On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers debuted its $1.2 billion stadium to the regular-season crowd. Along with a bridge made of solar panels that helps make the structure energy-neutral–even though it’s adorned with two 48-foot high LED screens–the stadium is outfitted with robust 4G and Wi-Fi, and a museum that includes a STEM-friendly classroom full of interactive desks. It’s topped with an app that not only shows where to find parking but lets you order food on-demand directly to your seat.
This technology won’t fix the NFL’s bigger problems right now (nor can it take the sting out of last night’s 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears), but it might transform the way other teams interact with fans during sporting events. Other stadiums are already starting to replicate these features. The Sacramento Kings have an app that includes friend connections and shows multi-angle game replays being readied for the new Entertainment and Sports Center to debut in 2016, according to Kings chief marketing officer, Ben Gumpert.
With 25 engineers–comprised of some veterans from companies like Facebook and Yahoo–working on the software and data platforms for Levi’s Stadium, the challenge was incorporating technology without taking over the game experience.
Here’s a look at what they did this weekend, and what else they have planned.
Want a beer and pizza without leaving your seat? You can with the Levi’s Stadium App, which had 80,000 downloads even before the stadium opened.
Integrating ticketing and in-seat food delivery to 68,500 seats into the app, which took two-and-a-half years to create, proved a bigger challenge than expected–though an expected average wait time of nine minutes isn’t terrible.
Getting fans to choose stadium seats instead of their couches was one of the first things Levi’s CEO and president Chip Bergh asked 49ers owner Jed York to do. Having been involved with the creation of several stadiums–including Gillette Stadium–Bergh says he knew the niners had to come up with something big.
“The NFL, and many sports teams, have really wrestled with how do you get people to actually show up for games,” Bergh says. “On the East Coast and on a freezing cold day, there were a lot of empty seats because it was easier to stay at home and watch it on TV.”
The designers and engineers were “very focused on how they could make the fan experience inside the stadium more awesome than staying at home and watching it on TV,” he says. You can check how long the line is at the hot dog stand and how long the line is to go to the bathroom, “which is really critical by about the third quarter.”
After working out bugs in time for the first regular-season game, 49ers chief operating officer Al Guido says the team was careful to not overpower the live-action game, but to focus the app on bringing the conveniences of watching at home.
“We’ve already linked tickets and parking for almost 70% of our ticket base right now, which is unheard of in this day and age from an application perspective,” Guido says.
“A lot has been talked about in the NFL stadiums around the fact that the at-home experience from the television perspective is so much greater than the one in stadium,” he says. “We really just wanted to enhance that play on the field and your convenience of getting to the game or ordering food and beverage.”
The app’s game center will also allow users to see real-time stats and scores of other games without switching in and out of external apps like Yahoo sports or NFL.com. “When you are at home, you get whatever CBS or NBC happens to show you,” Bergh says. “But here, you are going to be able to command your own replay and your own camera angle.”
Guido says more on-demand features are in the works for the next one to two years such as in-seat retail delivery and 49er art buying. “We have over 200 original pieces of art in the building and over 500 photos. We want to allow you to scroll your phone over pieces of art, or pieces within the museum, and have that pop up as information.”
Waze integration data from the app will reveal parking patterns and what roads fans take to get to the stadium. From the food perspective, it will collect data on what food and beverage you’re consuming and at what times throughout the game, which Guido says went into effect at a recent San Jose Earthquakes soccer game.
“We sold a ton of curry on our first game,” he says. “If you go around to any other stadium, you’d find the food and beverage providers say, ‘No way, you’re going to sell a bunch of hot dogs and hamburgers.’ When we talk to our food and beverage provider, we can give him all that data in real time and understand who’s ordering it, from where, and how much.”
The data will also help in suggesting the best points of entry, exits, traffic alerts, and ticket transfers made in the app. “We know who you’re transferring them [tickets] to so that we can send you information on parking and transportation. “It’s really endless on both fronts, the upfront to the customer, and then the back end to the team,” he says.
Levi’s Stadium is also poised to set a new openness to API when it comes to fan data, which, Guido says, is necessary for other teams’ stadiums to compete. “I think teams need to be committed to having platforms that are super intuitive–and not just platforms that are intuitive, but robust data warehouses.”
A feature in the app called “Faithful 49” will allow users to “gain yards” by interacting with sponsors like Esurance, incentivizing fans to get more interactive with the sponsors. It has lofty terms and conditions which will be interesting to see how other teams reform with privacy concerns.
“That’s the one piece that was certainly a bigger challenge than I think maybe even the tech guys anticipated, because the sports world is so very different than the tech world with open API. The sports world is kind of closed off. Getting those partners to work with us wasn’t hard, just figuring out where we wanted to go took some time,” Guido says.
One of the biggest problems inside stadiums is that mobile reception is spotty, leaving people feeling disconnected for hours on end. Levi’s stadium was designed with a different infrastructure than the standard Wi-Fi shooting cone; it used a new model called MicroCell system.
For the first time in professional sports Wi-Fi boxes have been put under every 100 seats, offering five times more capacity than the average in-stadium network. Thanks to 400 miles of data cables, a fan’s seat will never be more than 10 feet from a direct Wi-Fi signal, says Guido (and hundreds of geeky fans raving on Twitter).
With 40 gigabits within the infrastructure–compared to the NFL mandate of 10 gigabits–the stadium will likely still be competitive when it comes time to host Super Bowl 50 there in 2016.
“We had to build the platform so that it wasn’t just good for 2014,” says Guido. The Cowboys stadium already got retrofitted for additional Wi-Fi after only four years of being built and hailed as the most technologically advanced stadium. “In our mind it was good for 2044. We felt like if the infrastructure was there, the mobile platforms would just continue to get better and better, and your opportunities are endless.”
“With Wi-Fi in the stadium, you allow people to use their devices they already have,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says. “We believe that’s the best experience and we hope this will become a model for future stadiums.”
The MicroCell approach is reportedly being replicated in new stadiums for the Atlanta Falcons and in Minnesota. The Kings’ chief marketing officer, Ben Gumpert says, “Connectivity and bandwidth will be crucial components of the technology in the ESC.”
No stranger to sports tech, The Kings became the first team to accept bitcoin as payment, incorporated Google Glass during a game broadcast, and used Oculus Rift to augment to fans the new arena. Gumpert says they, too are working on a robust Wi-Fi structure.
While solar panels aren’t any thing new in stadiums, the niners’ solar panels are in the form of functional bridges. It’s the first of its kind in the NFL, beating the Philadelphia Eagles’ 10-year-old signature “Go Green” campaign in Lincoln Financial Field. It’s also perhaps the first power-saving design that doesn’t look ridiculous–it even shades the poor souls with rooftop VIP seats.
From the solar terrace, fans can also see one of the two large LED video boards. The 48-foot high screens, made by Daktronics, adorn the end zones. One is 200 feet wide, the other 148 feed wide, each with a 13HD pixel layout that can be used as one massive screen or sectioned into smaller windows.
And all that light is working from a carbon-neutral energy grid. The first professional sports team to achieve net zero energy performance in California, it is also the first professional football stadium with LEED Gold certification.
Instead of a traditional team gallery, the 49ers’ museum includes interactive content for every player that’s ever been on the team in a cross-searchable database. The All-time Roster–as it’s called–contains 12,000 photos and 1,295 players’ data.
If you knew someone who played for the team or played with your dad in college, you can swipe your way to six degrees of separation and find multiple points of information and photos of them. “What a lot of people we found in testing was, they were curious to know who else went to Illinois that played for us,” 49ers museum director Jesse Lovejoy says. “We created that search-for function.”
49er alum and current VP of football affairs, Keena Turner, says the creation of such data files are a unique tool to preserving history of former players like him. “It’s not doing tech for tech’s sake, but using imagination to learn from our perspective,” he says. “We like that blend of high tech and low tech as an opportunity to recognize every player that ever played for the team. For me, it’s really personal.”
Entering the museum’s Heritage Gallery, touchscreens line up with artifacts at different points of the physical timeline showing additional stories from history with audible and visual stories. Keyed-in green-screen interviews with coaches are layered with old clips of plays and animated sequences.
Cortina Productions also created interactive elements for the museum’s internal STEM classroom, where teachers can control students’ interactive desks during a learning session. “We felt like we had a platform to make STEM to help teach kids science, technology, engineering, and math components of sustainability or technology like what makes a spiral go further,” Lovejoy says.
Like much of the other tech used in the stadium, the museum’s challenge was using it in a way that wasn’t overbearing, says Lovejoy. “I think a lot of times, you can get buried in technology. It was our goal and our job to use it in interesting and unique ways to share depth of content that you can’t do on a wall. You can’t do it in 30 words.”
Elsewhere in the stadium, there are interactive games, lessons from players, Sony touchscreens, and broadcaster simulations that give fans a chance to be in the action–think of a Dave & Busters dedicated to your favorite team. The aim is to boost stadium foot traffic year-round.
Though Levi’s Stadium is ahead of the pack now, that could change come 2016 as stadiums engage in a neck-and-neck race to see who can attract more fans, feed them faster, and keep them in the stadium longer. What does it take to win? The best software.
Or is it hardware? “We like to say that we built the stadium as a software-driven stadium, not a hardware-driven stadium,” says Guido. “The funny thing about that is, it takes hardware to build that infrastructure.”