When Terry Kalna thinks about the hockey game of the future, he envisions a fan who never has to worry about finding a parking spot or waiting in line. In fact, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ senior vice-president of sales and broadcasting just wants you to stroll in the door, mobile phone in hand. There’s already a parking spot reserved for you and, at 8:05, four hot dogs will be ready and waiting at a certain concession stand. “No lines, none of that hassle,” he said. “Completely automated, barrier-free. We want to take all the anxiety out of the experience.”
Mobile apps and beacon technology are at the forefront of the fan experience that is just now being realized by sports franchises. Beacon technology allows fans to “check in” to the arena using their phone, which means no more tickets – you just walk past electronic markers that would identify you (a security guard would be present for those who try to slip through on the sly). From there, it’s all about value-added experiences. “If I’m a vegetarian, maybe there’s a special offer on concessions,” said Susan Kohig, the NHL’s senior vice-president of business affairs. “Or if I’m a Jonathan Quick fan, there may be a deal on merchandise.”
In Nashville, the Predators make it a point to constantly renovate Bridgestone Arena. One reason is to keep fans impressed (right now, doors are being ripped out and seats replaced), while also reinforcing the entertainment side through murals of a Shea Weber hit or Pekka Rinne save. “We’re a sport of memories,” said president and chief operating officer Sean Henry. “We want those memories in your face.”
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the Wifi system put in place two years ago. Since so much of the future will be dependent on signal, Bridgestone Arena is now wired to handle 35,000 fans. That’s better than arena big. That’s stadium big. Fans who download the Smashville app on their mobile devices will reap the benefits. With that same beacon technology, fans can get rewards when they pass different parts of the arena or be privy to special media features. For example, the Preds have a series called Beneath the Ice, which is similar to HBO’s 24/7 series. During a pre-game skate, fans can be prompted to watch Filip Forsberg carpooling with fellow Swedish teammate Mattias Ekholm, or James Neal cooking for (now former teammate) Rich Clune, on their phone. Back in Pittsburgh, Kalna is musing about how Pens fans can get even more out of their Consol Energy Center experience. Could heat maps be used to determine how long the bathroom lines are and when an optimal time to go would be? And what kind of traffic algorithms are out there so fans don’t feel the need to leave as soon as an empty-net goal goes in? What really excites him is access. Kalna comes from a NASCAR background and wants to translate that in-car experience to hockey. “Everybody wonders what’s going on in that dressing room,” he said. “We’re five, 10 years away from there not being a secret in the room.” That sort of behind-the-scenes 24/7 access is the next frontier, where audio and video are everywhere, and it’s up to the fans on their phones – or perhaps some sort of Google Glass headset – to determine what they can access during the game. “Do I want the Sidney Crosby iso-cam tonight?” Kalna said. “Do I want home team bench audio? You pick your experience and adjust as you go.” Yinzcam is a Pittsburgh-based company that already works in this custom media field. Used in Pittsburgh and other NHL markets such as Calgary, Detroit and Colorado, it enables fans to view instant replays on their phones and also traffics in beacon technology. In Nashville, Henry wants “driveway to driveway engagement.” The Preds have a downtown arena in a fun stretch of the city packed with restaurants, bars and live music venues. In the future, beacon technology starts well before game time, engaging fans en route to the arena. “It’s a high-energy walk,” Henry said. “In past years, we haven’t taken advantage of that.” Some of the best ideas for the future are still being incubated. The Penguins have teamed up with the Pittsburgh Technology Council to create a competition for inventors, business folks and engineers to come up with new stuff, and the contenders were being reviewed and whittled down this summer. Ironically, some other improvements being suggested by season ticket holders are decidedly low-tech: more food and beverage options, more clocks to show when the period is about to start and a reinforcement of fan etiquette standards. Even this gets rolled in to the bigger picture of where the game is headed. “It’s about giving ownership to the fans,” Henry said. “Whether it’s giving them information or just answering questions.” And having Shea Weber welcome you to the building via your phone would be pretty neat, too.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.