Can smart stadiums tempt fans to return to live sporting events?

With billions of dollars being invested in building Disneyland-style, IoT connected stadiums, operators and sports clubs are entering a technologically enriched era, but can these sporting wonderlands tempt fans to give up their armchairs?

There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere inside a stadium during a sporting event: the roar of the crowd, the smell of overpriced fried food, the chanting, giant hats and foam fingers. The live spectator experience is a well-established cultural pastime that has been surprisingly resilient to social and economic changes, with fans travelling far and wide to watch their favourite players and athletes perform. But, the appeal of watching live, in-the-moment events is slipping.

Thanks to surging ticket prices and improved TV quality and camera options for home-viewing, stadium attendance is falling as even the most dedicated fans struggle to justify forking out their hard-earned cash for a sub-par view of the game. While technological developments have changed the way that sport is played on the ground, in the grandstand, digital improvements have been sorely lacking. Until now.

With billions of dollars invested in building Disneyland-style, IoT connected stadiums, operators and sports clubs are finally entering a technologically enriched era. However, in order to provide a stadium experience like never before, venue owners are asking fans to hand over large amounts of personal data. And with sophisticated surveillance systems following their every move, are connected stadiums forcing fans to sacrifice more than just their hard-earned cash for a heightened stadium experience?

If we build it they will come

When Japan announced its bid for the 2022 World Cup in 2010, it promised 200 HD cameras that would record 360° coverage of games and broadcast them live in 3D, with holographic projections allowing players to appear in stadiums around the world. The whole premise seemed a bit more sci-fi than reality. But in 2017, that holographic dream isn’t too far off.

Rapid technological developments have changed the way fans watch sporting events. From smartphones to high definition pause and play TV systems, advanced technology is now a ubiquitous part of modern life and the range of options available to modern spectators has grown. Armed with their devices, sports fans have become accustomed to receiving immediate game updates, play-by-play action and multiple camera angles. In contrast, the technology available inside stadiums felt outdated and compared with the multi-angle, on-demand coverage provided by live TV coverage, the glamour of the single-seat experience is fading.

While the live experience of in-stadium viewing cannot be replicated, even the most dedicated fans are struggling to justify paying the surging ticket prices for a subpar view of the game. To counter the threat from on-demand TV streaming, stadium owners are investing billions to transform outdated sporting venues into high-tech wonderlands. While bigger may have meant better in the past, stadium operators have entered an arms race of technological innovation as one by one, a steady stream of advanced and connected ‘smart’ stadiums are unveiled.

The technology used to run these stadiums is a far cry from the introduction of electronic scoreboards in the 1950s. Nowadays, clubs avidly boast about the Wi-Fi connection available inside stadiums that look more like Las Vegas casinos than sporting arenas. Gargantuan structures, such as the Sacramento Kings Golden 1 centre in the US or the design for the new Tottenham Hotspur ground in the UK, place increased focus on expanding the live event by connecting fans with an experience that it’s worth leaving home for.

These new designs offer far more than simply the viewing, they include shops, dining, bars, VR experiences and luxury lounges all in one convenient location. Fans can capture and upload gameplay, use their smartphones to find out which gate has the shortest queue time. They can even order food from their seat. Oh, and there is also sport.

Tracking and targeting fans

Unsurprisingly, the grainy black and white footage captured by old-school security cameras doesn’t quite cut the rug in these supercharged, technology-driven smart stadiums. While spectators may be focused on the novel developments designed to improve the viewing experience inside of these multiplex superstructures, behind the screens advanced data analytics and sophisticated systems are being used to watch a different kind of action.

Stadium operators are starting to pay more attention to who is filling the stands, rather than blindly selling tickets. There are two main reasons for this: security and data collection. Sporting events have always been a prime target for those looking to create as much panic and chaos as possible. The massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, explosions outside of the Bernabéu stadium hours before hours before a European Champions League semi-final in 2002, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 Stade de France attack; each fresh incident has left a significant mark on the sporting world. So, it’s understandable why sports authorities and stadium owners are keen to upgrade the systems used to prevent future incidents.

With access to consumer data through electronic tickets, app logins, social media streams and even fingerprint ID scanning, stadium owners can build a personalised fan portfolio for each individual who enters the ground, before, during and after the event has taken place. However, in order to provide an up-to-date, personalised stadium, you need to understand your fans inside and out.

Bar breaking into their houses and reading their diaries (which I am told is still considered way too invasive) clubs had little access to fans’ personal information

Now, in the past this was a little bit tricky. Bar breaking into their houses and reading their diaries (which I am told is still considered way too invasive) clubs had little access to fans’ personal information. But thanks to the internet, modern stadium owners have access to a mass of data which allows them to track and target spectators. For example, if a spectator is connected to the stadium Wi-Fi or using an official app, a team could use this connection to push out customised content for that user, such as live replays, links to social media channels or targeted adverts.

For obvious reasons, many stadium owners remain tight lipped about the extent of their new internal surveillance systems, but in the US, security firms tasked with monitoring crowd behaviour are increasingly turning to social media to identify potential troublemakers. Specialised and customisable systems, such as Babel Street and Geofeedia, similar to those already employed by police forces and government authorities, allow security staff to scan through posts published on social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Once fans are inside the stadium, personal identifiers, e.g. smartphones and electronic tickets, eliminate the perceived anonymity. With fans no longer just nameless face in the crowd, multi-angle GPU facial recognition technology can track spectators wherever they go. Any trouble, and they are gone.

Do sports teams care about safety or commerce? 

Sporting events draw in thousands of people, including attendees who don’t always behave – or get on – all packed into one big venue. In some cases, this brings out everything that is brilliant about sport. In others, well, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster. The security challenges facing stadiums are complex. Not only do they have to contend with the rowdy behaviour and general nuisance of disorderly fans, but the capacity and publicity of stadium venues make them a significant target for terror attacks.

So, it should come as no surprise that security is high up on the list of concerns for stadiums, sporting bodies, the police and basically everyone else involved in planning large-scale stadium events. And so far, the smart stadium trend has only increased the demands placed on security services. Hailed to be the most advanced stadium in the Europe, the revamped design of Spurs’ new White Hart Lane ground has gained permission to increase capacity from the original plan of 56,000 to 61,559 seats. While this increase may boost revenue for Spurs, increased security measures can hamper the spectator experience.

Some football clubs have attempted to bypass potential disruptions by introducing fingerprints and iris scanners, which fans can opt for if they want to avoid the queues for security checks. But given that there are very few events where customers would offer this extreme level of identifiable personal information without also passing through security checks to ensure they aren’t bringing dangerous items into the ground, the appearance of these systems seems less safety driven and more to do with tracking fans’ behaviour and purchasing habits.

Heightened safety measures are an understandable upgrade for stadiums tasked with controlling modern crowds. But as clubs explore the potential of advanced technology in live sporting events, privacy concerns are likely to dog invasive developments that use personal data to increase revenue and drive profits rather than ensuring the safety of spectators.

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