Building a Connected Stadium for Deeper Insights and Greater Fan Experiences
When it comes to sporting events and live entertainment, network technology has changed the name of the game. Connected stadiums integrating high-speed wired and wireless connectivity give fans new ways to enjoy their game-day and concert experiences. Intelligent infrastructure has transformed how fans enter and exit venues and order concessions, and it has even changed what they see on stadium screens.
On top of building smart stadiums, sports leagues and teams have launched online properties and built communities that connect them to new and existing fans. Apps and mobile websites provide up-to-the-minute game results, season and player statistics, exclusive promotional offers, invitations to special fan-only events, and even in-stadium augmented reality experiences. Sports lovers can interact with their favourite teams on and off the field and enjoy immersive interactive experiences wherever they are.
Revamping the Stadium Experience
I work for AS Trenčín, a football club in the Slovak Super Liga, our country’s top-level league. As our Marketing and Sales Manager, I promote our team at the local, national, and international levels. Trenčín is a small market with 60,000 inhabitants, and the only way to grow our fanbase and fill the stands at our matches is to attract football lovers from outside the region.
A few years ago, we began an ambitious project to reconstruct our stadium to make a state-of-the-art facility. From its inception, we designed our new stadium with connectivity in mind. We wanted to improve the fan experience with paperless tickets and cashless payments. We aspired to let fans order food and drink from their seats using mobile devices, and designed interactive activities like polls to further enhance their enjoyment of the game. We also wanted to collect data to better gauge how much fans enjoyed their game-day experience.
In addition to building Slovakia’s first cashless stadium, we also wanted to track visitors’ spending patterns and movements in the stadium. How much are they spending on concessions? What are the best-selling food items and souvenirs? When are they leaving their seats, and where are they going? How long are they gone before they return?
These improvements were necessary to reach fans outside of our typical demographic. We’d be opening the doors to fans who might not have otherwise watched our club play, which meant we needed to offer them more than just sport. In the process, we could also improve how our stadium operates on a business level.
Asking the Right Questions and Finding the Right Partner
To build a completely connected stadium, we needed a partner who could implement our vision using world-class technology. We started by visiting other stadiums to see how other teams used technology to enhance the fan experience.
Early on, we realised the best match for this project was our long-time IT solutions provider and sponsor, tnTEL. AS Trenčín has relied on tnTEL’s expertise for over a decade. More importantly, tnTEL built part of the IT infrastructure at a smaller football stadium in the neighbouring city of Trnava. Buoyed by this experience, the company’s engineers were eager to tackle an even bigger challenge: designing and coordinating every aspect of a stadium’s IT infrastructure, including 5G connectivity, a smart electric grid, and even our site security and fire safety systems.
Creating the Backbone of Our Connected Stadium
Rolling out a high-density stadium wireless network required our partner tnTEL to first plan and understand our wireless requirements. Planning helped reduce the need for further site surveys and AP movement post-installation. After discovering the areas that needed to be covered, they looked at the cabling constraints, supported technologies, and applications, and also predicted the number of devices we’d need to support. With all of that, they provided an estimated number of APs to meet all throughput and bandwidth requirements, as well as positioning of the APs.
After the planning phase, we tasked tnTEL to find the best technologies to make our connected stadium a reality. Tomáš Kútny and his team recommended Cisco as the vendor with the most extensive portfolio of products to meet our needs. Specifically, they urged us to adopt the Cisco Catalyst range of wired and wireless solutions.
The Cisco Catalyst wireless solution was selected as the best match, together with their stadium antennas. The Cisco Catalyst 9120 Access Point and the Catalyst 9800 series wireless controllers use Wi-Fi 6 technology. The result is faster speed, lower latency, stronger security, increased density, and advanced connectivity, including BLE/IoT functionality for devices like cameras and cashless sales terminals. These wireless access points and switches provide a secure 10-Gigabit backbone that allow us to fully engage stadium visitors while leaving plenty of room for future expansion.
We paired these solutions with Cisco stadium antennas, which provide narrow 30 coverage cells, optimized for stadium services and reliable fan access and engagement. After the installation, the site survey proved the stability of the solution.
The Power of Wi-Fi 6
With the Wi-Fi 6 solution from Cisco, we are now confident we can provide reliable, always-on connectivity with dramatically better performance and overall experience for the visitors. Wi-Fi 6 provides not only better speeds, but together with Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Multiuser Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO), it increases capacity—allowing the connection of up to four times more devices than under previous standards. As a bonus, the new Wi-fi 6 introduces Target Wake Time (TWT), improving power consumption and efficiency of the end devices.
All of this means fans can access stadium apps, ticketing systems, and share rich video content—all of which contribute to a compelling experience.
The brand new Catalyst 9120 AP running RF ASIC was awarded as the Best Enterprise Wi-Fi Network Technology. Together with the 9800 series controllers, we can monitor and analyze the wireless spectrum, mitigate the impact of wireless interference, and protect the performance of the access points. Cisco Wireless Intrusion Prevention System (wIPS) will help us to detect, locate, and mitigate any wired and wireless rogues and threats through Layer 1 to Layer 3.
This robust wireless infrastructure has also enabled the option to implement location analytics in the future, so we can better identify stadium bottlenecks, and effectively plan events in the venue.
A Few Early Wins with Fan Experience
Our new connected stadium project is still underway, but we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve completed the installation of the Cisco infrastructure on the east and west tribunes behind the home and visitor goals. We opened these two sections, which can accommodate 4,000 visitors. However, we are operating at 25% capacity due to pandemic restrictions.
Even though we have only welcomed 1,000 fans at a time to our home games, these fans are already starting to feel the improvements. Pandemic safety protocols prevent us from operating our food concessions during partial lockdowns. Still, our merchandise stands, cashless systems, scoreboards, and camera systems all run on Cisco technology, providing a wealth of new services and experiences. We have launched an AS Trenčín smart card that enables fans to make cashless purchases and an app that keeps fans in constant communication with the team.
We use these new tools to simultaneously attract fans back to the stadium and promote public health. We recently ran a promotion offering a free AS Trenčín jersey to season ticket holders over 50 years old who supplied proof of vaccination. It was our way of countering vaccine hesitancy amongst older fans. It was also an experiment in targeting specific segments of our fanbase.
Our connected stadium infrastructure, app, and smart card give us data that will drive future promotions and marketing partnerships. For example, we might announce that our beer sponsor will donate €1,000 to our youth squad if we sell 1,000 beers. We can keep a running tally during the game and let everyone know how many pints we’re shy of our target in real time. And having a beer for a good cause is just one idea to enhance the game experience.
Using Data to Unite People Through Sport
The next phase of the stadium project is already underway. The team at tnTEL is deploying Cisco technology in the north and south tribunes, including our VIP and skybox sections. We will also be rolling out a new parking system, more cashless points of sale, and further access control and security infrastructure. We are also building a media control room for live streams and television and radio broadcasts.
In the next few months, we hope to sign a deal with tnTEL to build a new data center using Cisco technology. In doing so, we hope to connect our administrative offices to our stadium and consolidate our infrastructure under a single vendor. Doing so will reduce complexity, lower costs, and streamline our operations. It will also improve how we collect and use data to make decisions regarding enhancements and new features to enhance the fan experience. Using Cisco solutions has enabled tnTEL to handle everything from Wi-Fi switching, firewalls, and the data center on the same technology with the same vendor.
I’m more than the team’s Marketing and Sales Manager—I’m a lover of this beautiful game. I look forward to completing construction and welcoming back fans at full capacity once the pandemic is over. After all, nothing unites people from different backgrounds better than sport. And nothing can connect a team to its fans better than Cisco.