Andrew McIntyre of VSG discusses the technology required to create a best-in-class sports fan experience.
It’s been well documented that customer experience is now the top brand differentiator. Brands need to provide their audience, whether it’s a retail customer, student, patient or in the case of the 3-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a sports fan, with a differentiated experience to create repeat customers.
The sports world can be tough, particularly in a city like Tampa, where the other sports teams have had so much success. After the cities recent NHL and NFL championships and the MLB team reaching the World Series, the city has been nicknamed “Champa Bay” – so fans have plenty of choices for their entertainment dollar.
For the NHL’s Lightning, creating a memorable experience was important to develop a fan base that’s loyal and will continue to return to Amalie Arena year after year. As is the case with most businesses, the team turned to technology to be the enabler of fan engagement.
To understand how the team accomplished this, I recently interviewed Andre McIntyre, SVP of Technology and Innovation for Vinik Sports Group (VSG), which is the services group for the arena, the Lightning and other venues around the Tampa area. The complete interview can be seen in my recent ZKast with McIntyre, done in conjunction with eWEEK, eSPEAKS. Highlights of the interview are below:
- For the Lightning, fan experience begins hours before the game and extends to its outdoor concourse, Ford Thunder Alley. There, the team displays video content on a massive screen, pipes in music over the network and has a pre-game entry ceremony to get the fans excited before they are even in the arena.
- The entry into Amalie Arena has been made nearly frictionless with digital tickets and an advanced screening system from Evolv Technology that enables people to walk through without having to remove items from their pocket.
- Inside the arena, everything is cashless and fans can use their mobile devices’ contactless payments and, in the future, mobile ordering. The mobile app also contains a digital wallet where money can be stored or the team can grant discounts or rewards. This speed is important to ensure fans can get back to their seats and enjoy the game as soon as possible.
- All of these digital innovations require a high-speed network for a great experience. During COVID, VSG expanded the DAS infrastructure in the arena to bring Verizon and T-Mobile into the Arena. Amalie is the first to deploy the MatSing RF Lens antenna for full 4G LTE coverage. Since then, Verizon and AT&T 5G have been deployed. (Authors note: I tested the network in stadium and during game time achieved over 2GB of download, which is the fastest I have experienced in any sports venue).
- There is a companion Wi-Fi network that is used for many of the operational systems and for fans who wish to offload their connectivity from the cellular network.
- Security is paramount to keep fans safe. McIntyre collaborates with other CISOs, including some from MLB. The sports leagues look at security as a group initiative and all the IT and security professionals will share findings and best practices.
- The players have RFID chips in their jerseys, which enable the players to be tracked, and data to be gathered and analyzed. This can be used for coaching but also for fan experience as the stadium displays show real time player stats such as time on ice, speed of each player and other information.
- The team is preparing for legalized sports betting, which is already legal in 33 states and is expected to be in Florida soon. This will put more traffic on the network as fans are able to place bets while in the stands.
- The modernization of infrastructure also extended to employees as just prior to COVID, VSG had deployed RingCentral to all employees. This enabled workers to function from home during the pandemic and in a hybrid mode now. VSG leveraged the services Converged Technology Pros, one of the top RingCentral resellers for a seamless transition from the legacy system.