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NFL stadiums are key testing ground for 5G mobile rollout in US

Fans interact with the AT&T Immersive Columns of the Dallas Cowboys during their NFL week five 34-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys)

“Pose with the Pros” was intended to let 1,500 fans with 5G network-enabled phones take a digital selfie with five of their favorite Dallas Cowboys players via augmented reality at a nine-foot-tall AT&T Stadium kiosk in Arlington, Texas. It was designed to be just a taste of what the next generation of mobile technology will able to deliver.

Instead, the interactive attraction immediately went viral and drew more than 80 million online video views, even from far-flung spots from Texas such as Spain and Brazil, showing how 5G mobile technology can be a gamechanger even in its infancy.

“We didn’t see that intention coming,” says Charlotte Jones Anderson, Cowboys executive vice-president and and chief brand officer, of “Pose with the Pros”. “We were focused on our own market. [But] everybody started talking about it. When something has that kind of gravitas, it will change people to experience events.”

Such is the bold and big promise 5G holds for all of the sports industry, and the National Football League specifically. How the quickly emerging mobile technology operates this fall at test deployments at AT&T Stadium and at 13 other NFL stadiums via league sponsor Verizon has become a widely watched development across the industry. 

Using transmission speeds projected to be about 10 times as fast as current mobile technology and near-zero network latency, the NFL is hoping that 5G will be the thing that helps attract the next generation of fans seemingly hard-wired to the devices on a constant basis. The broad hope is that 5G networks installed in football stadiums and enabling a wide array of real-time fantasy, wagering, and content experiences will lure people away from the televisions at home and to attend games in person.

“Speed in getting information is key,” says Kevin Byrne, executive vice-president for the Baltimore Ravens, one of the 13 NFL teams working with Verizon on a 5G rollout. “People at homes have a strong signal with only a few people using it. Stadiums are 70,000 people, TV network crews, and radio that drain your WiFi system. You constantly have to invest in ways to get information to your fans so they can check their fantasy teams. 5G is ahead of the curve.

“You have that next generation and the one after that are multi-tasking while watching events. They’re doing it all the time so you have to adjust and compete against that. If you don’t, people are not going to come. They’ll stay where they can stay connected. You better give them a package to get them out of their home,” Byrne says. 

Verizon and the set of 13 teams have spent the past two years working on the trial 5G network rollouts and developing content to take advantage of them. Carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have begun phased rollouts broadly of 5G in the US, and public deployments have begun in major US cities such as Washington, DC; Chicago, Illinois; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, among others.

But it won’t be until late 2020 at the soonest before there is widespread public availability of the enhanced networks, and likely 2024 before true market saturation. Because 5G also requires users to get new devices to take advantage of the improved technology, handset manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung are also developing new models, with sales of those 5G-enabled devices expected to begin next year.

In the meantime, the NFL is serving as critical test cases given the size and density of their stadiums. In addition to Baltimore, Verizon is also testing 5G at NFL stadiums for the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New York Giants and Jets, and Seattle Seahawk.

Verizon chief executive Hans Vestberg said upon announcing the NFL rollout that the company’s 5G technology is “fundamentally changing the way we live, work and play, and we expected the impact upon the sports entertainment industry to be massive. It promises to revolutionize the entire gameday experience for fans.”

The AT&T-Cowboys alignment, meanwhile, is a singular initiative. But it is happening along the same lines of using 5G to create new fan experience such as the “Pose with the Pros,” which was six years in the making. 

“We’re ready when the switch gets flipped,” Anderson says. “We’re ready to roll out content. How do we take this technology [while] we wait for devices to our core infrastructure? We need Apple and Samsung to give us a handheld where everybody can be a part of it.”

The scheduled 2020 arrivals of SoFi Stadium, the forthcoming home for Los Angeles Rams and Chargers in Inglewood, California, and Allegiant Stadium, the under-construction stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the relocating Oakland Raiders will bring two more 5G-enabled stadiums. 

Others, however, will need to retrofit their existing technology. And even Anderson admits that after 10 years, the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium needs upgrades, a shocking sentiment given how its infrastructure such as its massive center-hung videoboards have been industry gamechangers. But she said the bones of the massive stadium are designed to be flexible to emerging technology.

“When we built AT&T Stadium, we wanted to be technologically advanced,” Anderson says. “It had to be prepared for what the future brought.”

The NFL’s increasing embrace of 5G coincides with Germany’s Bundesliga announcing a 5G effort of its own in which select fans at Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena have been able to sample the emerging technology.

Beyond the size and density the NFL stadiums provide the 5G carriers for testing, they also represent a substantial potential audience of early adopters for mobile carriers. Indeed, more than 17 million people attended a NFL game in 2018, with Dallas leading the league with a per-game of 91,619, nearly 25,000 above the league average.

“It’s overwhelming in a lot of ways and very exciting when you think the future of game of football can be the forerunner of [societal] change,” Anderson says. “A lot of people think we play for a victory on Sunday. That’s our goal, but our purpose is greater than that. [Sports is] the only thing that unifies people…They’re all there for that one moment together. It is the way our world is changing and an incredible platform to give people a glimpse of the future. It’s a great eye-opener for all of us in how rapidly changing is our society.

“The Jetsons are here for you and I,” she said.

M&T Bank Stadium in Maryland, home of the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens, is one of 13 NFL facilities where Verizon is testing 5G technology this season.

The first key step in the NFL-led 5G rollout is creating infrastructure. The Ravens, for example, spent $120 million over the past three years to enhance their videoboards and WiFi signal, and are continuing to spend as they seek the next generation of fans.

“It’s all going to finding ways to get people to come to your games and younger people as the [older fans] age out,” Byrne said. “We started two years ago with a [virtual reality] company and added a to community to let fans get in huddles and introduced to VR at the stadium. We’re in the early stages of it, but hopefully we’re in front of it.”

Anderson said allowing users to have individual experiences while being part of a group is integral to creating immersive experiences demanded by younger fans.

“The most important thing is how do they have their own experience as they share with others?,” Anderson said. “I can sit in the stands with my father [Cowboys owner Jerry Jones[, who’s a traditionalist, and my child and somebody who wants every stat in the game, and someone who’s new. 5G allows us to do this with the device in your hands…to experience your own game while in shared experience.”

Anderson continued on how that combination of the individual and communal has flipped from the team’s original planning.

“Our goal was an experience for 100,000 people. Now it’s for 100,000 individuals in the same venue,” she says. 

Such efforts are also now playing out as the NFL celebrates its centennial and prepares for its second century of play.

“It used to be in the NFL it was generational,” Byrne says. “You went to games with your mom or your dad, and when they got too old they passed the tickets on to you and you took your kids. That’s the great success of the NFL. But now we’re seeing kids pick two or three games they want and not be interested in season tickets anymore. We have to make it more entertaining with something beyond the game. That’s what we’re studying all the time.”

A big priority for the teams with the 5G technology will be to create various experiences that bring fans inside the huddle and along the line of scrimmage as much as possible.

“Not only will [fans] be connected, but they’ll get in, hear plays called, hear what the linemen are hearing, the hitting, the conversations,” Byrne said. “We already have the best reality show on TV, and we’re getting closer.

“[Ravens coach] John Harbaugh and I joked everybody will be connected. Coaches like secrecy and privacy. But we compete for people’s attention. People accustomed to getting lots of information jump from thing to thing. We’ll have to find ways to get attention,” he says.

 Cowboys players were equally as enthused as team executives about the emerging 5G technology, Anderson says, and happily filmed the segments for the “Pose with the Pros” kiosk.

“It was such a cool thing to [them] so they were excited to be part of it,” she says. “When it came to life, they were so into what happened with it.”

The emergence of 5G will also extend to home use, again heightening the tension between at-home fandom and the in-person live experience. But, ultimately that’s a worry for another day.

“Eventually, it will be everywhere,” Anderson says. “It will affect how we drive and how we live our lives everywhere. [NFL stadiums] will be the first area to let people understand the potential of 5G to the future of who we are. When that becomes normalized, we’ll ask what’s the next thing to make people come to us versus consuming the content wherever they are. It will be interesting to see what timetable that is.

“We’re trying to create an experience for people to say, ‘I wish I was there,’ ” she says.

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