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Sports Business

Colts take big risk with new in-stadium offering

August 10, 2012
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Indianapolis Colts fans who have ever watched a game at Lucas Oil Stadium know it’s been, at times, extremely difficult to get a cell phone reception inside the cavernous venue.

Some of the loudest boos at Colts home games in recent years were reserved not for poor play on the field, though there was plenty of that last season, but for poor cell phone reception for fans in the stands.

So when team officials on Wednesday rolled out their new Colts app featuring some really cool offerings, I’m sure it was met with a fair bit of skepticism. After all, if a fan can’t even get a cell phone reception, how are they going to log onto the stadium’s wireless network to enjoy multi-angle replays, a live RedZone channel, a stadium amenities map and a decibel meter? You don’t have to be a digital-age genius to know those types of features take a whole lot more bandwidth than a simply cell phone call, text or tweet.

Officials for the Colts and their wireless providers are assuring fans that many of the wireless problems within the stadium have been fixed.

The Colts—and the NFL—have a very close eye on the wireless situation at Lucas Oil Stadium. I can attest to that personally.

The stadium was outfitted with multi-million dollar upgrades before February’s Super Bowl to make sure everyone in the venue could enjoy wireless access. Unfortunately there was a small dead zone in a very unfortunate location—where the auxiliary press area was located. Luckily, I had a hard wire hookup too. So naturally, I tweeted that my cell phone access wasn’t worth a hoot at the Super Bowl. Within five minutes, I had a Verizon official at my seat asking if I was the one tweeting about the poor wireless access. “You have corporate’s attention,” the man said as he explained the upgrades and the dead zone situation. Yikes, big brother really is watching.

In fairness, I should point out that many others I have since talked to who attended the Super Bowl said their ability to make cell phone calls, texts and tweets was fine. Today, an official for Verizon, which installed the stadium’s wifi network, said that one dead spot in the southwest corner of LOS has been remedied.

Colts officials better hope all, or at least most, of last year’s wireless woes have been knocked out.

On the heels of the 2012 Super Bowl, the NFL made Lucas Oil Stadium one of five test sites, as those stadiums push to have their own enhanced wireless systems in place by the kick-off of this season. The other four sites are MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Gillette Stadium in New England, Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

If the cell phone reception doesn’t work any better than it did during last year’s regular season, Colts officials’ new app could go from a very shiny new toy for in-stadium fans to play with to a very shiny black eye. After all, when you invite people to use their cell phones inside your stadium, you better make sure your network is going to allow them to do so. Otherwise, the Colts will only invite frustration.

And Colts officials can’t afford to do that, certainly not right now, as the team is struggling to sell out its stadium. The Colts 2-14 season last year hasn’t helped sell tickets, nor has the departure of the much-beloved Peyton Manning.

But there’s a bigger issue at play, and that’s what league officials are most concerned about. NFL stadiums nationwide are having difficulty competing with the in-home experience. A new generation of wide-screen, high-definition televisions and cable and satellite offerings are making it more tempting to eschew the live experience in lieu of one that involves a La-Z-Boy.

Officials for Verizon admit they haven’t tested the new Colts app on their enhanced system. Still, Verizon officials are confident their system will hold up to the test. Are they going to guarantee fans will get a cell phone reception every single time they try to make a call? No way. Will reception be better than it was just a year ago? That’s a guarantee Verizon is ready to make. AT&T and Sprint too have made upgrades to their stadium hardware.

“We invested a tremendous amount of resources to build a system at the stadium that would handle a great deal of capacity,” said Verizon spokeswoman Michelle Gilbert. “The system worked well at the Super Bowl and we think it will continue to serve large crowds at the stadium.”

The sports market is a lucrative arena for wireless companies to play in. Not only do myriad sports fans rely on their smart phones during the games, but professional leagues are increasingly willing to make lucrative deals with wireless companies able to deliver reliable service to its ticket-buying and suite-leasing customers.

Lots of players beyond those on the 32 teams that compose the league have a lot at stake this season. NFL officials are waiting the outcome at the five test sites this season before signing a leaguewide telecommunications partner to start outfitting all its stadiums possibly as soon as next season. How well Verizon plays at Lucas Oil Stadium this system could have a lot to do with how big a player they are within the NFL in future seasons.

But wireless companies are hesitant to make guarantees because, as Verizon’s Gilbert said: “The rate at which bandwidth is being used continues to go up.”

While Colts coaches this preseason, which kicks-off at home Sunday, will be evaluating Andrew Luck and a slew of other new players on the field, the team’s front office personnel will be closely eyeing the wireless situation in the stands.

“We will be testing the signal during the preseason, and our IT department is confident the signal will be strong since it will tap both wifi and cellular,” said Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward. “The [new] app will provide two things that football fans love; more replays and instant up-to-date information. This in-stadium content marks a new era for sports fans.”

And it marks a new, and potentially lucrative, era for sports teams, leagues and its wireless providers as well.

 

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