It's a tough challenge for the National Football League to entice fans off their comfy couches and into stadiums when ticket prices are almost as high as the sport's TV ratings.
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The temptation to stay home goes beyond cost. Equipped with high-definition televisions, Wi-Fi and laptops, tablets and smartphones, fans at home can watch multiple games on Sunday while simultaneously checking their fantasy rosters and celebrating (or taunting) friends via text. So when the owners of the San Francisco 49ers drew up plans for the team's new $1.3 billion stadium, they tapped the ingenuity surrounding their Silicon Valley home.
The result? Levi's Stadium is home to the first mobile app designed to enhance every aspect of a fan's stadium experience, from steering fans to their parking spots to identifying the least-crowded restrooms. No more waiting in line for a $10 beer and $6 hot dog. During the game, fans can order food and drinks that can be delivered directly to their seats or picked up at express windows. Don't agree with that call? Use the app to watch instant replays from four camera angles.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak says he saw the app's potential as soon as he downloaded it for the 49ers' Sept. 14 regular-season opener.
"Everybody's connection to the outside world now really is their phone, so that has to become part of the (game-day) experience," he said.
Mike Roberts of Martinez, California, appreciated being able to order popcorn from his seat for pickup at an express window with no lines.
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"Everyone living around here is pretty tech savvy," notes Roberts, "so this is the perfect place to try something like this."
The app will ask fans if they want to order food and drinks at certain times during the game, depending on past behavior patterns. And Levi's Stadium greeters now can welcome fans by name after scanning their digital tickets at the gate. Ultimately, the 49ers hope to profit from the digital capabilities by eliminating ticket printing costs and ringing up more concession sales as the team gains a better understanding of fans' individual preferences.
The personal analysis mirrors what Google, Facebook and thousands of other mobile apps have been capitalizing on for years. Such surveillance doesn't bother 49er season-ticket holder Ron Johnson of San Francisco — as long as the app delivers on its promise to learn what he likes.
"I would much rather that they have some idea of what I want to buy so they can put that stuff front and center for me, as opposed to showing me things that I would never purchase," Johnson says.
Although some of the planned features aren't yet complete, roughly one-third of the sold-out crowds at the 49ers' first two regular-season games have used the app in some way. Levi's Stadium is now a massive laboratory that can test technology's ability to change the way large crowds experience athletic events, concerts and possibly even political conventions. If 49ers' CEO Jed York's vision pans out, venues across the U.S. will become as smart as the phones fans tote.
"We think this is going to be the forebear of everything else that comes to stadiums," says York.
The app and its underlying technology were developed by VenueNext, a startup backed by a venture capital fund financed by York and other members of 49ers' management team. York declined to disclose how much money has been invested in VenueNext, but the 49ers so far have spent about $125 million on the stadium's technology, including a Wi-Fi network capable of keeping up to 70,000 fans online so their movements and desires can be tracked.
Roughly two-thirds of the NFL's 31 stadiums are already wired for online access and the league wants all of them to provide free Wi-Fi by the 2016 season. The Wi-Fi goal is part of a league-wide push to give fans more reasons to attend games, not stay home.
"Our competition is the couch," says VenueNext founder John Paul.
Other sports teams and concert promoters do offer apps to make their events more convenient and enjoyable. Typically though, those services have been offered in piecemeal fashion: Fans might need one app to order food and another to find their way around. VenueNext is hoping to license its single-app system to other stadiums and arenas. The Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings already have expressed interest as they build new stadiums, says Paul. VenueNext's system could be useful at convention centers and "wherever you have got a lot of people congregated together for a major event," says longtime technology analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.
Anthony Dolezal of Lyons, Illinois, agrees that stadiums need better technology to keep people coming back. Were it not for a free ticket, he wouldn't have come to Soldier's Field for the Chicago Bears last Sunday.
"I would rather sit at home with my 52-inch TV, with my computer right there, a second TV I can move in and be able to see everything," Dolezal said.
The average ticket to a 49ers game at Levi's costs $117, second only to the $122 average for the New England Patriots. Including concessions, a family of four will spend an average of $641.50 at a 49ers game, the highest in the NFL, according to consulting firm Team Marketing Report.
At those prices, longtime 49er fan Cheryl Brandon of Mill Valley, California, appreciates the ability to order food from her seat so she won't miss a single play.
"I feel like if I came all this way to go to a game, I would like to be able to watch it," Brandon said.