Personalizing the Stadium Experience

The rules and traditions of sports are slow to change. But fan expectations have changed radically in recent years.

Sports fans have more ways to watch than ever before: home theater, in-app mobile viewing, league-wide season pass digital subscriptions, and more. For sports brands, these are opportunities, not threats. But they also force teams to ensure the stadium experience keeps pace with those perks.

If staying at home becomes too routine, it can compromise the energy (and revenue) of the fan-franchise relationship. Even America’s most durably popular pro league, the NFL, has to keep evolving to meet fan demands – or face declining attendance rates.

In our sports focus groups, we asked fans for the most important aspect of their stadium experience. Their top answers pointed to high expectations about personalization: Customer service. Ease of traveling. Quality of food and beverage. Family atmosphere and amenities.

For many fans, the stadium is in competition with the living room – and that’s a surprisingly tough matchup.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen a boom in the number of new stadiums, and heard chatter from teams looking for more lucrative markets. These moves are not merely cosmetic. New and old stadiums alike are getting upgrades designed to catch the attention – and dollars – of two core demographics: tech-savvy millennials and comfort-first, man-cave dwellers.

HD Scoreboards

It started in Dallas at AT&T Stadium: a gigantic scoreboard to show replays, highlights, and game updates in larger-than-life style. EverBank Field, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, now boasts the largest flat-screen in the league – 60 feet high, 362 feet long, and holding over 35 million LED bulbs. They won’t hold that distinction for long. Next year, the Atlanta Falcons will unveil a 360-degree, halo-style scoreboard in their brand-new stadium featuring 63,800 square feet of LED video, giving every seat in the house a perfect view.

Why is this a big deal? Our sports-fan participants told us one of their biggest negatives from the stadium experience is interruptions; they’re trained (from their living room) to expect to see every moment. Anything that distracts them from the action – from an overzealous in-game announcer to boorish fan behavior to serpentine bathroom queues – leaves them pining for their couch.

Fantasy Sports Tie-ins

The NFL and many of its owners have capitalized on the explosion of daily fantasy sports, and they’re updating stadium interiors to suit those fans. Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, and Robert Kraft of the Patriots, are both investors in DraftKings; their stadiums are two of seven in the NFL that offer a “fantasy sports lounge.” These lounges allow amateur and professional fantasy managers to follow their teams’ production in a living-room setting during lulls in the live action.

Why is this needed in a stadium? For hardcore fans, it’s not just game day; it’s the best day of “game week.” These are the diehards who carry the momentum of Sunday to the water cooler on Monday. That intensity is what makes leagues thrive. In return… our sports groups tell us they want to watch the game “on their terms.” For fantasy managers, that means power outlets, a sports-bar-like TV rig, and temporary solace from the din of the crowd.

Wi-Fi and Cellular Networks

The most important innovation for some is intangible – optimizing the 4G and Wi-Fi networks within the stadiums. Levi’s Stadium, home to the San Francisco 49ers and situated in the center of Silicon Valley, has led the charge. They not only updated the wireless network, they implemented a customized app that allows guests to send immediate feedback, order food and drinks to their seats, and use digital tickets to enter the stadium. The app also helps team management get a fuller, more personal understanding of their fans’ habits, likes, and dislikes week to week.

This not only helps fans get what they want, it gives them a voice in social promotion and a direct line to customer service. Our sports focus groups tell us they want to feel like the franchise cares about their experience. Improving communication inside the stadium is a big step in that direction.

It’s too early to tell if these investments are working. But, one thing is clear. The NFL is listening to its fans and meeting them where they are on their terms. No two fan expectations are the same. By giving fans more choice and control over their stadium experience, franchises are committing to a proven strategy: to get bigger and better, give your audience the power to personalize.

Tom Rodriguez is a communications advisor at Luntz Global.