Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The 49ers' 'Smart' Stadium Is Set For Kickoff

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 4, 2014

Stadium

By Intel Free Press

Over three years in the making, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be the new home of the San Francisco 49ers this fall. Before the very first kickoff, Major League Soccer club San Jose Earthquakes will host Seattle Sounders FC on August 2 as the first event at the new venue.

Expected to draw 45,000 fans, the MLS match is viewed as a rehearsal for Levi’s Stadium and the city of Santa Clara before a 49ers game brings up to 75,000 into the city 40 miles south of San Francisco. During times of rising ticket prices and fans who don’t want to be without the connected and social NFL experiences offered at home, Levi’s Stadium’s high-tech amenities could be what brings fans back into the stands.

“We’re dealing with the home experience being so good we need to find ways for fans to come to the games,” said Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s director of communications. “Fans are sitting on comfortable couches while watching games on state-of-the-art TVs, but the at-home experience isn’t as exciting as being there in person. The question is how do we arm the fans with the best in-stadium experience?”

Jack Hill believes the next milestone for fan experience is sitting on 15 acres in Santa Clara, Calif. The head of stadium construction said the new 49ers facility will be “a showcase” of technology.

“Our goal is to be the new benchmark for the NFL,” said Hill, who considers the league’s two newest stadiums, MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home of New York’s Giants and Jets, and Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, a prior project of his, to be the current standard bearers.

Both Hill and the stadium’s architect said fans will enjoy unsurpassed connectivity at the new venue.

“The fiber backbone will be very robust so that any present or future technology will be connected,” said Lanson Nichols, principal project manager with HNTB Architecture, the design firm behind MetLife Stadium and dozens of other major sports venues. “The telecom data rooms will be 25 to 30 percent larger than at any other NFL stadium and the rooms will be spread on different levels no more than 150 feet apart.”

Fans’ mounting expectations for technology and the stadium’s location are at the forefront of the builders’ minds.

“Technology doesn’t change any faster than in Silicon Valley,” Nichols said with no argument from Hill.

“Infrastructure is very important when more and more fans are on smartphones, and the smartphones, themselves are constantly getting smarter,” said Hill. “Our team is working on a distributed-antenna system (DAS) so that fans who want to take pictures, videos, text someone across the seating bowl or email their buddies at home won’t be frustrated.”

In our original 2012 interview, Hill said that 20 to 30 percent of fans are using personal technology in venues around the league. That number is no doubt greater today, especially when you consider the stadium’s tech-centric locale.

“We’ll be in the heart of Silicon Valley and even today a lot of our fans are from tech companies, and they want to use their devices and have a good fan experience,” Hill said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell singled out technology as a key to tackling an attendance drop that saw crowds down 4.5 percent from 2007 to 2011, and only two-thirds of the league’s 32 teams sell out their 2012 home opening game.

In line with the league’s push to meet fan expectations, 49er President Gideon Yu promised at a press conference that the new stadium would be “the ultimate integration of technology and live sports to our fans.”

Although Hill wouldn’t disclose how much of the project’s budget is devoted to technology, he did say that “it’s a big chunk and it’s safe to say it’s more than anyone has spent before.” Since original budgeting, the costs amounted to a final total of $1.3 billion.

“We want every new stadium to be the smartest stadium, and led by [49er CEO] Jed York, the new Santa Clara stadium, particularly because where it’s located, will no doubt be that,” said McCarthy of the NFL.

Hill acknowledged that a stadium located in the heart of Silicon Valley could benefit by having numerous tech giants as neighbors. SAP AG, Yahoo Inc., Brocade Communications Inc. and Intel Corp. are just a few of the sponsors at Levi’s Stadium.

“One of the nice things about the Bay Area is you have such a wide array of technology partners to work with,” Hill said.

The NFL has league-wide standards for instant replay and camera angles as well as telecommunications for coaching and medical staffs, yet doesn’t explicitly regulate in-stadium technology according to McCarthy. “But we do push teams,” he said.

“The good thing about the NFL is that while the teams are very competitive, we all share best practices,” McCarthy said. “We have meetings about the latest the teams are doing on technology just as coaches will have meetings about games.”

“Sharing information is how we’ve become the best,” he added. “You need all 32 teams working for the best experience and with the newer generation of stadiums there’s an arms race to build the most unique experience for the fans, but it’s about refurbishing older stadiums, too.”

Levi’s Stadium is built to meet the tech needs of 2014 and beyond, with amenities such as a fantasy football luxury lounge with touch-screen terminals and device charging stations that can accommodate up to 1600 hardcore NFL fans. The lounge will also feature big-screen TVs, giving attendees the option to have a slice of home at the live event.

Technological innovations were a focus for the 49ers even while they were playing at Candlestick Park. For example, a team-created 49ers app gave fans access to video from various camera feeds.

Other teams offer similar apps and real-time highlights from every game in the league are available viaNFL Red Zone. Many older stadiums have upgraded video monitors above the field and in concession areas, and now fans attending games are shown the same replay that referees view under the hood.

“Looking ahead, under consideration is having selected players mic’d in some fashion for exclusive in-stadium audio,” McCarthy said.

Those who prefer not to call, text, tweet, Facebook, view or capture photos and video, check their fantasy team or order garlic fries from their iPhone haven’t been overlooked amid all the efforts to integrate hi-tech offerings.

“We’re considering a wide range of tech advances to meet the fans’ desire to be connected — that is, if they want it,” McCarthy said. “It could be the 3 to 4 hours not to be connected to a device. They want the more social aspect of being at a game with tens of thousands of other fans and get away from their technology.”

The San Francisco 49ers will play their first regular season game at Levi’s Stadium, hosting the Chicago Bears on September 14, 2014. Super Bowl 50 will be played at Levi’s Stadium on February 7, 2016.

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