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Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena offers template for smart cities

  • Red Wings and Pistons home is the centrepiece of connected 50-block neighbourhood 
  • District Detroit app aims to link up virtually all residential and commercial properties in area
  • Similar ‘one-stop shop’ apps for major cities are inevitable, says Venuetize executive

Modern sports stadiums can be much more than entertainment venues. Connected arenas such as Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center are laying the groundwork for local governments and urban planners by testing emerging technologies before they are deployed on a larger scale in the smart cities of the future.

An unlikely source of innovation is downtown Detroit, which for many years has been a symbol of American inner-city decline. Centred around Little Caesars Arena – home of the NHL’s Red Wings and NBA’s Pistons – District Detroit is an ambitious regeneration project that has connectivity at its core.

The $1bn-plus development is an example of how sports venues across the United States are increasingly being connected to mixed-use spaces that can generate huge extra revenues.

What sets District Detroit apart is its specifically-commissioned mobile app, a ‘one-stop shop’ which links Little Caesars Arena to an entire 50-block area and offers an insight into how vast public spaces could be connected in the future.

Importance of deep IT infrastructure

District Detroit is the brainchild of the Ilitch family, who made their fortune from the Little Caesars Pizza fast-food chain and hold the Red Wings and MLB’s Detroit Tigers within their expansive portfolio.

The project began in the late 1990s when Mike Ilitch – a billionaire entrepreneur who died in February 2017 – quietly bought several derelict parcels of land in Detroit’s downtown and midtown and deliberately sat on them as he waited for the city to begin to recover from a deep recession.

In December 2012, Ilitch announced plans for District Detroit, a 50-block mixed-use development that would integrate new residential, commercial, retail and green spaces with the neighbourhood’s existing sports arenas (Comerica Park and Ford Field) and entertainment venues (Fox Theatre, Fillmore Detroit and Detroit Opera House). A new state-of-the-art stadium for the Red Wings, replacing the Joe Louis Arena, was intended to be its focal point.

District Detroit, its official website boasts, will “connect Downtown and Midtown into one contiguous, walkable area, where families, sports fans, entrepreneurs, job seekers, entertainment lovers and others who crave a vibrant urban setting can connect with each other and the city they love”.

The project – which has no scheduled completion date – is predicted to have an economic impact of more than $2bn by 2020, plus create more than 20,000 construction and construction-related jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs. Six new developments – the revival of three older buildings and construction of three new ones – were announced in April 2018, representing “phase two” of the $1.2bn-plus project.

“Phase one” was the opening of the $863m Little Caesars Arena – a multi-purpose stadium which houses the Red Wings and Pistons (who are tenants) – in September 2017.

In line with its unveiling, the Ilitch family – via their company Olympia Entertainment – invested more than $11m in a multi-terabit fibre network linked to over 1,000 WiFi access points that ensures high-speed internet connections throughout District Detroit.

Significantly, the network, built in partnership with Comcast Business, was given extra capacity to support future technologies and greater data consumption as more properties – and indeed people – come to the area.

“District Detroit has become the new platinum standard for internet innovation and developers will look here to model the technology infrastructure of future arenas and mixed-use communities,” declared Tim Collins, senior vice president of Comcast’s Heartland Region.

“[Digital connectivity] is such a big part of operating a modern-day arena and creating a modern-day fan experience. The Wi-Fi is the one part of the technology that’s very visible to consumers. They know it either works – or it doesn’t. It’s either fast – or it’s not.”

Value of third-party integration

This high-speed internet network, in turn, enabled the creation of the innovative District Detroit app, which has been designed to ultimately serve all of Olympia’s properties in the development.

For the moment, the app allows subscribers to buy and resell tickets for events at Little Caesars Arena, Fox Theatre and Fillmore Detroit and also buy advance parking at any of the 32 Olympia-owned lots and garages in the neighbourhood. It also features 3D maps that offer navigation assistance within venues and allows eventgoers the ability to order and pay for food and beverages from their seat at Little Caesars Arena.

The app was designed by Venuetize, a mobile-first engagement platform that counts among its clients the PGA Tour, Portland Trail Blazers, LA FC, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“With a lot of our clients there is a phased approach – you don’t want to overwhelm the consumer. You also have to be realistic when you are opening a new arena with all sorts of new technologies, how much do you want to bring into the app from day one?” Craig Duncan, Venuetize’s vice-president of sports and entertainment, tells SportBusiness International.

“We started with mobile ticketing and parking – those are two key drivers for downloads. Parking is a major issue in Detroit and research has shown that many people weren’t even thinking about going to an event downtown because of what a headache it was.

“By allowing customers to buy parking tickets in advance through the app, there have been some great results from that. We did a soft promotion to start with but as the (NHL and NBA) seasons’ started, the app has had quite a bit of traction.”

Venuetize’s ability to integrate third-parties enables the app to have multiple functions within multiple venues. “Our platform is set up to drive mobile applications anywhere where large groups of people congregate,” Duncan adds. “That can be a sports venue but also a shopping mall or a casino/hotel property.

“What differentiates us [from our rivals] is that we built a very open-ended practice that embraces best-of-breed technologies and third parties. The ability to integrate with a new third-party system is extremely challenging, costly and time consuming. But it is not an issue for us – we have done over 130 different third-party integrations with our clients.”

Third parties linked into app include: Ticketmaster; Experience (seat upgrades); Appetize (food and beverage ordering, plus merchandise); Skidata (loyalty/membership/rewards); SatisFi (AI chatbot); Park Whiz (order-ahead parking); Uber; Twitter, Instagram and Facebook; Google and Apple maps; Micello 2D Maps and Gimbal (bluetooth and geofencing).

The app is also a means for Olympia to cross-promote its empire. “Quite a significant amount of the District Detroit properties are owned by the Ilitch family so they have a vested interest in having cross-marketing through the app,” Duncan says.

“What you are going to see in year two and beyond is, for example, you will have given the app permission to promote messages to you and, as you are leaving a hockey game and are looking for additional entertainment, you will get a VIP promotion on your phone to head over to the casino and have a meal or drink and some game play.”

The Ilitch-owned Tigers (who play at Comerica Park) and NFL Lions (at Ford Field) have their own separate apps, although they can be accessed through the District Detroit app.

Individual deals are required for companies based in District Detroit but not part of Olympia Entertainment to be feature on the app. The app already has commercial deals with Xfinity and Michigan grocery chain Meijer. “You can imagine that as other properties within the District come into the app then other monetization opportunities will follow,” Duncan says.

Despite limited marketing from Olympia Entertainment, the app has around 2,500 monthly subscribers and approaching 40,000 unique downloads. In the near future, the ticketing and messaging platforms will be upgraded and the blue-dot navigation will be expanded to the entire District. A ‘heritage’ feature will also be added that enables subscribers to learn more about the history of the area and go on guided walking tours. But Olympia Entertainment has far bigger aims.

“My crazy goal is to create a micro-economy across the District,” Dwight Eppinger, Olympia Entertainment’s director of digital marketing and analytics, tells SportBusiness International. “So, for example, if you have a ticket to an entertainment event, you would be able to return the ticket and get a value added to your [mobile] wallet and you would be able to use that anywhere across the District, be it a restaurant, retail unit or even pay for parking.

“I really see that as a way it can add a new level of value for our ticket-holders and allow them to get use out of a ticket that went unused on a given night and use it in a manner that they want rather than have to use it at the team store.

“Maybe you don’t always want to go to a Red Wings event – this will enable you to go to a Pistons game or a concert that you wanted to see. That is quite a long way down the road and will take a lot of co-ordination but I can see that as a great opportunity for everyone invested in this area.”

He adds: “We want to seamlessly integrate with the Lions and Tigers. Right now we have a few technical issues to overcome but I think we can work together to create that one utility app across the District.”

‘One-stop shop’ apps predicted for major cities – but at what cost?

The District Detroit app is a prime example of how sports venues are being increasingly used as testing grounds for smart cities. That Venuetize is now providing apps for a shopping mall and casino-hotel – and will soon work with a race track – indicates the way smart-venue technologies are being rolled out in public spaces.

Indeed, Duncan believes that it is just a matter of time before a major US city follows suit with a similar ‘one-stop shop’ service that connects its residents and visitors. “I do envision that the ultimate one-stop shop is a major city app and then underneath team and district apps will fit within,” he says. “We haven’t seen it yet, we know it is coming, but as is often the case sports venues are the incubator for these kind of things.”

The latter point is one that is shared widely in the industry. “Venues and the private sector should be the catalyst for the cities to get smarter,” said Francesca Bodie of sports and entertainment facilities company OakView Group recently. “We as the private sector need to remain committed to being the catalyst that jumps through those hoops that makes it scalable.

Because without that, the city’s municipal entities are so focused, as they should be, on infrastructure and public schools and life and safety, that if the private sector does their job everybody’s going to eventually benefit from the system.”

District Detroit, however, is also a case study in how the boundaries of sports venues are effectively being pushed out into cities, raising some questions about how these digital spaces work and whether they are even of benefit to cities.

“What the entertainment district really represents is the way in which the smart venue and smart city are coming together more closely,” Elinor Klavens, a senior research analyst at technology-driven services company Sports Innovation Lab, tells SportBusiness International.

“However, sports venues are a test in terms of how we want to track people in open spaces. What does digital privacy look like? If you are using a mobile app for everything then you are consenting to be digitally identified in a consumer space. There are a lot of questions about this that these entertainment districts will force.”

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