Super Bowl 50 Has a Sweet App and Crazy-Fast Internet
Down on the field at Levi’s Stadium, the Packers and 49ers are doing battle. It’s a sticky October Sunday and too early in the season for Niners fans to have given up, so the crowd of 70,799 is buzzing. But John Paul (everybody calls him JP) isn’t watching the game. Instead, VenueNext’s gray-haired and affable founder-CEO is standing in front of an array of televisions on a wall in a conference room high above the field, staring intently.
All over the stadium, thousands of people are using an app his team built. They’re using it to scan their tickets into the game, using funky kiosks VenueNext also built. They’re using it to find their way through the stadium to their seats. They’re ordering hot dogs and foam fingers, and having them delivered to their laps. They’re watching replays. They’re ordering another beer, barkeep. And Paul is watching it all happen live. Well, not literally. He’s not looking at the cameras stationed all over the building. He’s watching the charts and graphs.
The VenueNext team has been working on Levi’s Stadium since well before it opened. The stadium team actually came to Paul, hiring him as a consultant to help them add some high-tech flair to the building. Together they made a list of 600 things they could do—most of them ridiculous—and starting working to build a back end that would hold up to everything. They outfitted the in-stadium Wi-Fi to send 40 gigabits up and down, which is among the most impressive you’ll find anywhere. They installed 2,000 beacons throughout the place. They built an app for the stadium that is designed to serve as the entry point for everything you do when you’re there to see a game, catch a show, whatever. Then they realized they were onto something bigger than just the 49ers. This was VenueNext’s first project, but now it has many others—in sports, in hotels, and eventually in cities. “VenueNext was the first one to formalize it as a service for the entire industry,” says Tim Bajarin, president of research firm Creative Strategies. “Once they did this project, they began to realize—this thing could scale.”
This day in October is important to Paul, but he sees the entire season as something of a beta test. The real show comes in February, when Levi’s Stadium hosts Super Bowl 50. “This is a chance for the world to see what we do here,” Paul says. If they nail it on Super Bowl weekend, he’ll carry a pretty big stick into their sales meetings. “When a future customer is thinking about should they work with us or not, knowing that it worked for the Super Bowl … it’ll work for us.”
Before all that, though, Paul is hoping the NFL’s mighty marketing arm will convince more people to download the app. At most 49ers games this season, only about 30 percent of the crowd used the app. It’s hard for him to do much for you if you don’t use his app.
There’s an app for that
I opened the Levi’s Stadium app for the second time as I pulled into the parking lot an hour or so before gametime. (The first time was to make sure my ticket was in there.) I held up my phone to the attendant, who scanned the pass and waved me on. Phone still in hand, I approached the gate at the Intel Plaza. As I walked through, I scanned a QR code on a so-called “kezar” pylon to check in. Eventually, Paul says, you won’t even need to do that—it’ll use Bluetooth to check you in as you walk. In front of me is a Jumbotron-like screen displaying an ever-changing array of hashtagged photos snapped by people at the game. The app tells the board when you’re walking by, the board searches social media for the hashtagged photo and projects it on the screen. Well, in theory. My selfie didn’t make the cut. It’s all kind of creepy, but fans seem to love it.
There are three parts of a stadium experience—getting there, being there, and leaving there—and VenueNext is involved in all of them. Using the beacons seemingly mounted on every other pillar throughout the stadium, the app provides super-detailed directions to your seat. “Turn left in 87 feet,” it’ll tell you. Once you’re seated, VenueNext would rather you just stay seated. And why wouldn’t you? You can order food and drinks and have one of 250 runners stationed throughout the stadium bring your grilled nopales torta (No, really. They sell those.) directly to your seat. Paul brags that nobody’s ever done anything like that before, and that he can get you a hot dog (or torta) in six minutes flat. Again, not that it worked for me—I got a notification that said the runners near me were overloaded and directed me to an express pickup line instead. (Which to be fair, was super-fast: I stared at a mega-line of people who didn’t use the app and thus had to wait to order and buy food, while I skipped to the front and picked up my preordered burger.)
Think of it like this: VenueNext’s job is to think about everything except what’s happening on the field. Sure, there’s a replay feature that shows you the last play a few seconds after it ends, and some in-game stats, but nobody really uses them. The app is for dealing with all the other things, the little inefficiencies you might never even notice otherwise. Seriously, all of them: There are attendants walking around and designating bathroom lines either green, yellow, or red. Inside the command center, VenueNext knows where every hot dog, soda, and chicken finger is, and can route things around the stadium as needed. (Paul muses at one point about setting up micro-kitchens all over the stadium someday, instead of needing concession stands at all.) They can use push notifications to manage demand—a flash sale will clear out almost-stale buns in a hurry, and a warning in the app will keep people out of too-long lines. They want asses in seats, bottom line. (Pun intended.)
The whole thing’s also a money-making scheme, of course. By offering in-seat delivery (or at worst, that express pickup line for in-app orders), they incentivize fans to eat more. Same with purchasing merchandise. Every stadium wants you inside, and they want you spending—every second you’re waiting in line for the bathroom is money flushed down the toilet. But you can’t really fault the stadium for wanting to get fans their beer more quickly. That’s exactly what fans want, too.
The big game
Super Bowl 50 has its own app, separate from the Levi’s Stadium one. It includes most, but not all, of the features VenueNext can offer. The NFL decided not to do mobile ticketing, for instance, since Super Bowl tickets tend to be cool memorabilia and screenshots don’t have quite the same effect. And while fans will be able to order drinks to their seats, they can’t get food delivered. “They wanted to make sure that everyone had a great experience, and they were a little bit nervous that everyone orders and it takes too long,” JP says.
There are also going to be a couple of new features for in-house viewers, too. For one thing, you’ll be able to use the app to watch commercials as they air on television—this is the one time when more ads is a good thing. There are also going to be a couple of cameras roaming around looking for celebrities, and the feed will come live to the app. Both features bring a little of the TV magic to the live experience, which Paul is excited about. “The Super Bowl is a football event,” he says, “but it’s also a cultural event.”
VenueNext isn’t a football company—it’s not even a sports company. Its whole appeal is that its technology can work just about anywhere you’ve got fast Wi-Fi and a crowd. “All these venues are starting to think about the districts around them,” Paul says. “How do you expand the venue to the neighborhood?” They’re talking to hotels, hospitals, universities, and more. Just imagine how powerful it would be get walking directions indoors, and an easy way to get anything you need, in any unfamiliar place. That’s Paul’s big idea.
No two venues will want the same thing, which Bajarin says works in VenueNext’s favor. “VenueNext can come to them with a Chinese menu of services they can create, and the IT guy and services guy at every stadium” can decided what they want, he says. For example: They’re working in Amway Arena with the NBA’s Orlando Magic, who have adopted a rather cool loyalty program called Magic Money that lets fans earn loyalty points for coming to games and buying stuff, and then use those points to come to more games and buy more stuff. “Something like 70 percent of food and beverage that’s being sold at Amway,” Paul says, “is being paid for with Magic Money.” The Magic got people to download the app by using it to engineer a light show at the beginning of every game—everyone’s app syncs to the music and becomes part of the pregame show. “They get the app, and now they know they can order food.”
VenueNext gets its big test Sunday. The company predicts this will be the most people, using the most data, in its history. (A Taylor Swift concert from August currently holds the record.) While everyone else watches the Broncos, Panthers, and Coldplay, Paul will spend most of his day standing at screens in that conference room, watching numbers tick and charts move. He’ll make sure replays are ready before people pull out their phones. He’ll make phone calls wondering why a concession stand is taking 20 minutes to deliver food. He’ll see the hopeful fans with fake tickets turned away at the gate. He’ll follow some 70,000 people as they get to the game, move around it, eat themselves into a coma, and then stumble out into the Santa Clara night. And then he’ll dig into the hot dog bun stats.
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