Enterasys, Boston Sports Teams Talk Future of Stadium Tech at Gillette

If you get invited to Gillette Stadium the week of the AFC championship game, you go, even if you’ve been homeless for three weeks (a story for another time).

So it was last night that I found myself making the drive down I-95 and Route 1 into Foxborough, MA, past the parking lots that would be teeming with tailgaters this Sunday, when the New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens for the right to advance to the Super Bowl.

I was at the stadium for a “CIO Mobility” event organized by Enterasys Networks, a Salem, NH-based networking tech company that has installed a new wireless system at Gillette (more on that below). Enterasys helped bring together a panel of top tech execs from the four major pro sports teams in Boston—the Pats, Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox—to talk about what they’re doing in mobile and digital tech to help fans and customers, and to impact their businesses.

Speaking of fans, as I walked into the event and was greeted by a pair of Patriots cheerleaders and the team mascot, I was reminded of how some tech reporters must feel when they cover Apple events. I’ve been a Pats fan since the early ‘90s; I remember being the doormat of the AFC East, and I still find it hard to believe how far the franchise has come.

(At the event, I also got to meet Scott Zolak, the sportscaster and former Pats quarterback, pictured at left. Let’s just throw out any semblance of objectivity right now.)

Over dinner, I talked with Enterasys execs about their work with the Patriots. Essentially they have built and tested a massive Wi-Fi network for the Gillette Stadium crowd—one of the first of its kind. So 70,000 fans can connect to the Web via their mobile devices, to communicate with friends and use various apps that enhance the game-day experience.

It’s pretty hard to provide reliable Wi-Fi for such a big (and dense) crowd. The Enterasys network uses something like 360 access points, roughly the same number of antennas, and various “hopping” architectures and switches to connect the access points to the Gillette mainframe, which talks to the Internet.

Jonathan Kraft, the president of the Patriots, said in his public remarks that his team has been looking for ways to enhance the crowd’s experience since about 2008-09, when HDTVs and other home-viewing technologies were really taking off. “We have to figure out how to give them an experience that’s different from home,” Kraft said. “Live viewing is at risk, unless you make it more engaging, special, and unique.”

That could mean access to camera angles you won’t see anywhere else; exclusive audio from miked-up players and coaches; locker-room video at halftime; special game-time stats; and more. It could also mean ordering from concession stands ahead of time, so you don’t have to stand in a long line when you get there; and possibly even showing wait times at the stadium’s restrooms. Kraft said some of this would be available next season. (One more suggestion: smarter parking and traffic directions so you don’t have to sit in the lot for an hour or two after the game. Not sure how to solve this.)

All of it, of course, takes wireless infrastructure. Kraft, who co-chairs the NFL’s digital media committee, came right out and said his experiences with tech companies generally have not been good. As he put it, some companies install systems for millions of dollars, and the technology doesn’t work. Others won’t put any guarantees in writing, or they keep changing the specs. Enterasys, he said, worked with the Patriots for a year, didn’t talk a lot or make big promises, and over-delivered on its product.

He didn’t say how big the Enterasys contract was, except that the Patriots “spent a significant amount of money.” Which is saying something.

Enterasys (pronounced En-TERRA-sis) started in 1983 as Cabletron Systems and used to be headquartered in Andover, MA. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2001 but was bought by private investment firms in 2005. It competes with the likes of Cisco and 3Com, and is currently led by CEO Chris Crowell, who also spoke at the Gillette event (along with chief customer/marketing officer Vala Afshar).

As for the Patriots, they claim to be the first pro sports team to have a website, dating back to 1994. And they’ve long been viewed as leaders in digital tech. But the other Boston sports teams are facing similar challenges in reaching fans and providing richer game-day experiences in person.

Here are a few highlights from the stellar panel that followed (click on the photo to see who’s who):

—Fred Kirsch, the Pats’ publisher and vice president of content, said his team does a combination of in-house and outsourcing of app development. He also mentioned that some 75 percent of fans’ devices on Gillette’s Wi-Fi network use Apple’s iOS—which is interesting, considering the progress that Android has made in the market.

—Heidi Labritz, director of business applications and IT for the Red Sox, stressed the importance of preserving the team’s core fan base, especially as the past couple of seasons have been difficult ones. She said the Sox are about to pilot a loyalty program that uses wireless tech. (Presumably it could involve checking in on mobile devices at games.) “We need to understand who are customers are,” she said. “The thing we worry about is people showing up” for games.

Case in point: Two seasons ago, the Sox ran a Twitter and Facebook promotion where they offered fans free entry to Fenway during the 7th inning. Only seven people showed up. (To be fair, Dice-K was pitching.)

—Lorraine Spadaro, vice president of technology and e-business for the Bruins, said her team is currently involved in designing a high-density Wi-Fi system for the Garden. She emphasized that the fans’ digital experience should start before they come to the game, and that teams need to deliver content and promotions that fans don’t have access to at home.

—Jay Wessel, vice president of technology for the Celtics, is particularly active in video tech for coaching and scouting purposes, but he also talked about reaching fans and enhancing their experience through mobile and digital means. “We have to make sure we’re touching all our customers in a way that’s best for them,” he said.

Overall I was struck by how similar the big sports teams’ challenges are to those of any consumer-facing business—reaching and segmenting customers, setting up loyalty and rewards programs, managing social media outreach, and so forth. Most of all, getting customers to show up and walk in the door is the common denominator, no matter how strong TV and advertising revenues are (something like $6 billion a year, in the Pats’ case). Winning does not solve all sports business problems, though it certainly helps.

And while there are lots of opportunities for vendors to offer their services, the teams typically don’t have big IT staffs. “I turn away a lot of startups,” said Kirsch.

One area in particular illustrates the challenges of integrating new technology: mobile payments. Sports execs have long thought about things like enabling in-seat payments for concessions. But delivery of goods to long, narrow rows of fans is too difficult, so they have to arrange for pickup somewhere else. Digital security is also an issue, though there are standard ways to ensure that.

Spadaro, from the Bruins, said she was aware of Boston-based LevelUp, saying the mobile rewards app “has gained a lot of users in our market.” But for now, her staff is just keeping a close eye on consumer behavior and isn’t making arrangements to adopt the technology. “We’re watching it,” she said.

And we’ll be watching too, on and off the field. Starting this weekend.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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