As the concrete-and-steel behemoth that is the new stadium overtakes the eastern end of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, a similarly ambitious Minnesota Vikings executive team is building a technological marvel of programming that aims to thrill ticket holders on game days.
“We’ve been talking a lot about the venue,” director of new stadium partnerships John Penhollow said of the Vikings’ $1 billion new house. “One of the things we learned early on is that’s not where the fan experience starts.”
For fans, game day begins when they pull out of their driveways. The Vikings will meet them there — at least in cyberspace. An app will provide traffic conditions, parking availability and directions to the least-congested stadium entrances. Then, as the fan’s feet hit the plaza, the pregame warm-up will end and a splashy gameday experience will begin.
All pro sports teams — especially the Vikings, as they build a pricey new stadium — want to give fans more than they can get at home. They want fans to abandon their comfy couches, stocked home refrigerators and high-tech home entertainment systems for the stadium experience.
At the heart of the Vikings’ gameday fan plan is the concept of connectivity — to the Vikings’ brand, the players, each other. Team executives are deep into the work that experts say must be carefully tailored to the brand and the region, or risk leaving fans cold — or worse, bored.
Last week, workers at the stadium site laid pipe and hoisted screens that are part of that effort. And on Friday, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Administration approved an additional team contribution of $14 million, nearly all of which will go to add 1,200 screens at the stadium to the original 800.
A Vikings executive crew is also working on the new apps, social media engagement, charging-station locations, concessions options and programming aimed at beguiling fans — and getting them to fork over more money than ever.
“At the end of the day when people leave the stadium, you want them to go, ‘That was an amazing time,’ ” said Brian Cheek, business development director at Postano, a Portland, Ore., company that designs social media platforms for sporting events and teams, including the recently run Kentucky Derby, the Wells Fargo golf championship and the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings.
‘We’ve built the pipe’
The backbone of the modern game day begins with a “powerful, robust neutral host” to serve all electronic devices brought in by fans, regardless of their phone service carriers.
Penhollow said the stadium will have enough Wi-Fi capacity to accommodate all 65,000 fans on their devices at one time, although the expectation is that actual use will hover at about half of the crowd.
“We’ve built the pipe; there’s no excuse for us not to deliver the content,” he said.
Providing the unique in-house content will be a huge stable of high-tech cameras able to capture any angle on the field and zoom into a player’s toes or a blade of grass.
One lesson learned from the 49ers’ first year in their high-tech stadium: Fans want more than replays, and they want to know more about the players and the plays, Penhollow said.
“We’re now going to finally be able to show a different kind of content,” he said.
While couch cowboys at home watch commercials, Penhollow said the in-house stadium broadcasts can spend more time breaking down replays from different angles. The Vikings will be able to interact with and pump up ticket-holders and advertise like never before.
Cheek said fan interaction is critical, especially with social media. “There’s no doubt that a more engaged fan is going to spend more money and go to more games,” he said.
Fantasy football heaven
In the stadium technological arms race, there’s always the question of who has the biggest screen. In the NFL, that would be the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Vikings’ screens won’t be as big as Dallas’, nor will they be as a high — a strategic decision to keep the boards closer to the field so fans have to move only their eyes, not their bodies, to see the displays.
Big as they are, those are but two of 2,000 screens that will include a massive fantasy football board above the field.
That’s over a designated ticketholder-only fantasy seating area for those who want a more intensive experience, with a live host highlighting action around the league. “The time we commit, the resources we commit to fantasy, just hasn’t been done yet,” Penhollow said.
Then there’s the fan’s smartphone screen, with the potential to do everything from carrying a game ticket to ordering chicken wings so they’re waiting at the window, steering a fan away from a crowded restroom and providing directions to the closest beer vendor selling an autumn ale.
“You can hit order, hit purchase, go up, pick up your food and sit down,” Penhollow said. “Or we can push a notification to you of a coupon for nachos and soft drinks.”
The team isn’t ready to go to e-tickets yet, although they would allow more personalization, including seat upgrades for dedicated fans.
Smartphones will also help the team track fan movement so adjustments can be made. “Of course it’s going to be for the fan experience, but it’s also going to help us operationally,” Penhollow said.
A smooth operation translates into more revenue, Cheek said. “Anytime you can make anything easier, the propensity to spend increases,” he said, giving the example of L.A. Kings fans being able to order a customized team jersey and have it delivered to their seat.
Live play or app play?
All the special effects come with a caveat.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts, said sports teams are “walking a fine line” with their apps and technology, because they also want fans to watch the game and participate in the “exhilarating” ritual of being part of a public event.
“At a game, you have multiple opportunities where you’re turning around and high-fiving people you don’t even know. That’s a kind of enjoyment people don’t often get in our society,” he said. “It’s problematic if you have all these apps people are playing.”
Said Penhollow: “We definitely don’t want you staring at your phone during the game, but when you do look at your phone, we want to make sure you get what you need.”