CHICAGO TRIBUNE – Jeff Rifken never forgets to take his Palm hand-held to U.S. Cellular Field.
A White Sox season ticket holder, Rifken keeps score for every game on his personal digital assistant and saves them electronically, just as his father has done for years with paper scorecards.
But the 58-year-old attorney from Elgin, unlike his younger brother, has little interest in the greater capabilities of wireless high-speed Internet access that is offered in a growing number of stadiums, though not at U.S. Cellular or Wrigley Field.
Ned Rifken, a die-hard Cubs fan, said he would welcome being able to access the Internet while sitting in the stands.
“I get nervous if I don’t have it, so if I could go anywhere on the Web and stay connected, that would be great,” he said. “If it was incorporated into the game, I’d definitely use it.”
Sports fans like Ned Rifken are among the most sought-after segments in entertainment because they have few qualms about spending money on products for their favorite teams.
So the ability to view game highlights, instant replays and player statistics, order food and surf the Web is a way for sports teams to boost the fan experience and build new revenue streams.
Professional sports teams see dollars in offering Internet access and have started to deploy it in limited areas.
The Seattle Mariners, for instance, are installing Wi-Fi-enabled tablet PCs in luxury suites at Safeco Field. They can be used to order food and drinks, access interactive features on the baseball game and display PowerPoint presentations.
The idea is to encourage companies to use the suites for business as well as pleasure, said Rebecca Hale, director of public relations for the Mariners.
“You can conduct a meeting, show your presentation and transition into dinner and the game,” she said.
In San Francisco, the Giants have deployed wireless Internet access across SBC Park, turning into one of the world’s largest hot spots. Fans even can use Wi-Fi in the bathrooms and in McCovey Cove, a watery gathering area for small boats, rafts and kayaks beyond the right-field wall.
Fans connect via FreedomLink, which is a service provided free of charge this season by SBC Communications Inc. It’s the same service they launched last year in restaurants, hotels and other public places for $7.95 a day or $19.95 per month.
For SBC, the service serves as a vehicle to attract new customers.
“Our vision is to extend the broadband world beyond the home and the office, and SBC Park is a perfect fit,” said Lora Watts, president of SBC West.
“The killer app for someone like SBC is getting fans to convert from competitor services in other markets like cable,” said Rich Mayberry, chief executive of Florida-based Kosmo Studios Inc.
“If they can convert 3,000 fans to SBC broadband, that could be worth $1.5 million, far more than their investment.”
Kosmo creates interactive online content for professional teams to interact with fans, including the San Francisco Giants.
In the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks have gone wireless, and Purdue University in Indiana is the first college to provide the service, though other schools are experimenting with Wi-Fi.
Purdue installed a wireless network in Ross-Ade Stadium called e- Stadium. The system offers football fans real-time interactive features, such as scores from other games, player statistics and the ability to order food and beverages, through their PDAs.
The service at SBC Park can accommodate 2,000 users, though only a few hundred per game have taken advantage of the connection, said Bill Schlough, chief information officer for the Giants. He said the number of users has increased with each game.
The Giants are not offering advanced interactive features, but users can tap the network with their own devices.
For example, some fans will watch a Webcast of other baseball games on a laptop through a subscription to MLB.com, a service Major League Baseball recently launched. They also can send e-mails or post pictures from the game on the Web.
“We wanted to establish the infrastructure first to make sure it works,” Schlough said. “Ballparks are a bit more complicated than airports and hotels. It’s amazing how challenging it was to cover the entire ballpark.”
Which is something that poses a problem for other stadiums, including aging parks like Wrigley Field.
Wrigley was built in 1914 out of iron beams and concrete, said Karl Rice, director of information systems for the Cubs, which makes it tricky to use any wireless device.
“It’s not impossible,” he said. “But we’ve chosen to wait and evaluate what’s out there before jumping in.”
Cost is also a factor, since it can run hundreds of thousands of dollars to install the necessary infrastructure.
Mayberry said the cost to “light up” a stadium eventually will fall below $50,000 as the technology matures. But until then, teams will be scrambling to find sponsorships to help spread the cost.
A different model
One start-up company in St. Louis has a different business model that works for stadiums that don’t have the money to invest in wireless infrastructure.
Vivid Sky LLC is offering to cover the cost of installing and maintaining a wireless network. And instead of relying on customers to bring their own devices, Vivid Sky will rent PDAs. They will share the rental fee with the stadium.
Vivid Sky would make money on paid content and advertising.
“It’s a plan for the people who don’t feel comfortable bringing in their own devices,” said company President Tim Hayden. The company does not have a client yet, but Hayden said they were close to signing some deals.
His company is trying to avoid the mistakes made by ChoiceSeats Inc.
ChoiceSeats was among the first vendors of interactive sports technology. In the late ’90s, the company installed 10-inch touch screens into the seatbacks at Madison Square Garden and for Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. The service offered concession ordering and instant replays on demand, which fans seemed to like.
But there were many problems. They included unreliable software, fragile screens and high installation costs, since each unit had to be physically wired into the seat. The high cost eventually sunk the company, as the investment could not be recovered by any reasonable increase in ticket prices.
Future in phones
Hayden said Vivid Sky doesn’t plan to rent hardware forever, just long enough to fill a need that more-sophisticated wireless phones eventually will handle. He said people today will use PDAs and laptops to access stadium hot spots, but those devices can be cumbersome.
“Everyone already carries cell phones, so [one day] they will use them to do everything that PDAs do today,” Hayden said.
Gerry Purdy, an analyst at Mobile Trax, agreed and said wireless deployments at sports venues will coincide with the development of Wi-Fi-enabled cell phone handsets.
“Once that happens, everything will change.”