inspires fans to grab their Terrible Towels and start whirling like crazy.

But it also causes many fans to grab their smartphones and start capturing the moment. They text friends and family watching far from Heinz Field. They upload pictures and videos to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

For the National Football League and other sports leagues, increased smartphone use has created endless possibilities for fan engagement and marketing opportunities. It also is creating headaches as teams scramble to supply enough bandwidth to support the exploding need for Internet connectivity.

A team can spend as much as $10 million to install the technology needed to support cellular and Wi-Fi networks in a stadium, with the virtual certainty that the technology will be obsolete within a couple of years only to need another investment in still newer networking systems that are more effective.

The Steelers installed free Wi-Fi in clubs and suites before the start of this season, and partnered with AT&T and Verizon to increase cellular phone coverage in all parts of the stadium. If they weren't already working on it, they'd have to start soon. The NFL has instructed the league's 32 teams to install Wi-Fi in all parts of their stadiums by 2015.

Meanwhile, the Pirates and every other Major League Baseball team are finishing the first year of a two-year partnership between Qualcomm, a wireless technology firm based in San Diego, and MLB Advanced Media, the league's interactive media and Internet company, to survey, plan and install wireless and mobile phone networks at every ballpark around the country.

Though the National Hockey League has not directed its teams to improve mobile connectivity, the Penguins built 3-year-old Consol Energy Center with smartphone use in mind and then upgraded their network before the start of this season.

"All of the leagues have understood that having a wireless component at your stadium is no longer nice to have -- it's a requirement," said Bob Jordan, senior vice president and a technology consultant with the Van Wagner Sports Group, a subsidiary of New York-based Van Wagner Communications. "It's what fans expect."

For decades, the technological improvements have been coming at home. Fans have modified their living rooms to look and feel like sports stadiums, with bigger and better TVs, surround sound and social media that lets them instantaneously connect with other fans.

Now teams are modifying their stadiums to simulate the living room, spurred in part by sluggish attendance trends.

After the NFL set an attendance record in 2007, the league's attendance dropped for four consecutive seasons before rebounding slightly in 2012. Attendance in MLB ballparks for 2013 was 74 million, down 4.5 percent from 2012 and 6.8 percent from 2007, when a record 79.5 million fans showed up.

The recession can account for a lot of that decline.

But also during that period, the in-home experience has improved while the in-stadium experience has grown costlier. Average ticket prices have jumped since 2007 -- a 17.7 percent increase for the NFL and a 17.9 percent increase for MLB, according to Team Marketing Report, a publishing company based in Chicago.

In the meantime, smartphone use has skyrocketed. Today, 61 percent of all mobile phone subscribers own a smartphone, according to the Nielsen Co., up from 10 percent in early 2008. By the end of the year, there will be more mobile-connected devices than there are people on the planet, according to Cisco Sports and Entertainment, an arm of San Jose-based Cisco Systems, which installs wireless technology at stadiums.

"It's a mobile world," said NFL chief information officer Michelle McKenna-Doyle.

And the mobile world is shifting as smartphone users change their habits. Fans today are using bandwidth to upload photos and videos, using much more bandwidth than three years ago when stadium data use was dominated by fans downloading scores and statistics.

"Especially if you look at the younger folks, they go through withdrawal if they can't use their phone and can't get online. They're connected to it," said Joe Inzerillo, chief technology officer and senior vice president of content technology with MLB Advanced Media.

Despite the expense and hassle of supporting the technology, teams have found there is a marketing advantage to having so many fans connected to the Internet.

They can get instantaneous feedback for issues that arise on and off the field. The NFL has used PopTip, a social media service that analyzes social media comments in real time and polls users to help TV broadcasters add to the dialogue.

Teams also use mobile technology to engage fans, asking them to upload photos that may appear on the scoreboard and Tweet updates with team-generated hashtags. They can inform fans of food and drink specials, tell them where to find the nearest restroom and encourage them to buy tickets for future games.

The New York Giants and New York Jets have installed cameras in MetLife Stadium that stream exclusive video replays to fans' smartphones in the stadium. And the NFL required this season that all teams allow video cameras in the locker room, footage that is viewable only on the stadium scoreboard and on smartphones in the stadium.

It's about making it worth getting off the couch and into the stadium seats.

"The individuals in the living room have a phenomenal broadcast experience," Mr. Jordan said. "When you go in the stadium, it's about providing all of those and more. It's not only what you can provide out of venue, it's what's unique you can provide in venue and provide it well. They want the live experience plus they want XYZ. The list of amenities is pretty unending."

Building the needed mobile infrastructure has a host of challenges, Mr. Inzerillo said. The increase in use has put a strain on cellular networks, already stretched thin by a confluence of thousands of people in such a small area.

"That is the No. 1 challenge, the high density," Ms. McKenna-Doyle said.

At Heinz Field, the Steelers have installed distributed antenna systems, or a series of devices that help amplify a mobile cellular signal over a large area. They installed their first system in 2012 with AT&T, and Verizon became a part of the Heinz Field network this season.

"It's a technology that's evolving very, very quickly," said Mr. Jordan, who recently surveyed PNC Park in conjunction with Qualcomm's study of MLB stadiums.

The NFL has instructed teams to install systems with upgradable components and warned against long-term contracts with technology providers.

The Pirates do not have a distributed antenna system or public Wi-Fi currently at PNC Park, but the team is working with MLB Advanced Media and Qualcomm to install both in the coming years.

As a modern stadium, PNC Park is better suited than most to run a sophisticated network for smartphone users. But even it presents its challenges.

"The way that the outfield is shaped is cinematically very beautiful, but it doesn't give you a lot of places to hang stuff to serve the fans that are sitting in that section," Mr. Inzerillo said.

The Penguins installed a multi-carrier distributed antenna system for its fans when Consol Energy Center opened in 2010 and upgraded it before the start of this season to handle a surge in data use, said team chief operating officer Travis Williams.

The cost of installing a public Wi-Fi system at the arena -- the facility currently has a private Wi-Fi network for stadium operations -- is expensive, Mr. Williams said, but the Penguins will continue to explore the option as smartphone use grows.

"You want fans to be able to do in the building what they are able to do outside of the building," Mr. Williams said.

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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