NFL Drafts APIs Into Action for 2014 Playoffs

Given the rabid nature of most of their fan base, professional football teams were among the first organizations to see the value of developing mobile applications to get closer to those fans. The problem for most teams now is the stadium WiFi experience they provide to their most loyal fans leaves much to be desired.

To address that issue, teams such as the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos have been investing in high-density wireless networks. But even with that capability in hand, most of the teams in the league still don’t know what fans are up to at any given moment inside the stadium.

The National Football League (NFL) announced a partnership this week with Extreme Networks under which the NFL will provide teams with access to a forthcoming analytics application that will give teams not only visibility into the performance of their networks, but also insight in real time about what fans are doing and, just as importantly, sharing online about their stadium experience.

That capability is critical because NFL teams are trying to entice fans into downloading mobile apps that make use of APIs to access a broad range of services. Beyond just providing access to statistics, for example, the Detroit Lions replaced Ticketmaster with a mobile application that fans can use to buy electronic tickets on their smartphones.

Luis Peres, executive vice president and CFO for the Lions, says that goal is to not only have more insight about fan behavior via an API that the Lions control, but also to keep track of the people with whom fans share or resell their tickets. This will enable the team to extend its reach into its fan base.

Obviously, fans can interact with the Lions on social networks or over HTTP on the Web. But mobile applications that invoke APIs given the Lions more contextual information about their fan base.

“We clearly have a strong preference that people use our applications and APIs,” says Peres. “Helping that along requires a lot of carrots and sticks.”

The analytics application developed by Extreme Networks will be first put to use at the Super Bowl later this month. NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle says the goal is to provide a richer fan experience in an era where fans are bringing more powerful mobile computing devices to the game.

“The challenge right now is not building the applications or creating the content,” says McKenna-Doyle. “The challenge is the network at the stadium. The misconception is that people will tell you an LTE network is good enough and that you don’t need a WiFi network.”

Beyond electronic ticketing, teams such as the Seattle Seahawks are developing mobile applications that make use of APIs that help fans find and pay for parking, order food from their seats, and even know where the shortest bathroom lines are in the stadium.

“We’re looking at a number of smartphone-based loyalty programs,” says Chip Suttles, vice president of technology for the Seahawks.

Crawford Del Prete, vice president of products and chief research officer for the industry analyst firm International Data Corp. (IDC), says these investments are necessary because people in a connected world are looking for new ways to engage with applications.

“By 2017 there will be a billion mobile devices shipped worldwide,” says Del Prete. “And 25 percent of those devices are going to be shipped in the U.S."

The end result, says Ray Wang, principal analyst for Constellation Research, is a major digital disruption to any number of business models.

“We’re talking about a major shift in digital proficiency as a lifestyle,” says Wang. “With that comes a major battle around business models.”

Be sure to read the next Enterprise article: AT&T Pilot Mixes Location Accuracy, Context and Mobile