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Why the Sports Industry Could Include the First 5G Beneficiaries

As consumers continue to wrap their heads around 5G, sports might be one of the first industries to benefit from next-generation networking capabilities.

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Photo credit: Sacramento Kings

As consumers continue to wrap their heads around what 5G will mean to everyday life, sports might be one of the first industries to benefit from the next-generation networking capabilities.

Verizon’s deployment of 5G networks is currently underway, including four cities for home consumer broadband product. The Verizon deployment includes Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, where the NBA’s Sacramento Kings are helping exemplify how sports organizations can fully embrace technological changes.

“We’re always trying to disrupt ourselves before we’re disrupted,” said Ryan Montoya, the Kings’ chief technology officer. “We want to use that tech to ensure we deliver the best fan experience.”

The rollout of 5G by network providers will still take some time, but preparations are well underway.

Broad, citywide home use deployment is important to Verizon, but the technology does lend itself to point deployment in venues like Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, said Nicki Palmer, Verizon’s chief networking officer.

READ MORE: Immersive Media’s Infancy Creates Industry Opportunities

Consumers will be able to use 5G, as phones with the capability begin to roll out in the first quarter of this year — with brands like Motorola and Samsung being early adopters. It will still be several years still before the full effects of 5G capabilities are realized, Palmer said.

“5G is really a generational leap in technology,” Palmer said. “We talk about it ushering in the fourth industrial revolution, when you couple it with some other technologies like AI and big statistical analytics and intense infrastructure. You can see we’re on the verge of something entirely different.”

To help demonstrate the jumps to the unknown, Palmer brought up the existence of Uber, which wouldn’t be possible without the jump in speeds from 3G to 4G at the beginning of the decade.

While Palmer cited many industries that will benefit from the massive leap in speeds and low latency, she said dreaming about sports applications is among the most fun, from at-home viewing to in-arena experiences.

“Sports is a great use case,” Palmer said. “We’re building the networks and we know the innovation will happen.”

Viewing Experience

Yahoo Sports General Manager Geoff Reiss said it’s already the “age of the jetpack” for sports media at a panel at CES. Like jetpacks, 5G’s influence on sports media will be helping provide fans experiences they want but can’t have yet.

“The ability to amass crazy, never-before-seen experiences, it does seem like we’re at that jetpack phase,” Reiss said. “The next generation is starting close to home. The first iPod didn’t create my demand to have music. I always wanted my music; it enabled something I always wished I could do.”

Today’s 4K TVs need a broadband connection, but Palmer said with 5G capabilities, the resolution possibilities move to fingertips and begin the conversation of complex holographic content. Palmer mentioned the real-time capabilities of 5G by talking about an experiment with players standing on a free-throw line, wearing VR goggles and making shots.

What media companies are doing to prepare for future broadcast capabilities, including Yahoo, are still under wraps as they build proofs of concept, but Reiss said there is a paradigm shift coming and future broadcast rights negotiations in 2021-23 will likely account for new mediums.

“It is really hard, but that’s part of the competitive advantage,” he said. “It being hard creates a barrier of entry. This is a massive undertaking and it fundamentally will reshape how fans consume sports.”

Fans can also be connected to an in-arena experience at home through the VR headsets. The Kings ran a trial with students in Mumbai, allowing them to virtually sit courtside.

“We’ve always wanted to figure out how to connect fans to each other, but the city and the world,” Montoya said.

In-Arena Experience

As the line between virtual and physical world continues to blur, the physical attendance of games will change too.

Montoya believes it will be 18-to-24 months before fans start really entering the arena with fully capable 5G devices, but the Kings organization wants to be ahead of the curve. 

“Just think about all the elements you can bring into the game that don’t exist yet,” Montoya said. “In-game betting, hearing multiple audio feeds, seeing real-time biometrics. You’re going to see all these apps and platforms we can’t comprehend yet.”

The Golden 1 Center has more than 1,000 miles of cable power, connected to the internet with 200 gigabits-per-second pipeline, more than a 1,000 beacons and sensors, the world’s largest indoor video board and its own Tier 4 data center.

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The Kings have laid out the technology to provide lightning-fast speeds and low latency, so they are now waiting for people to connect to it and create the applications to fully utilize it. Technology’s effect on fan experience is far beyond viewing the game and gamification, but also easing friction points. Improvements like smart turnstiles help increase fan entrance up to 1,000 per hour, up from the 300 per hour from handheld scanners.

“From the moment they wake up to the coming into parking and the facility, we want to remove all those friction points,” Montoya said, adding the organization is already looking at how autonomous vehicles will interact with the facility.

Verizon’s Palmer imagines having personal tablets to call up multiple replay angles and real-time data aside from what’s on the big monitors. The tablets could also create peer-to-peer gamification within arenas, whether for fun or moment-by-moment betting.

Kings’ representatives have already talked to more than 300 organizations from across the globe.

“We’ve definitely created the blueprint,” Montoya said. “I can see some of the new venues incorporating some of our thought processes.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

Fan Experience

AXS’s Ticketing Technology Helping Empower Teams’ Sales Strategies

AXS Senior Vice President Brian Peunic has seen teams improve the purchasing process for fans by using data to tailor their sales strategies.

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Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The ticketing market is long past the days of ticket scalpers lining outside stadiums, hocking tickets before game time. In today’s resale market, professional sports teams have the power of ticketing in their own hands, controlling their primary and secondary marketplaces.

One of the main players in this specialized ticketing technology space is AXS, with AXS and its competitors allowing teams to now use data to better understand their fans and season ticket-holders, both of which are commonly referred to as “members” today.

Brian Peunic, SVP of the sports division at AXS, has watched the development in the industry throughout the course of his career. He’s seen the retail market transform away from the street corner, where the risk of acquiring an illegitimate ticket was constant.

“What’s happened over time is technology has really driven out the small players, the street corner scalpers,” Peunic says. “There is a sophistication that has come along with this and also the injection of well-financed individuals really monetizing the space and taking it out of the shadows and bringing it into the big business format.”

Using the AXS platform to buy tickets, fans can ensure tickets are legitimate and no longer need to worry about being turned away at the gate due to an unlucky purchase outside the stadium.

Upon selecting a ticket, AXS assigns every buyer a unique fan ID, ensuring the security of the ticket through an algorithmic barcode that changes every 60 seconds. This digital ID has opened up new possibilities for teams.

“We’ve unlocked the ability for teams to have their own secondary marketplaces, their own fan-to-fan exchanges with their customers and clientele, so they know their ticket buyers are buying from an authenticated, valid source for their tickets,” explains Peunic.

By taking the marketplace into their own hands, teams are able to improve data collection methods, which allow them to better understand fans and tailor marketing and sales strategies accordingly.

AXS’ digital ID unlocks what Peunic calls a “digital bread crumb” from ticket to ticket, helping the team track its path from season ticket member or broker to resale purchaser.

Many teams have brought in full-time data scientists to help understand the movement of tickets from fan to fan, mining the data collected on AXS platforms to help drive future marketing and fan engagement strategies.

READ MORE: Mobile Ticketing Helps Power Fan Engagement for Tampa Bay Lightning

Insights gained from this data has been used to help engage with members, helping ticketing departments understand how best to engage with them in the offseason. This has turned jobs in marketing and ticketing into year-round roles.

“There’s the regular season, then you’re working on a renewal play, then you’re working on the draft,” Peunic says. “[In the past] you might have been able to take a break in July and go on vacation, but if you’re on a sports team, now you’re working 24/7, 365 [days]. The timeframe dynamics have changed considerably.”

Along with helping increase security and creating new touchpoints for data collection, AXS is helping improve the purchasing experience for fans by streamlining unsold and resale tickets into the marketplace.

Released last year, the technology surfaces both primary and secondary tickets into the same database, so when fans are looking to purchase, they see all available tickets rather than having to search on two different sites.

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

“We give you the opportunity to have commingled flow because there could be one single ticket that no one wanted to buy in the front row right next to resale tickets,” Peunic said.

While prices may differ between the two tickets depending on the cost assigned by the seller, it gives fans more flexibility and choice than ever before. Going forward, fans can expect teams to continue to work to streamline the sales process through increased flexibility and understanding of fan preferences.

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Fan Experience

How the Nationals Off-Field Programming Drives New Fans to the Ballpark

With events like “Bourbon and Baseball” and “Bubbles and Baseball,” the Washington Nationals turn to experiential pregame programming to help attract fans.

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Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are pouring plenty of whiskey to attract fans to Nationals Park.

Last week, the Nationals hosted “Bourbon and Baseball,” just one of several drinks-related pregame events to bring fans, new and old, to the ballpark. It was the second “Bourbon and Baseball” event, with the first coming last September. There will be two more similar events this season, “Scotch and Baseball” on July 22 and “Bubbles and Baseball” on September 28.

“It’s about looking at baseball in a different way,” says Jonathan Stahl, Washington Nationals vice president of ballpark operations and guest experience. “We have fans that come to the ballpark for the baseball atmosphere, but it’s not always the number one focus for their friends. It’s really about getting people with different interests out to the ballpark to try something new.”

Tickets included 12 tasting pours of whiskey prior to the game and baseline reserved seat. A special focus was placed on bringing in whiskies scarcely found at bars and restaurants. The event’s approximately 400 tickets sold out at $85 each.

The events are held within the Nationals Park conference center or weather permitting, outside.

“We really want to make sure it’s about the experience and they’re not waiting in lines for a long time,” Stahl says.

In April, USA Today reported overall MLB attendance in March-April was flat, with 12 teams welcoming fewer fans than a similar period last year. Despite the low attendance figures, MLB set record revenues in 2018, according to Forbes. The cause of that 4% drop in MLB attendance in 2018 is hard to pinpoint, but clubs like the Nationals are doing their best to keep fans interested during a lengthy slate of 81 home games.

READ MORE: Crawford Bock Brings Beer and Baseball Together for Astros

“We want to try to create experiences that bring our fans and new fans back to the ballpark over and over again,” Stahl says. “We also want to make sure the experience of the events are as great as the baseball game.”

The “Bourbon and Baseball” event was born out of a Nationals’ event last June, “Rosé All Gameday,” which turned out to be a learning experience for the franchise. This event was held in the stadium during a game, which Stahl said took away from the viewing experience a little too much.

The evolution and specialization of the food and beverage industry the past decade has left plenty of opportunities for integration within sports, especially when it comes to concessions. Stahl pointed toward the offerings at Nationals Park that allows fans from nearby Virginia and Maryland to try some well-reviewed D.C. restaurants at the game.

“You look at the beverage industry as a whole and how much it’s evolved the past decade, there’s just so many great local offerings,” Stahl says. “On the food front, we’ve been partnering with local restaurants since the ballpark opened and it’s allowed us to elevate the quality of food we have and allow fans to try the hot and trendy restaurants that might be inconvenient to them in everyday life.”

MLB has even capitalized on the growing love of local food with its MLB FoodFest, bringing together foods from all 30 teams in Los Angeles, New York and London.

Other teams across the country are heading toward the food world as well. The Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies hold Taco Truck Throwdown, which last year attracted more than 20,000 people over the two-day event, according to Team President Derek Franks. The Grizzlies started the event nine years ago and it has grown ever since. Currently, Taco Truck Throwdown starts the last day of a homestand, as they play as the Fresno Tacos, and it becomes a stand-alone event the second day.

“Taco Truck Throwdown is the biggest success for us sitting around talking about how to get people interested in coming to the ballpark and show in some cases, it’s creating an event where baseball is in the background,” Franks says. “A lot of our smaller successes are just mini versions of it.

“You watch people’s habits change and now people want interesting food, drinks and music. We’ve really had to tailor our promotions around those to make fun events.”

Minor League teams tend to be leaders in special events to help draw fans without the star power of MLB names.

“We’ve had a head start on having to get creative,” Franks says. “We’re starting to see Major League teams do more of what we’ve had to do all these years to keep fans interested because it’s a much different world.”

READ MORE: Minnesota United Keeps Concessions in The Neighborhood at Allianz Field

Beyond beverages, the Nationals are hosting events like this weekend’s Marvel Super Hero Day, which will feature Thor’s Short Rib Hammer, a bone-in 2.5-pound short rib, Hulk Nachos, an Iron Man-wich, and a Captain Zimmerman bobblehead giveaway.

Staying the food realm and building on their Washington, D.C., home, the Nationals host an annual Taste of the World event, where embassy chefs are invited to cook up cuisine from their home country for a pre-game tasting by fans. The team also launched an augmented reality scavenger hunt with player integration and redeemable offers with the goal of getting fans to experience new parts of the stadium.

“Those are family-friendly environments and it’s a really fun thing,” Stahl said. “Add those all up and we’re just trying to find unique ways to reach out.”

Whether it’s sipping some pregame bourbon or noshing on a superhero-themed hunk of meat during the action, teams are working to keep fans in the stands. At the very least, the Nationals will pour a whiskey for them.

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Fan Experience

Dodgers Continue Community Connection with Mexican Heritage Night

The Los Angeles Dodgers sold more than 20,000 Mexican Heritage Night tickets in the team’s latest effort to foster authentic community connections.

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Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers promotional team came prepared for this for this season’s Mexican Heritage Night — or so they thought. They created 15,000 special Dodgers jerseys adorned with the colors of the Mexican flag for giveaways, a number they presumed would be more than enough to service each fan who wanted one to snag one. Turns out, they were light,  as more than 20,000 ticket packages were sold for the night.

The giveaway jersey has green and red sleeves with the word “Dodgers” in green script, and was borne out of Dodgers employees spotting plenty of Mexico jerseys during the World Baseball Classic. So they married Mexico’s colors with the Dodgers brand. Rather than cut off the sales or leave fans empty-handed, the team issued vouchers and will ship out extras by July 31.

The success of this season’s Mexican Heritage Night has been years in the making and part of an “authentic community connection” the team has developed, said Erik Braverman, Dodgers senior vice president of marketing, broadcasting and communications.

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The “record-breaking” ticket package sales are in part known because Braverman said the Dodgers regularly offer their full-stadium promotions at 40,000 while other teams cap theirs around 20,000. Still, the 20,000 number was a shock to the Dodgers front office.

“I think it surprised all of us internally,” Braverman said. “We said, ‘Let’s throttle this and continue to promote it and see how wildly popular it gets.’ It was a pleasant surprise.”

Braverman said Dodger Stadium’s location and “what is widely recognized as the largest Mexican fanbase in baseball” both play into why the night was such a roaring success. But he believes a much bigger key is it’s not just a one-night play for a segment of the team’s fanbase. Other, more regular events include Viva Los Dodgers and Dia De Los Dodgers, the later of which includes a bobblehead that regularly runs out quickly.

“We recognize who our fans are,” Braverman said. “Did we take a night to celebrate? Absolutely. But it’s a year-round commitment to the community.”

Along with the giveaway, there was plenty of pre- and in-game celebration. Prior to the game, comedian and LA native Gabriel Iglesias threw out the first pitch, while Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez performed. During the game, Dodger great and current broadcaster Fernando Valenzuela was honored during the fourth inning legends video before being shown live from the broadcast booth.

“The reaction and the volume in the stadium reacting to that was pretty great,” Braverman said.

The current Dodgers team also features two key players with Mexican roots in pitcher Julio Urias and outfielder Alex Verdugo, which Braverman said helped make the night even more special.

The jersey, like the rest of the night’s activations, were a collaborative effort among the Dodgers’ marketing, community relations and in-game programming teams. Braverman said a part of the success in their promotional schedule is the diversity within the internal team, which helps make the games memorable and positive.

Later this month, the Dodgers will host the team’s annual LGBT Night and next month the team will host the 10th annual Filipino Night, with a similar jersey highlighted with the Filipino flag colors. Braverman expects record numbers that night as well.

READ MORE: How the Atlanta Hawks Are Growing a Winning Fanbase Through Love

“The formula comes back to the success we have on any special event or marketing initiative,” he said. “It’s because the Dodgers’ authentic commitment to the community. It’s a year-round effort, not just one night.”

For each of their events celebrating segments of their fanbase, Braverman said he hopes they stretch beyond that segment.

“What we’re finding is, as I walked around it’s not just Mexican fans, it’s fans of all different nationalities that wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to foster.”

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